The hardest story to tell - Andy Robertson
Updated: Jul 10
I'm not sure if you've seen the masterpiece that is Rogue One, indisputably the greatest of the standalone Star Wars films and quite possibly only second to Empire Strikes Back in the main canon.
Unlike my brother and I, my wife didn't grow up familiar with the secret compartment in the Millenium Falcon, much less the fact that Yoda could be squeezed into it if you bent his ears. It follows then that she never felt the euphoria on first viewing Luke Skywalker listening to Obi-Wan, turning off his targeting computer and using the force to shoot into the reactor core... 'just like bulls-eyeing womp-rats back home'.
Whilst my better half had inexplicably spent her childhood without a Return of the Jedi pillowcase, she was aware enough of the culturally-soaked parallel narrative of Episode IV to know that when Rogue One delivered the Death Star plans, it was a big deal.
Although admittedly a semantic segway from a galaxy far, far away - in the same way, many consider themselves au fait with the Andy Robertson story.
In fact, so familiar is any self-respecting football fan with the tweet of the teenage, unemployed Queen's Park amateur, that you'll do well to read any mention of the Scotland captain's subsequent acquisition of the Champions League, European Super Cup, World Club Cup and now Premier League titles whilst escaping the words 'rags' and 'riches'.
Taking issue with this, Robertson himself wrote an article in the Players' Tribune detailing his frustration at this romantic vision of his exploits.
No magic wands have been waved in my direction, I didn’t win some kind of lottery to land a spot on one of the biggest clubs in the world. The reason why I’m a Liverpool player is the same reason why I’m captain of my country: I’ve worked my bollocks off to get where I am, and by doing that, I’ve been able to make the most of whatever talent I have... Now I've got two kids of my own, that message is more important than ever. I don't want them to think that their dad got a lucky break. I need them to understand that whatever potential they have can only be fulfilled if they put their minds to it. Fairy tales? That's bedtime stuff.
- 'This is for Liverpool' by Andy Robertson, Players' Tribune, June 2018
With no room for outlandish fiction, why frame Robertson's story beside Rogue One? Well, it's intentional, because it cracks open something new about something old. We knew the Star Wars story too well because we were too close, meaning any further understanding of the subject was so cloaked in ubiquity as to become impenetrable.
Alongside the saturation of branded pillowcases and lunch boxes, came also fixed mindsets saying; 'Yeah, Yeah... we know this one.' Until Rogue One we were, in fact, blind to what we were missing in Episode IV, and, much like Luke with the blast shield down, we needed someone to see and believe for us, that we might see and believe afterwards.
Why does [this fairytale narrative] matter? In truth, it doesn’t matter to me as an individual. It probably doesn’t matter to my family, either. It only matters because there are God knows how many little Andy Robertsons out there. Kids who are struggling to convince people that their talent deserves an opportunity. Kids who just need a break to get to wherever they deserve to be.
- Robertson, ibid.
Obi-Wan: You see, you can do it. Han Solo: I call it luck.
Obi-Wan: In my experience, there is no such thing as 'luck'.
Whilst there may not be any such thing as luck, what there is, with both Robertson and Skywalker, is ability and potential, and these are maximised through coaching and hard work - via training sessions at Melwood and the Dagobah System respectively.
The hardest story to tell is the one everyone thinks they know, but boy is it worth telling.
A long time ago in a stadium two hundred miles away from Anfield... a month before that tweet, Robertson lined up for his senior debut with no. 11 upon his back on the left-wing for Queen's Park, away at Berwick Rangers. The match ended 2-2 (aet) with goalkeeper Neil Parry (perhaps the aptest goalie name out there) ending the hero after saving three of The Wee Gers' penalties before crashing home the winning spot-kick before some 374 fans.
After playing the entire 120 minutes, Robertson can be seen partaking in the obligatory post-shootout-running-from-halfway-line-celebrations in front of the dozen or so travelling Spiders on the opposite terracing, just as he did when Adrian saved Tammy Abraham's penalty in the Super Cup Final 7 years later, albeit before a slightly larger audience.
That poor father and son... I've laughed every time.
What can we glimpse from this sun-drenched first outing at Shielfield Park? Well, besides a certain Shankland (no. 15) also making his debut for the lesser-Hampdeners, sinking a penalty in the shootout; you'll see a sprightly figure on the left-wing gliding up and down in that unmistakably buccaneering style, carrying the ball forward into space with frightening speed.
After drawing defenders to him, it isn't Sadio Mané who he passes inside to, instead opting for Alan Urquhart, who, taking a touch inside the box, is bundled over resulting in the first of many 12-yard dead balls taken that day.
