For any manager, moving to a foreign country that you know little about can be a challenge. Going in, having to build a team from scratch and being successful in your first season is almost impossible. But for former Scotland defender David Robertson it has become reality. The Aberdeen, Rangers and Leeds left back moved to India at the start of 2017 and transformed the fortunes of Real Kashmir FC by guiding them to the league title and promotion to India’s top league. It’s a million miles away from where it all started for him as a marauding full back in some of the most successful sides in Scottish football in the 80’s and 90’s.
We chatted to David recently to find out more about his career, his adventures in the US and how he masterminded that title success in his debut season as a manager in India.
Back Of The Net: You broke through into the first team at Aberdeen in 1987, aged 17, and played in a defence that included Alex McLeish, Willie Miller and Stewart McKimmie. How much did that trio of players help you learn your trade as a defender in those early days? Miller was described by Alex Ferguson as the best penalty box defender in the world. Would you agree with that statement?
David Robertson: Yes, Willie Miller was a great penalty box defender but his reading of the game was incredible. He and Alex McLeish were incredible to play alongside and with me being 17 playing regularly they were a huge help. Willie was the grumpy one that would shout at me, Alex was the encouraging one, and between the two they both helped me with their different styles of helping me. Stewart McKimmie was great too and helped me as a young player and gave me advice on how to handle being a young player in a top team both on and off the pitch. Two players that really helped me on my early days was Peter Weir and Billy Stark. They often gave me advice on how to get better; Peter encouraged me to forward and overlap him, and he would fill in for me. As a young player I made mistakes and he always encouraged me.
BOTN: Aberdeen had some tremendous players during those years you spent there including Jim Bett, Jim Leighton, Eion Jess and Hans Guilhaus to name a few. Is there someone who really stood out at that time, who you learned from the most?
DR: Ability wise and being underestimated Jim Bett was an incredible player, he never gave the ball away and his vision was incredible. He used his body so well to keep possession.
BOTN: In 1991, you transferred to Rangers and became an important part of the club who won nine titles in a row. You also picked up six domestic cups and played in the Champions League. It was your most successful and consistent spell as a player. How enjoyable was it playing for the club at that time? How difficult was it as a team to maintain the same performance levels season after season as you closed in on nine in a row?
DR: I always say about my time at Rangers in a very successful era was that I took it for granted and I wish I could re-live it and appreciate the experience. It was a great time, fun and very successful. I think winning what we did tended to be more of a relief than enjoyable. At Rangers at the time every game you had to win, every cup and championship you had to win. Many players go through their career not winning anything and some one or two trophies. I won 14 national trophies in Scotland and I wish I enjoyed them more. I look back now and I think what a career I had and how lucky I was.
BOTN: How difficult was it as a team to maintain the same performance levels season after season as you closed in on nine in a row?
DR: I found it personally easy to motivate for each season. I took each game as a bonus as I knew at the time Rangers could buy anyone to replace me. I think Walter Smith was great as he kept adding 2 or 3 top players each season to keep the hunger and competition for places high.
BOTN: Former Rangers captain Richard Gough said that the team that drank together, won together. How important was it to the success of the club that the players bonded away from the training ground? Do you believe that is still the case today that a club that is close off the pitch will have success on it?
DR: It was so important, we had some great characters that made it enjoyable and fun to go to work. McCoist, Ian Ferguson and Ian Durrant made this dressing room lively. I think it was the fact that there were big name players there but no one thought nor acted like they were better than any other player. We had some great times on and off the field.
Over the years coaching I find the team bond and togetherness is the secret for success and that is how we won the I league 2 and how were are doing so well. You can have the best players in the world but if there is no team spirit it is tough to be successful. Look at Leicester City who had a real team spirit and belief. Look at Liverpool. You just have to watch Jürgen Klopp to see he has a happy team. He is a lively character and it rubs off on the players, and that is how they are winning: through a happy environment.
BOTN: Where would you place Walter Smith in terms of the best managers you have worked for? Do you think your management style mirrors his in any way?
