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Barry Robson’s hunger to teach and learn

The former Celtic, Dundee United and Aberdeen player has priceless experience to pass on as a youth coach, and a drive to keep improving himself.

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This article first appeared in Issue 23 which was published in March 2022.

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“Xavi and Iniesta were the quickest players both in terms of the physical attributes and the speed of thought over five to 10 yards I’ve ever played against. Yes, you could say they were small players, but that underestimates just how physical they were. It was a different type of physicality.”
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“I have great sympathy for the boys in the 11 to 15 age group at big clubs such as Aberdeen and the Old Firm. They get so accustomed to winning 4-0, 5-0, every week. They probably only have two or three hard games a season.”

There’s a lovely YouTube video of Barry Robson, nestling among the clips of highlights and glorious goals in a career spent on both sides of the border and at his peak with Celtic and Scotland.

A promo recorded for the SFA’s 2011 Just Play initiative, it is a short film that cuts right to the heart of simpler times as it takes the former Dundee United, Celtic and Aberdeen man on a trip back in time to his boyhood, the familiar streets of Inverurie and the places and faces that fired his football imagination.

He says: “There’s part of me that has to accept it’s a completely different culture now. We talk about computers and other distractions. But the reality is, as much as it’s a cliché, I don’t see kids playing outside anymore, hear the sound of a ball on a wall or against a garage door. When I was a kid, I was never without a ball. Keepie-ups all the way to school and all the way home. Everybody else the same. We’d play until it was dark. Just football, football, football. Think about the amount of touches that I’d have taken every single day, how I would have developed my technique.” 

And the lack of distractions that were central to these simpler times is not lost on Robson with his current youth coaching remit at Aberdeen, the club where he brought down the curtain on a superb career in 2016.

“You don’t really get that level of football exposure now and sadly, the control for young players, just repetition, developing the skills, you just can’t reproduce that in a formal environment.”

With a focus on the U17s and U18s, Robson has a wide-ranging brief at Aberdeen, coaching players within the development phase: that’s schoolboys being given their first contract all the way through to 10-11 loan players and those on the fringes of the first team under the watchful eye of Neil Simpson.

Ultimately, the plan is a move into management but before that he says he wants to know everything he can about the various age groups – and everything in between them and the first team squad. And for those who saw him in action, his expression of a desire to play “fast, aggressive, edge-of-the-seat football that is good on the eye with a bit of thunder” should come as no surprise. 

He says: “I want to get the fans excited. That’s difficult to do but it is what I’d aim for.”

Having already served as a first team coach and an interim manager following the sacking of Derek McInnes in 2021, Robson would hope to round out his experience in Aberdeen’s youth divisions. 

He says: “I am looking for a broad insight. Any club I’d end up managing is almost certainly going to want to promote young players. I think any manager now is at a disadvantage if all they know is working with first team players and their own experience of coming through themselves.”

After being released by Rangers, having been dazzled by Glasgow’s bright lights and the “wrong crowd” at Ibrox, according to his former youth coach John Brown, Robson was certainly forced to do it the hard way after spells at Inverness, Forfar and Dundee United before finally getting his big £1.2m move to Celtic at the age of 29. Brown believes that a more disciplined Robson should have starred in the Rangers midfield alongside his friend and teammate Barry Ferguson. Instead the Dons’ coach spent the first half of his career disproving his reputation as a prodigious talent with a light-hearted temperament, who was probably not quick enough to play at the top level. But there was clearly a far stronger and more complex character behind the happy-go-lucky facade.

He says now: “I was not physically or mentally ready.” 

And it took a kill or cure loan spell at Forfar from Inverness, at the age of 21, for the penny to drop.

“It was a midweek game, in the Third Division and it just came to me. I was facing part-time football, going to get a job, give up on my dream. I just thought: what do you want to do? I went back to Inverness determined to throw everything at it. I stayed back every day after training, worked harder, ran harder than I’d ever done before. The talent was there, but that’s not enough. You need that will to win. It has to mean everything to you.”