This intuitive talent of bursting into space, with speed, and crucially, end-product, was to be something Robertson would carry with him to Dundee United and Hull City. Much like his dribbling style - he didn't relinquish possession of these qualities.
4 clubs, 4 dribbles, 4 assists - no fairy dust
His subsequent career trajectory has made for similar reading. A long, weaving, driving run, carrying the most important thing directly to the place it needed to go. There's no romance here. It's very observable, and here it is right in front of you. Robertson has always had the qualities to be a superb footballer, he just needed the right folk to believe in him, or as he put it, 'take a chance'.
This is perhaps why, after watching the Dundee United youngster for only the briefest of periods at Easter Road one night, Hull City's Chief Scout, Stan Ternent, left early.
'I think I left after 25 minutes. I'd watched Robbo before, away to Kilmarnock, and he'd similarly stood out a mile. So I went again, and I was gone by half-time to ring Steve Bruce. 'Are you sure?' Steve said, 'Of course I'm sure', and that was that.'
- Stan Ternent, Hull City Chief Scout, 2014
Robertson never seems to do anything needless with his dribbling, it is perfectly measured, seldom gratuitous or flamboyant. This is truly a remarkable quality for a footballer to have; to be able to do just what is needful, apportioning their role and strengths appropriately on behalf of the team.
This has famously been brought onto a whole new level alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold with Klopp, but the evidence has always been there. Robertson is superb at carrying the ball into the opposition half at pace and always has been. This is the 'natural talent' side of the coin.
'We're not the same... He runs a lot more than me, he's a better dribbler. I like to pass the ball more than running with it. I think it works in that way, to have the balance within the team.'
- Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jan 2020
Just as Qui-Gon believed Anakin to be the one who would bring balance to the force through proper training under one Council, Alexander-Arnold recognises the importance of maximising individual qualities to achieve equilibrium under Klopp's... counsel. [sorry]
Upon signing for The Reds, this stabilising component was something Robertson had to work hard on before being entrusted with the starting position he has now cemented without rival. He didn't shirk the challenge. Although Gardner Spiers may have been the first to take in the 17-year-old rejected from Celtic; Jackie MacNamara and Steve Bruce then followed suit, with Klopp, therefore, only the latest boss to 'give him a chance'. Robertson was used to working hard to make his way.
We'll come back to this part of Robertson's journey and the mindset therein, first, let's continue to chart the intuitive attributes of his game.
The dribbling qualities of players can be misleading as they are too infrequently attached to measurable contributions via goals or assists. Mazy dribblers can even look aimless if their abilities are used to achieve a different objective entirely (see Alain Saint-Maximin or Jack Grealish). However; as we've covered already, Robertson knew when to release the ball, seemingly possessing a sober measure of his abilities and their purpose from a young age.
When he did release it, his link-up play was much like his journey - he just kept moving forward at pace, and again, this quality came naturally.
'Pass and Move, it's the Queen's Park, Dundee United, Hull City, Scotland & Liverpool Groove' (not quite as catchy I'll grant you)
[They] are intense, they are aggressive, they are physical, they are objective. They play 200 miles per hour with and without the ball. I am still tired just looking at Robertson. He makes 100-metre sprints every minute, absolutely incredible, and these are qualities.
- Jose Mourinho, Sky Sports post-match interview, Liverpool 3 - 1 Man Utd, Dec, 2018
To dribble at pace is one thing. To be involved, frequently, in important one-touch link-up play at that same pace is, as the Portuguese put it, 'absolutely incredible'. Robertson moves forward with unrelenting purposeful energy - wonderful to cheer, a nightmare to defend.
This exposes an attribute all too readily dismissed as 'honesty' or 'hard work', perfectly embodied by Robertson's famous one-man-press against Manchester City. Yet underneath this physical exertion is something else. This effort, this zeal, is the outworking of an inner commitment to the cause; it lays bare a fundamental belief of Robertson's; that in running and passing forward as often as possible, in playing to his strengths, his team are more likely to score goals and win football matches. He believes in his style of play, and it takes guts to do that.
For with guts comes glory, and the Scot has experienced his fair share of winning recently. Similarly at pace, with relentless focus and commitment. Robertson's Liverpool have swept all before them with such positivity, amidst theatre, that you cannot fail to at least acknowledge, if not celebrate it.
As a rival manager, Mourinho could certainly see this and whilst his reflection perhaps accompanied a jibe at his own full-backs, it nonetheless revealed two important sides to Robertson's game. In order to produce so many '100-metre sprints' without running up The Kop, he had to be going both ways. He had to defend, and this is the 'hard work' side of the coin, this is the growth part of Growth Mindset.
