Andy Robertson: when people said be patient I wanted to rip their heads off
Andrew Robertson tells Paul Joyce about his journey from jobless amateur to final of the Champions League
May 21 2018, 5:00pm, The Times
Robertson has been named by some as the Premier League’s best left-back
Robertson has been named by some as the Premier League’s best left-back
PAUL ELLIS/GETTY IMAGES
Andrew Robertson reeled off the doubts that have eaten away at him, then addressed those difficult afternoons spent watching Liverpool from the sterile confines of an executive box rather than out on the pitch, immersed in the cut and thrust. And to think that this was all supposed to have been a fairytale.
It felt more like a grind, a mental battle. The sort of grim scenario that, in hindsight, served as a test of his temperament before his talent eventually shone through.
When Robertson steps out in the Champions League final against Real Madrid on Saturday, it will be the culmination of a remarkable rise for a player who, as a teenager six years ago, tweeted that he was skint and, while rebuilding his career with the amateurs of Queen’s Park in the Scottish third division, took to working behind the scenes at Hampden Park to make ends meet.
Yet that sharp ascent is only the headline. Scratch away that shiny veneer and the full back who will confront Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale has completed a journey within a journey — the sheer unremarkable nature of his first four months at Liverpool, when he barely kicked a ball, helping to shape the player whose marauding runs and crisp tackling spell danger to Real’s right flank in Kiev.
While the enduring image for many is of Robertson chasing down Manchester City players, one by one, in the very definition of the high press, the 24-year-old’s thoughts may well flick back to the Saturday mornings spent training on his own at Melwood. Or to how he would squirm when telling his parents that, yet again, he was not involved.
“Your family have supported you all your career, they have come down to Liverpool and they want to watch you play, but you are sitting next to them and you do feel a bit embarrassed,” he said. “It is not a nice feeling.
“It got easier, mind. The first couple of times it was difficult, but then it became a surprise when I was in the squad.”
Robertson has tackled serious self-doubt to emerge as a Champions League finalistRobertson has tackled serious self-doubt to emerge as a Champions League finalist.
A self-deprecating grin is plastered over the face of a player now lauded in some quarters as the Premier League’s best left back. Adulation has not changed this grounded Scot.
Not everyone can be Mohamed Salah, hitting the ground running when they move to a new club, and Robertson’s £8 million switch from Hull City last July came with the sort of teething troubles that most changes of job entail. The mundane truth is that there was no rush for him to make a mark and, with Alberto Moreno impressing, no need for Jürgen Klopp to have two left backs in his squad.
Yet, when everyone is seeking an answer, and ever eager to offer advice, the constant need to explain his exclusion proved draining. Robertson came to loathe one phrase repeated in his company over and over again: be patient.
“It is the right advice, but it is the most annoying you can get,” he said. “If it comes from a manager, or a coach, it is different because they can see you every day. But, when it is from family members, players you used to play with, people you are close to . . . then, after the first couple of weeks, I just wanted to rip their head off when they said it. I knew I had to be patient but the fact everyone was saying it started getting annoying. I spoke to my girlfriend, my mum and dad and just said to them, ‘You need to stop asking me questions because it is making everything ten times worse.’
“It was exhausting. Every Saturday when the squad came out and I wasn’t in, people would ask, ‘Are you injured?’ I would say there was nothing wrong and then the old ‘be patient’ shout would come out and I just had to turn my phone off. Every interview I do I speak about the ‘fairytale’, as people put it, but those first few months were probably the first time I faced not being in a match squad and not playing on a Saturday, from Queen’s Park through Dundee United to Hull.
“Coming into Melwood on your own when all the other lads are away somewhere was tough. But that wasn’t the hardest part. You can get your head down and work. Dealing with the ‘noise’ from the outside was something new to me and, looking back, I probably didn’t deal with it that well. My girlfriend will tell you, if she asks anything about football I just shut her out. I don’t like talking about it. She dealt with me at my worst, and fair play to her because we had just had a baby boy [Rocco] as well.
“I don’t go on social media much but people were saying, ‘Maybe he is not the manager’s signing. That’s why he is not playing.’ That was hard as well. There were times when you go home and have a bit of time to yourself and, of course, you think, ‘Have I made the wrong decision?’ I had a good few options after Hull went down, but none was as big as this.
“I was right to come to Liverpool, but at that time when it is tough you do think, ‘Should I have gone to another club where I could be playing every week? Maybe I have made this step too early.’ You start doubting yourself. A lot of people say it but what goes on in your head is the hardest thing to control.”
On December 6, the night when Robertson’s Liverpool career changed, he was back in that executive box for a must-win Champions League game against Spartak Moscow. Towards the end of the first half Moreno suffered a knee injury, leaving the pitch in tears, and was ruled out for 12 weeks. Opportunity had knocked.
Robertson had made four appearances by then and had again sought advice from Klopp. It would be wrong to say that the Liverpool manager was annoyed, but one of Klopp’s tenets is that, if the manager has to tell the player what to do, then the relationship will not blossom.
There was no miracle cure and the credit, therefore, lies with Robertson. The player who, by his own admission, was inhibited in his first training sessions because he saw “the opposition players he had faced with Hull rather than team-mates” puffed out his chest and recognised that he needed to improve over the run of games that he would now be granted.
“Where before if I put two crosses in, and created two chances, that was acceptable, now I was at a club where you might have 12 crosses and, if you only put in two or three good ones, people say you’ve had a bad game,” he said. “I had to work on going forward and defending too.”
Two days before a match, Robertson moves to another bedroom in his house, away from the baby monitor, to ensure that he rests properly before the next high-octane contest. That he met the challenge thrown down should not be a surprise. At 15 he was released by Celtic and moved to Queen’s Park’s youth set-up. Yet the dream seemed distant and, on leaving school he agreed with his parents that he would spend another 12 months forging a career in football or perhaps look to become a PE teacher.
“I saw that coming back up after the semi-final win over Roma and I just started shaking my head,” he said laughing. “I was just out of school and decided I was taking a gap year.
“I was 18 and needed money to go out and didn’t have any. My mum and dad supported me and gave me one last year to try and push my football. Luckily I managed to get a job not long after that tweet, so maybe someone read it and felt sorry for me. My football took off then too.”
Robertson worked as part of the corporate team at Hampden Park, answering phones and taking orders for tickets while training two evenings a week. The contrast with Ronaldo, Bale and Luka Modric does feel stark.
Yet when he surveys the peaks and troughs in his first season at Anfield, there is a moment that has Robertson, raised in a house of Celtic supporters who would travel home and away, pinching himself. “I remember my phone was on charge upstairs the night we beat Manchester City in the league,” he added. “It was about 11.30pm and I looked at it and it said: Kenny Dalglish missed FaceTime video. I am sure he didn’t mean it. I don’t know if he pressed the wrong button. But there was a message saying brilliant performance and brilliant result.
“He has been a massive help for me. He has always said that, if I ever need anything, he and his wife will help, which is nice given we are down here on our own with a young baby. But that call was one to tell everyone about back home. That was a surreal moment.”
His hope now is that Kiev provides another