DR: Yes, Walter Smith without a doubt, he had everyone playing for him and Archie Knox. His man management was incredible, kept everyone happy and was never ruffled and never showed he was carrying any pressure to the players. He was the same all the time. Would have a go at you if you deserved it. I had Archie for a long part of my career at Aberdeen and Rangers. Alex Ferguson was great also when I was 14 until I was 18 when he left for Manchester United but I was probably too young to appreciate his qualities
BOTN: A move to England followed with Leeds being your destination. Injuries however ravaged your time there and forced you to eventually retire. Was that a bitter way to end your playing career?
DR: I was excited about playing in the Premiership (Premier League), but after the first season I had a serious knee injury, and for the next 18 months I tried to make a comeback but there was too much damage in my knee. I was more disappointed that I did not play longer in the Premiership, but I enjoyed my time there. We stayed three more years in Yorkshire, as we loved the place and we have a lot of good friends there.
I started so young in the first team at Aberdeen and played a lot of games. They say on average a player will play around 500 pro games. I was just short of that so I can’t be too disappointed.
BOTN: Surprisingly you made only three appearances for Scotland at senior level during your career. Why do you think this was? You surely offered a different option at left back than Tom Boyd or Maurice Malpas.
DR: It was frustrating that I did not play more for Scotland but I feel looking back on my career I would not change anything. At the time I was frustrated but playing for Rangers during the spell made up for it, as we played big games almost every week. To put the record straight the coaches at the time both Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown did a fantastic job and I have no complaints about not having more appearances. Those two led Scotland to the country’s last visits to major championships. At the time I decided I did not want to be a bit part or travel all over the world to sit in a stand or sit on a bench.
It may sound ungrateful or big headed, but I just wanted to focus on playing for Rangers and I felt being away and not playing would affect my confidence at Rangers. I knew Rangers could sign anyone they wanted so I had to be at my best to remain on the team. Anyone that knows me knows I’m not a big-headed person and that I’m down to earth and very reserved.
BOTN: After retiring you began your career in management with stints at Elgin and Montrose. You resigned from Elgin after four months as manager following a failed takeover bid of the club by Kenny Black. Did you believe your position was untenable after that failed bid?
DR: I was at Elgin for close to 3 years. At the time the takeover sounded exciting. I felt at the time the club maybe lacked ambition but years on when you take the passion (to do well) out of the situation, it was probably the best thing for the club to go it alone. There is not too much ability to sustain the ambition of a small club as it would need one individual to fund the club and that model is not sustainable long term. You just have to look at Gretna. At the time I did feel I could not continue. Maybe in hindsight I was too rash in my decision but at the time I believed in the opportunity for the club to progress.
BOTN: Eventually you moved to Phoenix where you stayed for ten years before moving to India. What drew you to the US and what did you gain from your time there?
DR: I enjoyed living in Phoenix as it’s where my children spent most of their lives and it’s a very fond place that we as a family love. After being at Montrose and Elgin City I did feel disillusioned with Scottish football which at the time what I thought was narrow minded and had no ambition. I felt it was time to move. But in reality, those clubs are for the local people to support and the custodians have a duty to be realistic and loyal to the local community. During my time there as a coach it made me the coach I am today.
I coached 3 teams so I had 12 training sessions per week and between 4 and 14 games per weekend so I could change things on the fly and experiment in real games which many coaches have one game per weekend and don’t have the bottle to change things. I eventually ran the whole club from managing 60 coaches, pay roll, board meetings, finances etc. I learned so much.
BOTN: It was in Phoenix that you met businessman Robert Sarver who attempted to buy Rangers after your recommendation. Do you think that was a missed opportunity by the club and are you surprised to see that he bought RCD Mallorca in the Spanish second division after his move for Rangers failed to materialize?
DR: I do think it was a big miss from Rangers, but the passion of supporters and board members/ shareholders were maybe concerned with an outsider taking control which I can understand. But I know Robert well and he is committed and has the opinion even though he is the owner, he is only a custodian and knows that the fans and shareholders vote with their feet no matter how much money an individual puts in. But I know he would have made the club back to where it was and push it on. He has invested vast sums of money into Real Mallorca.
BOTN: Let’s talk about your move to India. It’s quite a transition from Phoenix, Arizona to Srinagar, which is in Kashmir close to the border with Pakistan. How did that move come about? Did you have any hesitations in making that move given the stability of that region?
DR: I was approached by an agent. I had offers from China, Uganda and Real Kashmir. I chose Real Kashmir as it was a new club with no expectation and no vision, so I could start afresh and stamp my mark on it. To be honest I did no homework on India let alone Kashmir and I went into it blind.
