Big interview: John Robertson on how Hearts inspired Inverness rebuild

John Robertson
John Robertson
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John Robertson lives in a farmhouse in Cawdor, rural Nairnshire. There is barely a mobile phone signal to speak of.

Hearts’ record league goalscorer took on a sizeable task in June by returning north for a second managerial spell at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. Relegation from the Scottish Premiership was hitting hard, with over £1million needing cut from the Highland club’s £1.65m football budget. Robertson had to source 13 new players and effectively build a new team whilst also advising other departments of his club how to cut their cloth accordingly.

Thankfully, he had arrived after three years of commercial, coaching and ambassadorial work at Tynecastle. There, he closely watched owner Ann Budge’s rapid restoration project after administration and relegation in 2014. The experience was invaluable and Inverness are now the beneficiaries. Costs have been cut, ambitions adjusted and Robbo is overseeing progress on the field. His team are unbeaten in seven matches, winning four and drawing three without losing a solitary goal.

Lengthy walks across the Highland countryside in recent months helped him gather thoughts on what happened in Gorgie, and then devise a way forward for Inverness.

“There are a lot of clever people at Hearts in different departments. A lot of the ideas Hearts looked at, I’ve managed to pass on to the relevant people at Inverness,” said the 53-year-old, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “We’re trying to do a somewhat watered-down version of what Hearts did. There are 70-80 [non-football] employees at Hearts but here we only have 12 to 15.

“A few ideas we’ve put in place already have started to work. Despite our early results, when we took a couple of hammerings, we did play some good football. There was still some doom and gloom but we stuck to our guns and been rewarded with seven games unbeaten and seven clean sheets. We’ve broken a club record. We were second in our League Cup section and we’re in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup. We are slowly, but surely, recovering.

“Our plans haven’t changed. This is a competitive league. Dundee United are the favourites but, by the end of February, we are aiming to be in a position where we can strike for the title or the play-off spots.

“The hardest thing when I got here was the clock. We only had a few weeks to find 13 players. Relegation to Hearts, Hibs, Rangers or Dundee United is disappointing but it’s not a death knell. Those clubs have history and good fanbases and people can rally in a crisis, as you saw with the Hearts supporters and Foundation of Hearts.

“We don’t have that up here. There is a rich tapestry with Inverness Caledonian and Inverness Thistle coming together, but there’s only 23 years of history to fall back on. We’re only in the second generation of Inverness CT fans and there was obviously going to be a drop in crowds after relegation.

“The club will lose about £2m in potential earnings – £1.2m prize money and £800,000 in gate receipts. It’s a tough situation. The board were great. They told me the budget but said they couldn’t do what they did last time and keep it as it was. Our playing budget was £1.65m in the Premiership and we’ve had to cut more than £1m of that.

“The club had to get back to being run sensibly, paying what we could afford. I had to use contacts to get players and try to get the club back challenging at the top end of the Championship.”

Commendably, he was determined to do so whilst sticking to his own philosophy on attacking and entertaining football.

“My ethos is: I want my team to be really fit, express themselves on the park, get the ball down and pass, then press teams to win the ball back if we lose it. I want them to really excite people. That’s how I think football should be played. It is a results business, but it’s also an entertainment business.

“Players like Iain Vigurs and Liam Polworth, who were already here, fit in with that because they’re very good players. We got others in through our reference system. We always get a reference from someone who has coached a player or played with him before we sign him. A couple came from the Netherlands and we got some from the English academy system.

“There was negativity, fans were upset and there was some discord between them and the previous board. We’re slowly starting to win them back.

“We’ve been honest with them, told them we don’t have the money and that we need to batten down the hatches and rebuild on and off the pitch.”

Robertson’s Highland return – he previously managed Inverness from 2002 to 2004 before replacing Craig Levein in the Hearts dugout – ended a five-year hiatus from management. He was always intent on getting back in. He just had to find the chair which fitted best.

“I’ve kept myself up to date with training, the sports science stuff and the physio side. I watched everything at Hearts.

“I’d coached Hearts Under-17s, been head of coach education there and worked in the club’s commercial department. So I’d still been in the game, I just hadn’t managed a senior team. I’d had four or five offers to go back into management at part-time clubs but I just felt I was enjoying my role at Hearts. I was learning a completely different side of the game – commercial, retail, health and safety, legacy projects, plus working with sponsors and other partners behind the scenes as an ambassador.

“I had a very safe job there. The only fly in the ointment was the travelling. I would stay with my sister through the week and miss being at home here in Cawdor. I was taken aback when the Inverness job came up and I wasn’t really sure. My wife asked me if I thought I’d regret not taking this job in a year’s time. I said I probably would. She replied: ‘Well there’s your answer. Go and do it.’

“Ann Budge reassured me there would always be an opening for me at Hearts should things not work out. It’s nice to know that in one way, but the whole point of this was for me to go and commit to Inverness and the job up here.

“You get back into it very quickly. I inherited two coaches in Brian Rice and Scott Kellacher, who had been working with the Inverness players for five years. We knew what we needed to do right away.”

Robertson knew exactly what to do. Restructuring after a relegation was a familiar scenario to a man who always follows his heart.