Interview: Andy Webster on his Hearts bust-ups with Vladimir Romanov
Andy Webster strode out of school with a bundle of Highers and had university keeping a place for him if the football hadn't worked out. Of course it did work out but, as one of Scotland's hottest young talents, his idea of downtime was studying psychology. Now, as a reserve team coach, he's reached the Masters stage of his degree in Sports and Business Management.
So don’t call him stupid. Webster as a classy defender may have been many things: assured, strong-willed, opinionated and, when the occasion demanded, arrogant. The 2012 Scottish Cup final demanded it and Hearts, with Webster in charge at the back, went on to give their fans the greatest day since the pomp of the Terrible Trio.
Stupid, though, is what Hearts or more specifically Vladimir Romanov wanted him to ’fess up to being when he returned to the club the previous year. Webster had left Tynecastle in 2006 under the biggest and blackest cloud of any Scottish footballer in modern times, and given that the circumstances changed the law, possibly ever. The highly combustible character behind the maddest reign at a Scottish club, no question, insisted the player could only come back if his tail was firmly between his legs, if he admitted to being a naughty boy, if he promised not to do it again.
“He wanted me to read out a statement,” recalls Webster. “I was to say that I was young, naive, stupid. I should never have left the club. This, that the other. On and on it went. There was no way I was going to stand up and say all of that. It simply wasn’t true. Romanov wasn’t actually at Tynecastle that day; he was in Lithuania. The message came back from him: I had to read out the statement or I couldn’t sign. I said we should just call the deal off and then things simmered down. I didn’t have to read it.”
Webster made history when he walked off down Gorgie Road and his test case has its own Wikipedia page. Simply put, the “Webster ruling” enables players to quit a contract after a fixed period rather than wait until its conclusion. “Funnily enough, I’ve just reached the sports law part of my degree and at the lecture the other day my name popped up on one of the slides.” The wrangle wasn’t funny or simple, however, featured a number of “intimidating” letters from Hearts’ lawyers and lasted 18 months. No one, not his legal reps or agent, dragged Webster through the process; he was the driving force. If Jean-Marc Bosman is the Pele of players’ rights trailblazing then our man is probably the Maradona.
Webster, 36, runs the second string at St Mirren, also overseeing the Under-18s. I catch him for a coffee at the Hillington interchange of the M8 on his way home to his wife Julie and their three children, but not to talk about the ruling. I’m more interested in what tabloids, in the wake of some big drama or other, used to quaintly call “happier times”. I want to know about the second biggest “What if?” moment in Jambo history and I want to know about Craig Levein.
Levein, first time around as Hearts boss, was the man who took Webster to the club, basically as a younger version of himself. The Pele of “What ifs?” for the maroon-clad hordes was the 1985-86 title lost in the last ten minutes at Dens Park but at the start of ’05-’06 Hearts, with Webster one of the stars, streaked to 12 games unbeaten and the fans dared to dream again. Right now, with the current team perched on top of the Premiership thanks to a 100 per cent record and with who else but Levein in charge, Webster’s views should prove interesting.
At the dawn of the Romanov revolution, prompting the tribute Cossack hats to be worn at a jaunty angle, it was George Burley in the dugout. “We were playing attractive football, fast football and other teams couldn’t live with us,” says Webster. “The recruitment had been excellent, really, really good, and that was down to George and the backroom team. We had a strong base, good experience, international players. Rudi Skacel’s goalscoring was better than Henrik Larsson at that point. I liked George’s style of management. He was quite dismissive of opponents. ‘Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish,’ he’d say, ‘and let’s get after their right-back.’ That made you feel good about yourself and we started to have an air of invincibility.”
Hearts beat Rangers, hammered Hibernian, Celtic squeezed a draw against them and, 13 years ago, Webster was September’s Player of the Month. But then: crash! Burley was sacked. To this day Webster doesn’t know why. “My only theory is that when he bought the club Romanov got all the limelight and he loved that, but then the attention shifted to George…” Hibs promptly ended the unbeaten run. “George leaving took the wind out of our sails. There was a rumour that two or three weeks after he was sacked, Romanov asked him to come back.” That didn’t happen and the faithful were left to wonder what might have been.
