In May 2010, Scott Robertson played for Dundee United against Hibs on the last day of a season in which both clubs finished in the top four of Scotland’s top flight. The Tannadice outfit were third and the Easter Road side fourth.
Six-and-a-half years on, the prospect of either of these two relative heavyweights of Scottish football qualifying for Europe through their league position is not on the immediate agenda. Instead, the focus is entirely on ensuring they are back in the top flight come the start of next season after a period of catastrophic management left both slugging it out in the second tier.
Tomorrow’s meeting of the two in-form sides at Tannadice represents a potentially pivotal evening in the battle to win automatic promotion. Hibs, the pre-season title favourites, stand three points ahead of United, who are unbeaten in their past ten games in all competitions, taking 20 points from a possible 24 in their most recent eight league matches.
“It’s hard to say at this stage how the title race will pan out but this game will be a good indicator of who is likely to be the dominant team going into the Christmas period,” said Robertson, who has played for both clubs and is currently with Raith Rovers. “Hibs have been the most consistent so far, which is why they’re top. At the start of the season, it looked like Queen of the South were going to be the team to challenge them but they’ve fallen away. Dundee United have gone on a really good run of form to close the gap and put a bit of pressure on. If they beat Hibs, it could change a lot in terms of the title race.”
United’s surge of form over the past two months owes plenty to the shrewd management of Ray McKinnon and his recruitment of former Kilmarnock and Rangers goalkeeper Cammy Bell and ex-Hamilton Accies attacker Tony Andreu. Robertson worked under the United boss at Raith last season and is in no doubt that he is capable of overseeing a genuine title push at Tannadice.
“I think United have got a good enough squad to win most of their games this season,” the 31-year-old midfielder said. “They’ve got some really good players and Ray’s got them winning most of their games at the moment. From what I gather, they’ve not necessarily been playing excellent but their results have been really consistent. Winning games is more important than performances, and Ray had an excellent knack of doing that even when he was here at Raith last season.
“He’s a very good manager and I definitely think they can keep their run going. He knows his stuff, especially in this league. He’s managed to attract good players to United who are still well capable of playing in the Premiership, so they’ll definitely do well in this league this season.”
Robertson, who had two-and-a-half years with Hibs before departing in May 2015, has also been impressed with the way Hibs have gone about their business under Neil Lennon. “They’re looking strong,” he said. “They had a great start then had little falter but they’ve picked up again and Martin Boyle’s banging in the goals,” he said. “They’ve clearly got good options up front because earlier in the season Jason Cummings was banging in the goals. It’ll benefit them that they’ve got that variation.”
Hibs’ midfield is depleted by injuries to John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie, and, as a result, they are pondering taking up the option of recalling 22-year-old academy graduate Sam Stanton from his season-long loan with Dumbarton in January. Robertson, who played with Stanton when he produced his best form in a Hibs jersey in early 2014, believes such a move would make sense.
“Sammy’s a really good player,” he said. “He did well in the team when I was there and he’s done well whenever he’s gone on loan, at Livingston last season and Dumbarton this season. We played Dumbarton recently and the lads were saying Sammy was probably their best player. With the players Hibs have got, he’s probably not had the opportunity to show what he can do over the last couple of years but I definitely feel he’s still got more to give there.”
Robertson, whose own side play in the same division, will be an interested armchair spectator tomorrow night for the most eye-catching match of the Championship season thus far. “It’s a massive game, a really attractive fixture, which is why it’s on TV on a Friday night,” he said. “It’s one I’ve played in a few times for both clubs and I don’t recall many boring games between them, so I expect it to be a good one. They’re two big clubs who need to get back to a level where they’re challenging for Europe. It’s sad that they’re both in the Championship, but I’m pretty sure they’ll both be back in the top league soon enough.”
While his two old clubs battle to get back into the top flight, Robertson is striving simply to get back out on the pitch to aid Raith Rovers’ promotion push. The Dundonian has been plagued by a recurring groin problem since March and hasn’t played a first-team game since a two-minute substitute outing for Gary Locke’s side at the start of August.
“I’m tearing my hair out with it, to be honest,” he explained. “Basically, my groins are acting up. I’ve tried to come back from injury three times now and I keep breaking down. I’ve been feeling good at times and able to get back to training and play a few games, but each time the problem comes back. It’s becoming infuriating. I’m just hopeful we can get to the bottom of the problem and then we can try and cure it.
“I’ve been struggling with it since March. I was able to manage it until the end of the last season, although I ended up on the bench for the play-offs against Hibs because I wasn’t fully fit. I tried to let it settle over the summer, but it just wouldn’t settle down properly. It’s basically the same problem that’s kept coming back. It’s settled down enough to get back into training and even playing in a reserve game a few weeks ago I felt brilliant, but over the following week it really started hurting again.
“I had the same problem at Dundee United, the same sort of trial-and-error scenario where you try different things. I’ve tried antibiotics, I’ve tried a rehab programme and I’ve had an operation but it’s all been unsuccessful so far. We’ve obviously not tried the right procedure yet. I just need to listen to the experts and see what they advise.”
Robertson is especially eager to get back playing as quickly as possible because he knows the clock is ticking on his career as a full-time footballer. “There’s no good time to get an injury but that’s been nine months this problem has been bothering me at an age where I need to get back playing,” he said. “I’ll be 32 in April and my contract’s up in the summer, so I’m worried in that regard. I’ve been doing my coaching badges, so I have been thinking about life after playing football. It’s always at the back of your mind, but hopefully that day doesn’t come in the near future.
“Raith have been good to me and shown a lot of patience with me, so I’m desperate to contribute to the team. I was hoping to be back before now. I had been looking towards the big fixtures in December and through the festive period against Dundee United, Hibs and Dunfermline, but every game is difficult to miss. I was actually glad this weekend’s game [v Morton, who play in the Scottish Cup] was postponed because I was thinking to myself ‘that could get rescheduled for January or February and hopefully I’ll be back by then.’ I was probably the only person at the club thinking that way! I’m just trying to remain positive and do my best to get back playing.”