From 'Cheeky Chappy' to Liverpool Star: The Early Years That Made Andy Robertson

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 23, 2018

B/R and St Ninian's High School

Walking around St Ninian's High School in Giffnock, south-west of Glasgow, it does not take long to discern traces of Andy Robertson.

Enter via the main entrance, pass through a set of double doors, cross a communal space known as the forum and there, either side of a ramp that slopes down towards a seating area, are a pair of framed shirts donated to the school by Robertson, who will line up for Liverpool against Real Madrid in Saturday's Champions League final in Kiev.

One is a blue Scotland shirt that Robertson wore when representing his country at under-21 level. The other is a red Liverpool jersey with "ROBERTSON 26" on the back. Both are adorned with felt-pen signatures in bulbous, youthful handwriting. "Best wishes, A. Robertson."

The simplicity of the dedications is reflected in the quiet, understated pride that the school feels towards the 24-year-old left-back. Robertson's grinning face can be seen in a couple of photographs of the school football team, but that is as large as he looms.

"We're bursting with pride just to know him, let alone to have had some kind of influence on his career," says Joe Fuchs, the school PE teacher and Robertson's former football coach.

Sitting in the office of headmaster John Docherty, Fuchs reveals, a little ruefully, that he is one of only two Rangers fans on the staff at St Ninian's. A lifelong Celtic supporter, Robertson never required much encouragement to assert the superiority of the side in the green and white hoops.

"He was very cheeky," Fuchs tells Bleacher Report. "Not in a misbehaving way, but just a cheeky chappy. He had an infectious personality. Going on buses to school trips or football games, he'd always be a good source of fun. He was a good laugh, very likeable and we got on very well."

The verdict is the same from Gerry O'Neil, who was Robertson's head of year. "He was a good guy," says O'Neil. Tellingly, both teachers reach for the same adjective: "lively."

Robertson's "cheeky" attitude made him popular with teachers and students
Robertson's "cheeky" attitude made him popular with teachers and studentsSt Ninian's High School

One of Fuchs's motivations in making Robertson captain of the football team was a hope that the extra responsibility might "settle him down." He would prove himself a model skipper, helping the staff to mobilise players for hastily arranged fixtures and leading pre-match warm-ups with authority and enthusiasm.

Robertson attended St Ninian's between 2006 and 2012. A mixed Roman Catholic state school, it sits encircled by trees in the well-to-do suburb of Giffnock, five miles southwest of Glasgow city centre, and caters for 1,800 students. The school's motto, Floreat Iuventus, means "Let youth flourish."

These days, St Ninian's benefits from two full-size 4G sports pitches, but in Robertson's time, football was played on a red cinder pitch (known in Scotland as "red blaes") at the back of the school. Rock-hard in winter, it would quickly turn to sludge when rain fell. Home matches against rival schools had to be played elsewhere.

Robertson's promise as a footballer was readily apparent—he once scored four goals, from left-back, in a cup game against a school from Aberdeen—but he was not felt to be head and shoulders above his team-mates.

Winger Calum Gallagher joined the youth ranks at Rangers and currently plays for Dumbarton, while centre-back Liam Lindsay went on to play for Partick Thistle and has earned rave reviews for his performances for Barnsley during the 2017-18 season.

Robertson was a member of the youth setup at Celtic, only to be released at the age of 15 when a coaching reshuffle brought about a new emphasis on physicality and he was found wanting. For a Celtic season ticket-holder who had grown up idolising Henrik Larsson, it must have been a crushing blow, but Fuchs says that rather than sulking about it, Robertson became even more determined to succeed.

"The thing that was different about him was his will to win and his 24/7 love of football," Fuchs says. "He was literally living and breathing it constantly.

"When some people get to 13 or 14 and they're released by a big club, they start to get other interests and they might think, 'Ach, well, that's it.' Whereas even after he was released by Celtic, he still had a sense that he was going to do well. It was difficult to see how that would come about, but he's made it happen big style."

Robertson's teachers say that his parents and elder brother Stephen—all Celtic fans—were an important source of encouragement. "His mum and dad were always very supportive," says O'Neil, who is now the headmaster of a school in nearby Linwood. "They were good people, always turned up to the games and were always encouraging him."

Robertson met his partner, Rachel Roberts, during his time at St Ninian's and remains close to his old school friends. He has kept in touch with his former teachers, occasionally donating raffle prizes and kits to the school, and attended last year's sports day. Characteristically, it was as a supporter of the school, rather than as a star guest.

Upon leaving St Ninian's in the summer of 2012, Robertson faced an uncertain future. He was on the books of Glasgow amateur club Queen's Park, but as he revealed to the Daily Telegraph's Chris Bascombe last year, his parents had given him 12 months to secure a professional contract somewhere or start preparing for a life outside football.

