Andy Robertson started his career at Queen’s Park, an amateur club based at Hampden Park in Glasgow. At the same time as he was trying to make it as a professional footballer, with all the attendant stresses and pressures, to earn a little money Robertson would often do shifts in the ticket office when a big event came around.
Now he’s part of the big event. But the man who looks like he has solved a generational left-back problem at Liverpool might be one of the most interesting players in the Premier League, if only because his career path is, by modern standards at least, so unusual.
But it also might be the ideal career path. Robertson went from Queen’s Park to Dundee United, then to Hull before Liverpool spent £8 million on him in the summer. Whereas many young players might have been thrust immediately into the spotlight, playing on the most glaring stage of all from their teenage years, Robertson has been allowed to grow up.
“When I first went to Hull he was a very quiet, unassuming guy,” Mike Phelan, who worked with Robertson for two years, firstly as assistant to Steve Bruce then as the Hull manager, tells ESPN FC. “I remember Steve saying: ‘He wouldn’t say boo to a goose.’ But within a period of six or seven months, when he’d got into the first team, he’d come out of his shell, to the point that he was unrecognisable a bit.
“Once he’d got into the first team you couldn’t shut him up, at times. There was a huge character change, like he’d been waiting for his moment.”
Nothing is assumed, everything has been worked for. When Robertson was at Queen’s Park it wasn’t even guaranteed that he would make it in the game. At 17, when he was on the fringes of the first team, he made a deal with his parents that he’d give football a year, and if it didn’t work out he’d go to university.
Becoming a teacher was an option, but by the midpoint of that first season his performances for Queen’s Park were enough to attract attention. Some high-profile games helped.
“The season he broke into the first team was when Rangers were in the third division,” says David McCallum, then Queen’s Park head of youth development, who now has a similar role at Ibrox. “That brings plenty of interest. There wasn’t any one particular game or moment, but he played four times against them and every chance he was presented with, he met it full on.”
One of the most frequent complaints about young players at big clubs is that they think they’ve made it when they have a sniff of the first team. Stories of teenagers who’ve never played a senior game rolling into training in expensive cars might sound like old-school moaning, but there is a serious point at play. If you think you have professional football cracked when you haven’t actually achieved anything, focus slips, motivation wavers.
That hasn’t been a problem for Robertson. Every move he’s made has been a gradual step up, and at every stage, after an initial period of adjustment and orientation, he’s proved himself.
“I don’t think he went to Dundee United expecting to play,” McCullum says. “He went there expecting to find his feet and then gradually build himself into it.
“At Liverpool he had to be a bit more patient, but like before he met the challenge head on. I don’t think he would’ve expected to go straight in, but deep down I’m absolutely certain he went there with the belief that ‘I deserve to be here, I’m good enough to be here.'”
The other side of stepping up gradually is the need to prove himself. Even at Queen’s Park, a couple of other left-backs were ahead of him in the pecking order, but he eventually showed he was worthy of a place. The same at Dundee United, then at Hull, then Liverpool. “Every challenge he’s been presented with, he’s treated as a normal part of his development,” McCullum says.
The transfer fee helps, too. By modern standards £8m is pocket change for a club the size of Liverpool, a rounding error, a mid-range payoff for a dismissed manager.
“If the fee’s high, you get that instant pressure,” Phelan says. “If you pay £90m for someone, such is the way with the Premier League then you expect £90m worth of talent. But when you pay ‘minimal’ fees, you can have a bit more time to work on it. I suppose Liverpool took him in a way so they could look at him out of the spotlight.”
That might have also helped develop a rounded character. It’s pretty easy to get people to talk about Robertson, because they all have positive things to say. Willing to learn, confident without being arrogant, level-headed: all of these descriptions come up without prompting.
It’s also easy to read too much into acts like these, but this week Robertson sought out a young boy who donated his pocket money to a foodbank and sent him a signed Roberto Firmino shirt. These things quickly turn into social media fodder and good PR, but it’s worth noting that Robertson proactively went out and found the kid.
Only the luckiest players can choose their career path, and if they could many might pick a seamless transition from youth team to starting XI. But Robertson’s path might be a lesson in how to design a career, the ideal way to create a footballer who learns, proves himself and comes out the other end as a fine player and decent person.
“He’s certainly made the right choices in his career,” Phelan says. “He waited his time, he learned, got put in the deep end at times and learned while he was playing. I think Liverpool have got him at the right moment. He’ll keep progressing if Liverpool keep faith in him.”