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John Robertson <-auth Stuart Bathgate auth-> Iain Brines
15 of 019 ----- L SPL H

Robertson bids to hush whispering campaign


JOHN Robertson has not exactly had the quietest of introductions to football management. Less than two years after taking over at Inverness Caledonian Thistle he was off to Hearts; five months on, and he may be off again.

When he agreed to return to the club where he was feted as a player, Robertson also accepted his contract would be reviewed in the summer. If Vladimir Romanov’s incoming board of directors decided he was not the man for the job, he would be sent packing.

Inevitably, with the close season now only weeks away, speculation about Robertson’s future is growing. New names are now linked daily with the manager’s job at Hearts - but the incumbent remains adamant that his is still the only one that counts. For their part, his employers have publicly dismissed some of the speculation, and told supporters’ groups they have no alternative coach in mind.

Yet still the widespread presumption remains that Robertson will be on his way soon. Some people will tell you that he knows he is a dead man walking, that he has given up all hope of staying, that you can see the resignation in his body language.

Despite such suggestions, however, Robertson says that far from being resigned to losing his job he is ready to fight to hold on to it. It may only turn out to be a doomed rearguard action, but he genuinely believes there is a case to be made for himself and the Hearts assistant coach Donald Park staying in office beyond the summer.

"A lot of people forget that this is my first year as a manager in the SPL," he says. "I started off with Inverness Caley, where the whole ethos was about survival, staying together and proving everybody wrong.

"We were looking at 38 away games, and to survive that we had to have a certain mentality, a certain game plan, which we implemented. Then suddenly, out of the blue, I was thrust into the middle of a UEFA Cup group in November, and into tough games at the other end of the league, and where there had to be progress made in cups.

"I’d have preferred perhaps a couple of seasons in the Premierleague, to get to know it, because obviously the more experience you gain the better. But you can’t hang about and wait. The Hearts offer came up and might not have come up again, so I decided to take the chance. I have made mistakes, there’s no doubt about that, but I feel I’m getting to grips with the job now. We’re playing good football.

"We’ve had some cracking results and we’ve had some ordinary results. We need to get more consistency. That was always going to be a problem, having lost Alan Maybury and Mark de Vries [to Leicester City] and Patrick Kisnorbo through injury."

Besides the speculation about his future, in recent weeks there has been a welter of rumours about Robertson’s own behaviour. He is at first loath to discuss this, saying those rumours are not only untrue but hurtful to his family and friends as well as offensive to himself. On reflection, however, he agrees to go on the record, partly to make a categorical denial, but also to state that, in a roundabout sort of way, the rumours actually arise from an appreciation of how well he is doing as a coach.

"There are rumours about my personal life floating around the city which are totally untrue. I feel they started because of the speculation surrounding whether I am or not going to be here next year.

"People out there who perceive me doing a very good job are wondering why people are not coming forward and saying my job’s safe. They start to speculate about my personal life, but my personal life’s fine.

"The rumours going about are absolute nonsense, as anybody who decides to check these rumours out would find. But as I say, I just get on with my job, get on with my life, and do the best I can."

Even some of those who wish him well think that at times he is his own worst enemy, that he needs to develop a more diplomatic approach to parts of his job. But Robertson is unapologetic. Any lack of diplomacy, he implies, is because he prefers to be forthright and truthful.

"I am what I am. I feel I’m an honest and approachable person. When people ask me an honest question they get an honest answer.

"If that’s wrong, if people would rather I lied, then that’s easy enough to do. I just feel there are a lot of Hearts fans out there who pay a lot of money to see certain things and to hear the truth. I don’t see the point in lying about my team or my players or my performances."

By his own admission, though, Robertson cannot get on smoothly with every aspect of his job while uncertainty about his future remains. "It would help to get an early answer to try and tell potential players coming in what the set-up will be next season.

"There are two or three players we’ve approached who have said they’ll consider joining if myself and Donald are here next year. One or two have said no, they’ll have to wait to see what’s happening.