His Twitter posts from that time are characterised by a combination of playfulness and ennui that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever been a restless 18-year-old. Praise for The InbetweenersHome AloneMr Beanfajitas and chocolate eclairs; lamentations about faulty keyboards and the lot of the designated driver; paeans to the simple pleasures of toast.

Robertson sent a fan a Roberto Firmino shirt as "no one wants the left back's shirt"
Robertson sent a fan a Roberto Firmino shirt as "no one wants the left back's shirt"PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

One particular tweet, posted in late August 2012, went viral recently after being seized upon by Liverpool supporters: "life at this age is rubbish with no money #needajob."

Robertson had already made his first-team debut by that point, in a penalty shootout win over Berwick Rangers in front of 372 people in the Scottish Challenge Cup, and Queen's Park were able to give him a leg up on the job front as well.

A position was found for him in the corporate department at Hampden Park, where Queen's Park play their home games. He took ticket orders over the phone for matches and pop concerts and also helped out the Scottish Football Association's kitman, Willie Neil. He would later spend time working on the tills at Marks & Spencer on Glasgow's famous Sauchiehall Street.

Happily, for Robertson, his performances for Queen's Park in the Scottish fourth tier guaranteed that he would soon be able to concentrate on football on a full-time basis.

"I can't remember him missing a game," says Lawrence Shankland, who came through the youth ranks with Robertson at Queen's Park. "I don't think he was meant to be in the first-team squad that year, but he got called up because of an injury. Andy got a chance and he took it."

Robertson was given a taste of top-level football in March 2013 when Queen's Park were invited to train against the national team at Hampden. A wide-eyed Robertson revealed his excitement at coming up against Celtic's Kris Commons in a video posted on YouTube by the Scottish Football Association. In an awed tweet to a friend, he exclaimed: "Their pressing is so quick! No time on the ball at all!"

Within three months he would be a Scottish Premiership footballer, with his assured debut season for Queen's Park convincing Dundee United to bring him to Tannadice Park along with his team-mate Aidan Connolly. Barely a year later he was playing in the Premier League for Hull City, and after Hull sank into the Championship in the summer of 2017, Liverpool came calling.

His marauding performances since coming into the Liverpool first XI in place of the injured Alberto Moreno have shot him into the spotlight, moving Scotland's Sunday Mail to call him "the second most recognisable Scottish sports star on the planet behind Andy Murray." In the words of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, it has been an "incredible personal journey."

"If Andy had said he'd be playing in a Champions League final in five years, I'd have probably taken him to hospital," says Shankland, whose goals fired Ayr United to promotion from Scottish League One this season. "It's incredible to see how well he's done and I'm delighted for him."

Fuchs and O'Neil will each settle down in front of their televisions on Saturday evening to watch the "cheeky chappy" who they once saw sauntering down the corridors at St Ninian's test his mettle against Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Co. in the most glamorous fixture in club football. "I wasn't a Liverpool fan at all," says Fuchs. "But I am these days."

Robertson (bottom middle) with his school team
Robertson (bottom middle) with his school teamSt Ninian's High School

Although they feel enormous pride about Robertson's sporting achievements, it is the fact that he has kept his feet on the ground that gives them the greatest sense of satisfaction. O'Neil cites two stories about Robertson asking friends to donate money to a food bank on his 21st birthday and sending a signed Roberto Firmino shirt (because "no one wants the left-back's shirt") to a seven-year-old Liverpool fan who had donated his own pocket money to such a cause.

"It's great to see him in the Champions League final. I'm just over the moon for him," says O'Neil. "But for me, I'm looking at that tweet about Firmino's shirt and thinking, 'I like that.' Because ultimately, I don't turn out football players at school, and I don't attempt to turn out football players. I attempt to turn out young men and women that are well grounded and have good values. And I'm looking at that and thinking, 'Yeah, somebody's doing something right there.'"

Val Wallace is the club administrator at Giffnock Soccer Centre, where Robertson also played football as a boy, and she says that it is primarily his human qualities that have turned him into a role model for the 1,100 or so youngsters who play football at the club.

"Andy was a lovely boy and he's clearly a very hard-working, grounded young man. You can see that from the way he speaks and the way he presents himself," she says. "We're delighted to have played a part in Andy's journey and we regularly hold him up as an example to all of the boys and girls at our club."

Andy Robertson has come a long way from training on the red cinder pitch at St Ninian's, fielding phone calls in the Hampden ticket office and ringing through groceries at Marks & Spencer. But in an important way, he has not come very far at all.  


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