He says: I’d seen a vision of a future I didn’t really fancy and from then on I did everything I could to be a success. I didn’t want to look back with any regrets.”

It would take three years and 135 appearances in the Highland capital for Robson to earn his first significant forward step at the age of 24. Despite being sent off on his United debut, he became a fans’ favourite in an Ian McCall side that struggled for consistency. Robson missed only two matches throughout the 2004/05 season, finishing as United’s second top scorer with nine goals, and signed a new three-year contract in the summer, having scored the goal that ensured United’s survival in the SPL in the final game of the season against his former club Inverness. He also featured in that season’s Scottish Cup Final which Dundee United lost 1–0 to Celtic. 

As captain of United’s rivals Dundee, Barry Smith faced Robson in a series of hard-fought derbies in the City of Discovery. Smith enjoys the distinction of never having lost a derby to United during Ian McCall’s tenure but he is in no doubt as to his Tannadice rival’s qualities. He says: “Robson was a nightmare to play against. He had good pace but his primary asset was that he had such quick feet. If he got round you, you were in trouble because he’d cut across you leaving you with a decision to make – let him go or commit a foul.”

It is an assessment that clearly pleases the player, who gained international recognition as United’s captain under Craig Levein. He says: “I was miles quicker than people thought I was. And my numbers would have confirmed that at every club I was at. I was also able to shift the ball and change direction quicker than more obviously nimble boys with a lower centre of gravity.”

He also believes that being underestimated was something of a double-edged sword. While on the one hand it meant that he had to prove himself again and again on his journey up the levels, he was also able to confound the expectations of opponents that pigeonholed him as a tricky wide player or an off-the-front midfielder with a powerful shot. Or indeed, as an assured penalty taker with superb left-footed set-piece delivery, good enough to allow him to score direct from corner kicks on occasion. 

Robson really blossomed under Levein, becoming the on-field incarnation of the future Scotland boss’s ambitions. He made his 100th league appearance for United in a game against St Mirren, who like Hearts were opponents he consistently terrorised, in late August 2006. Fittingly, he marked the occasion by scoring twice in a 3–1 win before being sent off late in the match. His eight red cards ensure Robson has been sent off more than any other player in Premier League history – despite a style of play that was competitive rather than dirty.

“I had to win the fans over at Inverness,” he says. “It was also the same at Dundee United. When I signed for Celtic, I was probably quite an underwhelming signing as somebody from another team in the same league. At Rangers and Celtic, fans really, really wanted foreign players, big money, big name signings. Then when you look at how my career started at Celtic, scoring with my first touch against Aberdeen, then a goal in a 3-2 Champions League defeat to Barcelona at Parkhead, winning at Ibrox. A journalist said to me that I’d got the fans onside with my start. But I was under no illusions. I said: ‘If I play badly next week and the week after then I’ll be no good, a waste of money.’ That’s just the way it is. That’s football.”

For his charges at Aberdeen that sort of hard-won experience must be worth its weight in gold. And these are good times for the Dons’ youth system. Serie A target Calvin Ramsay has followed in the footsteps of Scott McKenna (Nottingham Forest) and Scott Wright (Rangers) in progressing from youth to first team, while Jack MacKenzie also made that step in 2021 closely followed by the current midfield prospect Connor Barron.

Robson says: “When I was in at Rangers I was certainly not mature. I was away from home for the first time and the culture then was you were pretty much left to your own devices, really. Nowadays young players and their parents throw everything at it to support their dream – money, time, travel, physical and emotional energy. The culture I grew up in was sink or swim and forced you to be self-reliant but on the other hand, young players really lacked that support structure that can help them when things aren’t going their way.”

He says: “I can see the argument for both points of view and there’s probably a happy medium in there somewhere. But there’s one thing that shouldn’t really change and that is the standards that young players are exposed to.