Webster – who would play fleetingly for Wigan Athletic in England’s top flight and then Rangers in between his two Tynecastle spells, lifting the Scottish Cup while on loan at Dundee United and amassing 28 Scotland caps – pauses to consider the issue of motivation as he contemplates a manager’s job at some point in the future. “The St Mirren reserves played at Hamilton on Monday and were really flat. I asked the boys: ‘Where does motivation come from? What do you want to achieve?’ I said to them that, yes, I must have had a bit of talent when I played but my motivation was major.” Webster is fascinating on millennials, snowflakes, their love of social media, their disinclination to problem-solve, the freedom he had as a kid that youngsters don’t have now and the responsibilities of his six-mile paper-round. “I don’t know if young players nowadays have the same mentality,” he continues. “My concern is I don’t see the same steely determination to be successful.”
That season for Hearts was still successful. They split the Old Firm, qualified for the Champions League and won the Scottish Cup, although, by the time the final came around, Webster had been removed from the team by Romanov for refusing to sign a new contract. This shouldn’t have come as a shock to the hierarchy. “I don’t think it’s well known that I’d told George before the season began that I wanted to go. I probably thought about moving on right after Craig did [becoming Leicester City manager]. I’d loved Hearts under him but remember thinking: ‘Ah, this doesn’t last’.”
Romanov was furious, however. “We were playing Hibs again and the night before at Dalmahoy his son [Roman] asked to see me after dinner. He got me on the putting green and said: ‘You want to play in the derby?’ ‘I’d love to,’ I said. ‘Then you sign the contract.’ I didn’t, that was that, and I missed out on the cup final.” His chance to hoist the trophy with Hearts would come six years later. Of the 5-1 thrashing of Hibs, he says: “I knew that, if we played well, there could be no comparison [between a performance the Hibees might be able to produce] and that we would win. Maybe not everyone in our team thought that. The younger ones would have looked to the older guys for that confidence and, aye, a bit of arrogance.”
By the end of Webster’s first Gorgie spell, Romanov blow-ups were already legendary. Before a game against Celtic he breenged into the changing-room – a regular occurrence – to rage about “a virus affecting my players with indifference”. He was obsessed with breaking up the Old Firm’s hegemony – a laudable ambition – but had a few strange ideas of how best to achieve it. “There were some funny characters hanging about the club at that time. Romanov had these guys working with the goalies – were they opticians? Rima was this therapist who liked to get in about the pressure points on your body with her ‘golden sticks’. Then there was the one we called Pyjama Man because he wore this purple tunic. He was supposed to be a magic healer. He detected something wrong with my calf by fluttering his fingers over it. I wasn’t convinced. He popped a tablet in some water and said: ‘Drink this.’ I said: ‘Not a chance.’” It was around this time Webster was investigating psychology through the Open University. He couldn’t have wished for a more fascinatingly bonkers laboratory of human behaviour than Romanov’s Tynie.
Vlad the Mad insisted he was banishing Webster during the contract dispute because he could no longer trust the player in big games. This is at odds with Webster’s account of that crazy, careering season, when he admits he possibly showed too much of that steely determination out on the pitch, to the extent of irking decorated team-mates.
“When I was younger I was very forthright in my opinions, I was a terrible shouter. I was ruthless in what I said to guys and there was one time when I absolutely screamed at Takis Fyssas, a European Championship winner and an absolute gentleman, over something I thought he should have done during a game. At Riccarton Takis and Rudi had a word with Elvis [Steven Pressley, captain] about this kid getting too big for his boots. I apologised.
“I remember Edgaras Jankauskas, too, saying to me: ‘Why are you shouting at everyone when you’re so young?’ Really, I didn’t care. Edgaras was a Champions League winner but I was of the opinion that, out on the park, everyone’s equal. If I mucked up I got it in the neck from Elvis and that was okay. Listen, I think my emotional intelligence has improved since then. I admit that right now if I was coaching the young Andy Webster he would be driving me nuts!”
