John Robertson: At last, this is his story - Beloved Hearts legend talks new book, best derby goal, revenge and the sad event that drove his career

There are a lot of goals but not so much glory – at least not in the literal, slightly vulgar football sense – in John Robertson’s new self-penned autobiography.

John Robertson in familiar pose - celebrating after scoring for Hearts (in this case in a Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final win over Celtic)
John Robertson in familiar pose - celebrating after scoring for Hearts (in this case in a Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final win over Celtic)

As he says himself, something he realised when he wrote the book is that there were “a lot of missed opportunities”. It is a slightly surprising admission, certainly in a personal context, from one of Scottish football’s greatest goalscorers.

Hearts, of course, have had their share of near-misses. Robertson reveals that writing originally ground to a halt a few years ago at the 1986 chapter.

He re-engaged with the task during lockdown. At last, this is his story. There have been few better penalty box strikers and few more beloved characters.

John Robertson (centre) is joined by former Hearts teammates Craig Levein (left) and John Colquhoun at the launch of his autobiography at Tynecastle (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

Even Hibs fans, despite being tormented by him often enough, cannot bring themselves to dislike a character who attended a Hands Off Hibs rally at the height of the merger crisis.

Even now, he’s in demand. Over 500 gathered to hear his tales in the Gorgie Suite at Tynecastle last night. There’s also a rising clamour from Dunfermline fans to see him succeed the sacked Peter Grant.

All the while, as he stresses again and again, he remains employed by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, a club – and an area – he clearly adores. “People know who I am. They know where I am,” he says. “But they have to be hugely respectful and do things the right way.

“I am not touting myself out there. That’s not for me. That’s not the way I am. I am an employee of Inverness and until anyone tells me differently, they will get everything I have got.”

Chris and John Robertson while at Hearts together in 1980

Hearts were given everything he had for years. They might get it again at some point, who knows? As well as master goalscorer, he has fulfilled head of coach education, manager and club ambassador roles. Perhaps his most celebrated purpose, certainly as far as fans are concerned, was as the hammer of Hibs. He adds a discreet number 27 when signing books.

The number denotes the record number of goals he scored against Hearts’ greatest rivals. It isn't likely to be bettered anytime soon.

So, John, which one’s your favourite? “The first one – in 1983 – is always the one,” he says. The BBC cameras were not at the game because of the competing attraction of the Edinburgh marathon. “It wasn’t televised but it was filmed," he says. "However, apparently after 40-odd minutes, the old Betamax camera went on fire! So it was missed.”

He admits there was an element of revenge helping fire this seeming one-man mission to terrorise a single football club. He was on the verge of signing for Hibs when chairman Tom Hart made one of the most fateful ever interventions in Edinburgh football history. He wouldn’t let the young Robertson go away and show the contract to his elder brother Chris, then a player at Rangers. “You have to sign that document now or not at all,” Hart tells him.

John Robertson scores for Hearts against Hibs in 3-1 win in 1991

Woops.

“I am proud of all my records but the top derby goalscorer is a poignant one because of the backstory,” says Robertson.

“Was I annoyed? Yes. Was a lot of it about revenge? Yes, absolutely. And it kept going.”

From being “the younger brother of Chris”, John’s exploits meant Chris, who ended up finishing his career further down the league ladder, was identified by his relationship to the free-scoring Robertson at Hearts.

Everything changed for the pair of them – as well as their other brother George and three sisters, Moira, Marilyn and Jan - on 18 November 1978.

John, the second youngest sibling, was just 14 when their father passed away. He had a game later that day for Edina Hibs and went in to kiss his dad goodbye.

“The cover was over his head,” he writes in an utterly heart-breaking chapter. He pulled the cover back, gave him a quick kiss and headed downstairs, Adidas World Cup boots in his hand. His sister mumbled something about the sun being in their dad’s eyes, hence the sheet.

John headed out and scored the late winner – the book’s subtitle is “The game’s not over till the fat striker scores” – before staying over at his friend, teammate and future Hibs rival Keith Wright’s house, so the Robertson family could take care of arrangements. Chris informed him of their father’s death when he got back to find the front room full of relatives.

His career became a monument to John senior, who used to cycle across Edinburgh to watch him play. “I’m very jealous of other players and people who have had their fathers for a long time,” says Robertson. “I lost him at 14, he didn’t see me play for Scotland schoolboys, he didn’t see me play for Scotland, he didn’t see me play for Hearts.”

The greatest sadness is that his father was not there to watch Chris and substitute John play up front together for Hearts for 12 minutes v Queen of the South in 1982.

“That would have been his proudest moment, to see his two boys playing,” he says. “The goals, to break Willie Bauld’s record – he was his second favourite player, his favourite was Freddie Glidden – these wee things, it was a driving force there is absolutely no doubt.”

Life can be brutal. Football can be brutal. Robertson left Tynecastle with his possessions – including a 1998 Scottish Cup winner’s medal, his first major honour – stuffed in a bin bag, treading over, he notes in the final chapter, “the stunning mosaic of the magnificent club crest in the foyer”.

But all that mattered – he knows it, fans know it, we all now know it – is that he’d done himself and, most importantly, his father and family proud.

Signed copies of "Robbo" available at www.JohnRobertson.shop, price £20.00. Also available at all good book shops.

A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription. https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions