John Robertson: My job is to knock Hearts out

Inverness CT manager John Robertson
Inverness CT manager John Robertson
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It would be like being burgled by your childhood superhero. John Robertson may be a living legend at Tynecastle Park but he returns there on Sunday aiming to knock Hearts out of the Betfred Cup. Even that wouldn’t see him cast as a villain by his adoring public. Well, maybe just for a day or two.

The Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager is frank and candid about his role this weekend. He has a job to do: Take the Highland club into the next round of the Betfred League Cup by whichever means necessary. He is 53 and will forever be worshipped by Hearts fans as the club’s record league goalscorer. He also rather enjoys the monicker ‘Hammer of the Hibs’, but this is business.

“People talk about my Hearts background,” says Robertson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I played for the club for 15 years, I’ve managed them, I worked there when they were in adminstration and I worked in the commercial department for three years. My job on Sunday is to knock Hearts out. It’s as simple as that and that is exactly what I’m concentrating on.

“This is not about John Robertson verus Hearts, it’s not about John Robertson versus Craig Levein. This is Heart of Midlothian against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. It’s as straightforward as that. If I don’t come down with the mindset and belief that we are knocking Hearts out, I should just give up my job. I would be doing a disservice to Inverness and their fans if I thought otherwise.”

The day is set up perfectly. Whoever wins tops Group C and automatically advances to the Betfred Cup knockout phase. A draw suits Inverness as they currently sit top on nine points, with Hearts on six needing a victory to be sure of progress. The Scottish Professional Football League deducted them two points for fielding an ineligible player in their opening game against Cove Rangers.

“Hearts are the overwhelming favourites but our plan was simple,” explains Robertson. “We wanted to get to Tynecastle having to take something to qualify. That’s how it is on Sunday. Obviously, a draw would suit us but this isn’t a game where you can look for a draw.”

Robertson has only managed against Hearts at Tynecastle once previously. On September 25, 2004, his Inverness team faced up to a home side managed by Craig Levein and lost 1-0 to a Paul Hartley goal. Two months later, Robertson replaced Levein in Gorgie when the latter joined Leicester City.

He was lured back north in June after an enjoyable spell as Hearts’ ambassador. It is a remarkably different remit now.

“I was speaking to Craig earlier in the summer about a potential friendly, and he said: ‘Wee man, no disrespect, but I can get Championship opposition within 20 minutes of Edinburgh. Why would we travel three hours, other than to do you a favour?’

“He was quite prepared to do it but we both ended up in this Betfred Cup section. Pre-season hasn’t been easy because, for us to come down and play in the central belt, it costs £2000-£2500 per trip. That’s the bus, pre-match meals and food afterwards. That’s why we tend to stick to playing Highland League teams in pre-season.

“We played Cove Rangers at the start of this group and it was similar to when Hearts played them. We created a lot of chances and didn’t kill them off, but won 2-0. Then we went to Cowdenbeath and, I’ll tell you what, Hearts dodged a bullet by not needing to go there. The pitch was atrocious. To win 5-2 was a tremendous effort from our lads.

“We played really well against Raith but, again, didn’t take our chances in the first half. We scored, then switched off, Raith scored an incredible goal to make it 1-1 and the nerves kicked in. We dug in and kept moving the ball about, then young Daniel Mackay pops up with the winner.

“It puts us in a strong position for a winner-takes-all scenario on Sunday, but you would still make Hearts hot favourites. We’ve earned the right to come down and try to get a result that takes us through.”

One opposing player was part of Robertson’s squad just a few weeks ago. Winger Jake Mulraney joined Hearts in a swap with Angus Beith. Only one of them can feature on Sunday.

“Angus is still feeling a bit of pain after hip surgery so he got an injection,” says Robertson of the 22-year-old Riccarton academy product. “It’s hugely frustrating for him but the important thing is we know how good he will be for this club. There is no point rushing him back.

“He is really disappointed he won’t be involved. However, as Jake Mulraney is a long-term project for Hearts, Angus is a long-term project for us as well. I hope he is here playing first-team football for a long time.”

Robertson scouted Hearts himself, taking in their games against Cove Rangers and Raith before sending a delegate to watch Tuesday night’s 5-0 thumping of Cowdenbeath. “You can see they have a style of play Craig wants to stick with. They move the ball about at the back, played very well at Cove, not so well against Raith but fought back after going 1-0 down. A wonderful strike from Michael Smith got them back in the game and, in the end, they were denied all three points by a poor refereeing decision.

“Even at the game, the goalkeeper was flattened but it didn’t look like Christophe Berra had done anything. TV showed it was his own player, so that was a bit fortunate for Raith. Our scout report from Tuesday said Hearts were a bit stuttery in the first half but then got into their groove in the second half and scored five goals to finish comfortable winners.

“We know what we’re up against but we aren’t a bad side. We have nothing to fear. We will go down there, play our football and go and get a result. The way the groups are panning out it’s going to look like we will need something.”