“My players need commitment, to work hard. I want them to have a love of the game, to be really immersed in their football. I want them to be humble as people and show their respect in things like good timekeeping and their manners. I will be hard but I won’t look to rule them with an iron fist. They need to be comfortable here and get enjoyment and fun from playing and that all stems from the culture of the club.”

While some coaches will have an idea that their so-called philosophy can’t be compromised in any way, Robson’s view, from a player’s perspective, is that you must be flexible. 

“If you’ve played yourself you understand that you have to adapt your principles in one form or another. You’ve got a player that’s having a bad game, sometimes the best thing for him to do is simply play some easy passes. If he has to knock it into the channels, take a breather and get up the park, maybe we’ll do that. But the key thing is not to be too clever, not to overthink things, and to respond to things as they’re happening in the game to your players.

“The other advantage you have, as well as perspective, is that you literally know how it feels, what the players are going through. The speed of a game, 60,000 fans in a stadium, a hostile environment, players coming at you. People that haven’t done that themselves will never get that and it does give you a bit of an edge and a different level of insight that you can use to guide young players.”

And perhaps Robson can again bring his experience to bear on one of the great hot button topics in youth development with a level of insight that only an elite group of players have.

“You’ll always hear from people both in and outside the game that little players can get through if they’ve got the ability and that Pep Guardiola proved that with Xavi and Iniesta. But you are talking there about two very special players and having played against them, I don’t think they demonstrate anything other than their own special talents.”

He says: “That basic viewpoint really misses out something which is fundamental to me and became very, very apparent playing against those two players. If you can’t run, you won’t make it in football at the highest level. That’s basically it.

“Xavi and Iniesta were the quickest players both in terms of the physical attributes and the speed of thought over five to 10 yards I’ve ever played against. Yes, you could say they were small players, but that underestimates just how physical they were. It was a different type of physicality. The speed of movement was absolutely incredible. Fast with the ball and without the ball, the capacity to sprint. Strong, a different kind of mentality, but it has nothing to do with stature and everything to do with their specific qualities and their unique football personalities.”

And it is bridging this gulf between the top of the game and the rest that is the ultimate challenge for youth development.

Robson says: “I have great sympathy for the boys in the 11 to 15 age group at big clubs such as Aberdeen and the Old Firm. They get so accustomed to winning 4-0, 5-0, every week. They probably only have two or three hard games a season. The defenders can play the nice passes. The full backs can sweep up the park in possession and the midfielders have time without pressure. Then they come into the club full time at 16 and everything ramps up. They’re pitted against players sometimes two years older than them. And it’s such a culture shock. It’s almost like jumping three or four levels all at once. They’ve never really had to defend before and suddenly they’re getting battered. You have a lot of work there just to get all the basics back into them.”

Aberdeen believe that the best way for their boys to learn is to get them playing in overseas tournaments against the very top sides in Europe as often as they can, “because really you can only become a good player by exposure to the best teams, the best ideas and things that will challenge you. 

“Certainly when you take boys in full time at 16 you’ve introduced them to the fear factor for the first time. You want them to be comfortable but the reality is that the first team manager here at Aberdeen will be demanding of them, senior players like Scott Brown will dig them up. It’s all about the pressure to win. The pressure that fans put on you, social media, the press. You have to prepare the boys as best you can, based on your own experience. They have to develop a thick skin. They need to understand the demands and training. And hopefully, if they’re good enough, we get to the point where they will experience the standards of Champions League because that’s the pinnacle for any player. 

“And I have to give them the information so that when things get difficult they don’t hide. They’ll play at clubs where they don’t like their manager, at clubs where the fans don’t want them or they’re battling against relegation. Or they’ll have the pressure to win every week chasing trophies. That is horrible. In football, there’s far more bad days than good. But the good days are what keeps you in the game, keeps you striving forward. It was what motivated me.”