"It’s the same with the players here. We’d like to sign more on long-term contracts, but they’re waiting to see how the new owners’ ethos [takes shape]. That’s just the way it is. We’re working under these circumstances and you do the best you can. The uncertainty of it is the problem. Sometimes you feel like you’re knocking your head against the wall, but we’ve got to be professional and get on with the job to the best of our abilities.

"Every Hearts fan I’ve spoken to has been delighted with the way we’ve been playing. Funnily enough, the ones who don’t get along to Tynecastle every week are the ones who are complaining.

"The fact that our city rivals have had a fantastic season and are above Hearts maybe deepens some people’s unhappiness. But I think that will be the first or second time in 11 years that Hibs have finished above us. That’s football - it’s going to happen at one stage."

The chairman, George Foulkes, has let it be known he believes Robertson deserves more time, and the coach is sure that the chief executive, Phil Anderton, will also bat for him. Instead of a vote being taken over his future, however, he believes the board will move smoothly to a consensus - one in which, presumably, the views of Vladimir Romanov will carry a lot of weight.

"Phil has been honest enough and come out [and said] he feels I’m the man for the job. He’s backed me in that respect. It’s nice to know that, but there’s more than one person on the board, and it will be a board decision. I’m sure they will all have their own views. I don’t think it will come down to votes for or against. It will come down to a unanimous board decision. That’s the way I see it."

If, over the coming weeks, that board should invite him to state the case for his and Park’s retention, he will have a ready answer. Progress is being made and will continue to be made: the team is playing better at the same time as getting younger.

"I think what I’ve done in the six or seven months since we’ve been here has been not bad. We’ve been to our first Scottish Cup semi-final in seven years, we’ve beaten Celtic for the first time in five, we were in the CIS Cup semi as well, and we’ve achieved a couple of great results in Europe. So I don’t think it’s all been doom and gloom.

"People go on about the young Hibs side, but in the last two games we actually had a younger side out on the park. Again, I think that’s positive that we’ve got youngsters coming through, and that we continue to play those youngsters and bring in some flair players and some more experienced players next to them.

"Given the summer to bring in our targets, and to work on our style of play and our tactical awareness, that would see us be in a strong position for a challenge next year.

"The single biggest success so far is that we’re playing a more attractive, better brand of football. Result-wise it’s not been as good as Craig [Levein, his predecessor] achieved, but I think Craig was the first coach to get two back-to-back third places, so to get a third would have been very difficult indeed.

"We’ve blooded youngsters into the team like Lee Wallace and Jason Thomson. Christophe Berra continues to improve, and people forget that Craig Gordon and Andy Webster are only 22. So the squad is getting younger and hopefully the football is getting better, but we still know we can improve on that for next season."

Perhaps they can. Whether they get the chance to do so remains to be seen.


HEARTS are to face Middlesbrough at Tynecastle in July as part of their preparations for the new season, the Gorgie club announced yesterday. Steve McClaren’s Premiership side will play in Edinburgh on Tuesday, 19 July.

Hearts last faced Middlesbrough 11 years ago when the Teessiders won 3-1 at their former home, Ayresome Park. Hearts coach John Robertson scored the SPL side’s only goal that day.

The club also confirmed they will tour Ireland in pre-season with matches in Dublin against St Patrick’s Athletic on 10 July and in County Wicklow against Bray Wanderers two days later.

The match with St Patrick’s will rekindle memories of Hearts’ UEFA Cup run in season 1998-99 when they faced the League of Ireland side in the first round before eventually succumbing to Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.

On their return from Ireland Hearts will face Berwick Rangers at Shielfield Park on 17 July, Middlesbrough two days later and Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park on 20 July. They then head to England to take on Championship newcomers Hull City at the KC Stadium on 23 July and Neale Cooper’s Hartlepool United at Victoria Park two days later.

Hearts hope to fix up two more games before the league campaign gets underway.

Ireland is proving to be a popular destination with SPL clubs this summer. Hibs have already announced their intention to visit the Republic. The Easter Road side will meet Cork City on Sunday, 3 July before heading to Dublin to play Shamrock Rovers on 5 July and Drogheda United the following evening.

Taken from the Scotsman

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