BOTN: It’s an incredible achievement to win promotion in your debut season as manager but to do so with a club that was only formed 2 years previously makes it even more impressive. What do you put down as the reason behind that success?
DR: As I had to built a team a club basically from scratch in a county I was not familiar with, every player had to buy into what I was doing. I feel we play to the level of players we have and not try to play like Manchester City or Barcelona. Too many coaches I see around the world want to play pretty football with players that are not comfortable doing it. We are fitter than any team we have faced. I have taken a lot of the fitness exercises from my coach from Elgin and Montrose, Davy Johnston. Again, too many coaches rely on sports science which, some of it works, but players have to be mentally tough and keep going when other teams are tired. This is through real tough running sessions, to keep them going.
BOTN: Given all that you achieved as a player, how does that title rank amongst everything else you have won?
DR: It’s my greatest achievement in football for sure mainly because on the field every decision was mine and as the coach you are fully responsible for everything. As a player on a winning team you are only a small part of it.
BOTN: Football in India is having some serious issues with the I-League (Indian League) under threat following the decision not to broadcast 30 of the season’s games. There are also concerns about the financial stability of teams playing in the ISL (Indian Super League) and talk of those clubs potentially being moved into the I-League. It seems like a complex issue. How do you interpret what is going on and what do you see as the resolution?
DR: It’s tough to know what will happen because in India many decisions are last minute so it won’t be clear for some time. I do think the I-League is more exciting to watch and be a part of. The ISL games in my opinion are like exhibition games and lacks the passion.
BOTN: In a recent interview, you stated that the talent levels in India are high but it’s the lack of information that is holding football back. What did you mean by this?
DR: I feel in Kashmir the talk is there but the players got no exposure until now. I do feel the influx of foreign players has helped the Indian players not only on the pitch but also off the pitch. As a result the players are now more professional than before. I have seen a big change in my two years here. It’s a bit like the USA in that it will take some time.
BOTN: Your son Mason has recently signed for the club and has hit the ground running. How far do you believe he can go in his career and how good does it feel to have him in India now with you?
DR: Mason can play multiple positions and, in my opinion, can play for any team in Scotland. He had managed to get himself so fit by being full time. He has lost over 18lbs as well. I think his stint in the USA in college soccer was not good in the telescope of fitness and physical training as I think it was geared more for American football. But having said that, he has worked so hard and it’s attracting a lot of attention from ISL and other Asian clubs. He has gaming pace and is one of the top players on this league.
BOTN: Finally, some quick hits. Best player you played with?
DR: At Rangers Brian Laudrup, just because I made the runs and 9 times out of 10 he gave me the ball, he was an incredible talent. Also Ian Ferguson, in my opinion was the most underrated Rangers player. I thought he was immense. At Aberdeen it has to be Peter Weir and at Leeds United it was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
BOTN: Hardest opponent to mark?
DR: You will find this hard to believe as I have played against Di Canio, Beckham, Giggs, Overmars, and Del Piero, but the player I struggled against the most was Ivo den Beiman. I first played against him in a pre-season game for Aberdeen against Montrose. He was at Montrose and he destroyed me. He seemed to follow me all over. He went to Dundee, Dunfermline and I seemed to always be playing against him. In one game I read he signed for Dunfermline and we were playing them the next day. I thought, “oh not him”. I don’t know what it was about him but I struggled every time against him.
BOTN: Who in your opinion is the outstanding Indian player in I-League right now?
DR: I’m not being biased but Mason is one of the top players. We also have a 6ft 7in striker (that teams can’t play against). There are many top foreign players here. As far as Indian players there is a player called Jobby Justin who in my opinion is the best Indian striker at present.
BOTN: Where do you see yourself in five years? Still managing in India?
DR: I would like to at some point coach in the UK but it’s tough to break in there. But Asia is great and I have enjoyed it and been looked after well. I have a good name here and won the AFC Coach of the Year so my reputation is high here.
BOTN: Thanks David and good luck for the rest of the season.
To find out more about David’s journey in India, check out the fantastic article in CNN or catch the BBC documentary “Real Kashmir FC” featuring David now on the IPlayer. You can also follow David’s progress on Linkedin and Twitter