The steely determination, the iron-clad conviction, would enable him to shrug off the abuse of the Tynecastle boo-boys on his return with other clubs. “I was shown a YouTube video of them shouting ‘Die, die, die’ at me.” So where did the resolve come from? Growing up in Arbroath, Webster saw his labourer father Charlie secure jobs then lose them. His mother Jennifer was always urging the lad to study even after collecting his six Highers – “to keep my mind ticking over”. At the town team, the Red Lichties, there was, among other key influences, George Rowe. “Aged 15 I trained behind Gayfield where the lighting was poor and it was usually always cold, wet and miserable. George said: ‘If you can make something of this, even enjoy it, you’ll be one step ahead of everyone else’.” Webster loved his time at Gayfield, the happiest spell of his career. “I’m including lugging hampers and scrubbing shorts in that. I know young footballers have to be treated differently now. But there are some of my nice lads at St Mirren who I don’t think know how a vacuum cleaner works or what a mop is!”
Last week, slightly embarrassed because he made just 17 appearances in Arbroath’s maroon, Webster was invited to the Hall of Fame dinner when the inductees included John Fletcher, scorer of the winner in the sensational 1974 victory over Rangers at Ibrox, and the late John McGlashan, who’d been a big influence along with Stevie Mallan snr, father of the Hibs player, and the hardest man Webster ever encountered in football. “At half-time in a pre-season friendly against Spennymoor United Stevie showed me the badge he’d torn off one of their players. That guy got off lightly. And Stevie’s still got the badge.”
And then, in the moulding of Webster, there was Levein. Tipped off about Arbroath’s tyro stopper who, by the way, was helping his team to a long unbeaten run of their own at the time, Levein was only allowed a 37-minute viewing after a very Gayfield combination of giant puddles and treacherous ice forced the game with Queen of the South to be abandoned. But that was long enough. Webster acknowledges Levein may have been buying what for him was a Mini-Me. In his own playing career he’d made a similar journey to Hearts from Cowdenbeath. Webster, like his mentor, was a commanding, confident figure and not given to hoofing the ball into the North Sea. What else? “I’m not sure. I’d be interested in finding out. I obviously sent Craig a text when he suffered his heart scare. Maybe we’ll have that conversation before too long.”
Certainly Webster wasn’t the finished article. Moving to Hearts in 2001 he decided to join the players on an end-of-season holiday to Ibiza to get to know them better. “But lots dropped out and, in the end, there was just a handful of us, bolstered by some of Mikey [Colin] Cameron’s mates. I’ve never been a big drinker but these boys could put it away. If they were going to carry on like that over the summer, I thought I’d start early on my own with pre-season training, doing a few runs.
“Then came pre-season. Aberdour to Burntisland, 15 minutes. That was lively. But it was just the warm-up. We had to run back in 12. I was struggling. Craig had a word. I told him about my jogging. ‘It obviously wasn’t enough,’ he said.
“Those two weeks were the worst of my life. I’d get up in the morning, have my Weetabix and throw up with the worry and panic over what was to come.
“We went to Kirkcaldy Rugby Club to sprint up some hills. The last six were to go again. Kevin James and Stevie Fulton, bless them, tried to sneak me over the line. Craig was standing at the top of the hill, looming. ‘Gaffer, this one’s absolutely f****d,’ he was told. He said: ‘I don’t f****n’ care. Get him round again’.
“How would I describe Craig’s management style? Good, hard, demanding, brilliant. Blood and thunder? You were under absolutely no illusion what was expected of you. Maybe he’s changed – we all have to adapt and evolve – but fundamentally he’ll be the same intelligent guy and the same absolute winner. Good luck to him and Hearts.
“I don’t know what the current players are thinking about being top of the league and what they do now. But if it was me I would be: ‘Why not?’”