He says that even for experienced players never mind fans, it is hard to put into words just how good a top Champions League side like the Barcelona he played against really is. “They move the ball quicker, the passing is crisp and safe, they read the developing picture instantly and the players in direct opposition will work you out and adapt their game to probe your weaknesses and nullify your threat.”

He says: “I played nine Champions League games, a decent amount, but I learned more at that level than in seasons of domestic football. I loved it, despite the fact I was simply trying to stay in that first game against Barcelona. But that set the standard and I left the field thinking: I’ll be better the next time.” 

For Robson that meant doing everything more quickly on and off the ball, playing sharper, scanning more and early, taking possession more securely, making better runs and decisions. He says: “Everything is ramped up. The defenders don’t leave gaps and they’ll use their ability, forcing you to be patient. For example I wouldn’t charge in and press in Europe the way I’d done all my career in Scotland. It is the level, the speed, the electric atmosphere, the anticipation. And, of course, away at Man United or against Barcelona you wouldn’t see a lot of the ball. You needed discipline, concentration. It is hard to play the game rather than the occasion.”

But Robson says nothing prepares you for the jump in standard or the comedown after big European games, especially away from home after a lot of midweek travelling and all the hype and build-up of the Champions League.

He says: “At times we’d be in the huddle and the message would simply be: we just need to win today. Whatever it takes. And that’s when your big players really step up, guys like Scott Brown or Nakamura and Larsson, Sutton and Neil Lennon from the Martin O’Neil era because if you were away at say Tannadice or Motherwell you’d be facing fresh opponents who’d be after you right from the first whistle.”

Robson soaked it all in, learning from his teammates, former players and also from some fantastic managers, many of them, he says, very underrated. 

“At Inverness Steve Paterson knew how to build a team and create a great culture in the club. Ian McCall was off the cuff at United but he had an eye for players. Craig Levein was thorough on the details. Tony Mowbray was fun to play for, a style full of risks and excitement. I probably developed most under Gordon Strachan, who I also played for at Middlesbrough. His appreciation of the wider game was different and he showed me how creating space for others with my movement could be just as effective as me playing as if I had to do it all myself. Derek McInnes had elements of all them but close up I saw his frustrations at losing players and the consistency of his rebuilding over a long period.

“There were certainly periods where Derek created teams that could play with style and speed but you can’t sustain that indefinitely as a selling club, even if that’s hard for fans to accept.

“If you take Kenny McLean as just one example. He came to Aberdeen as a £2,000 a week player and left for Norwich as an international offered £10,000 per week. Fans only see the player but the reality is you’ve had the benefit of all that development in your team over time and although you have a fee to replace that player with, there are no guarantees you can get a new player in without the team suffering. You really can become a victim of your own success.”

He says: “I am obsessed with systems, all the little innovations coming in, whether that’s in analysis or sports science or tactics. It looks like we’re coming full circle with the top clubs looking at 4-4-2 again. With that sort of box midfield you could call it a 4-2-2-2 and if it’s done right you can have as many options in and out of possession as you get with a 4-3-3, or any other shape. You discuss it all, of course, with people you know and especially managers. And they all just shake their heads. They all say, without fail: Good players, that’s what it comes down to, Barry.

“Fundamentally your credibility as a coach stands or falls by one thing: do the players believe you? If I was hiring coaches a slick presentation wouldn’t do it for me at all. I’d want to see them put on a session first. You have to get any balance right between your own knowledge and experience and new ideas you’re open to. You certainly can’t hide behind degrees or PowerPoint slides when 90 percent of your work gets done on the training field.

“Obviously, if you have had a good career then that is a help. It buys you time to get your ideas across and it buys you initial respect. But training is a real leveller. Players will soon work you out and decide for themselves if you’re good or bad. It isn’t for me to say, of course, but I’d hope that my work will speak for itself.”

This article first appeared in Issue 23 which was published in March 2022.

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