“I really like, for example, the kind of project like Andrew Robertson... He is cool, he is not too long in professional football. He played outstandingly well at Hull but people have said ‘In defensive one-on-ones he is not that good.' That’s not a problem. I can’t teach him playing football because he is already good at that but I can teach him how to deal with one-on-ones... Because I could do that and I was a really bad footballer!”
- Jurgen Klopp, The Echo, July 2017
In looking at his qualities today, you can almost forget that once upon a time he was considered a defender who couldn't defend.
I recall Arsenal and Liverpool sharing 6 goals at the Emirates in December 2017 and in particular, I remember Gary Neville criticising Robertson throughout, saying that title contenders 'can't defend like that' and giving the young Scot a ruthless examination.
This was one of Robertson's first games, deputising for the injured Alberto Moreno. It also occurred at a time when Liverpool were known to be capricious at the back. Something perpetuated by Klopp inverting the 'new bounce narrative' by bravely fixing the attack, via 'The Fab Four', before the defence.
That said, there was some cause for the 8-time Premier League winner's criticism. Imagine Neville's astonishment therefore if he were to be told that only two years later, the left-back he'd lambasted would, alongside Joe Gomez, playing right-back that day, make up half of the meanest defence on the continent.
'Liverpool's full-backs are quite simply sensational. Robertson's a better full-back than Trent Alexander Arnold in my opinion... [He] has created exactly the same number of goals as Alexander-Arnold, he's maybe not as spectacular, his passing isn't as eye-catching, but he's an amazing player, Robertson, and I didn't think he was that good when he came to Liverpool.'
- Gary Neville, Sky Sports, Oct 2019
This selection could have contained more examples than I have storage. Its midiclorian count is off the scale.
'We could talk about the positive things with Robbo for hours. If you want to talk about the negatives, we'll have to finish now because there are none. Could he be more confident? Maybe yes, but when he's with us, he has that confidence, that belief. What he's not is the type of character who wakes up, looks in the mirror and says, 'look at me, I'm Andrew Robertson'. He doesn't live like that. There's no arrogance to him, none at all. He's just a well-educated, well-brought-up boy, and he comes from Scotland. All of which is good enough for me.'
- Klopp, retrieved from Sky Sports, June 2020
If Klopp and Neville recognised the prior frailties of Robertson's game, then how did he go from 'not being able to defend 1 vs. 1s' to one of the toughest defenders out there; unarguably world-class in his position? How do you improve to that extent?
This is the Melwood/Dagobah part of the story.
“Do. Or do not. There is no try... BOOM! HA-HA-HA!”
Since A\M's inception, folks have wanted me to say more on one of our central tenets, Growth Mindset. What actually is it? What does it do? Simply put, like any good social science, it exposes what is true about humans. Or to put it another way, it says plainly what already exists. It lifts the blast-shield.
It is built on the assertions of American Psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, namely, that the brain is malleable - like any muscle - and can grow to form new synaptic connections, make new attachments, and learn new information. Essentially, your intelligence is not fixed, there is room for growth. It follows therefore that you are not merely the victim of fate or genetics, responsible for every action or inaction you might or might not take. You are able to change. You are able to grow, and that is a wonderfully positive thing to consider.
Dweck's research posits two mindsets which co-exist underneath all of our alba matter.
In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.
- Dr. C. Dweck, 'Mindset - The New Psychology of Success', 2007
Considering what we know of Robertson, you can see how he embodies this belief. He lives and breathes this positive growth, and you can hear it in every word he says regarding his rise to the top.
'People can achieve [my success]... I dedicated my life to football, I still do. I wanted to become a footballer so badly that I wasn't letting anything get in my way. Football and life, in general, is all about setbacks and it's all about how you deal with them. I believe any setback that I got in football I dealt with pretty well. I took it in my stride and tried to make a positive out of a negative situation. I suppose that's why my mentality is pretty good.'
- Robertson, speaking to Sky Sports, regarding his Players' Tribune 'fairytale' article (above), July 2020
This is why 'yet' is such an important word. Robertson makes the link between what he believes; permeating and fuelling how he lives, not just as a footballer, but as a father, as a person. Looking at the graphic above, do you notice yourself across both mindsets? That's okay - you're in good company. What growth mindset is definitely not about is producing perfect people - rather, it is the antithesis of that. It acknowledges that the complexities of where we are, warts and all, is a starting place for change, it's a starting place for the next step, wherever that may go.
For 'Robbo', Klopp knew that as good as he was, this ability was not fixed. There was room for growth and for improvement. As none of the above stops en route to a growth mindset are pleasurable in and of themselves, Robertson could have refrained and sought success elsewhere with less challenge. Instead, crucially for himself and for Liverpool, he was able to move through the stages, pinpointing areas for improvement.
He embraced the challenges ('setbacks'), persisted in training for 6 months before his obstacles (Alberto Moreno) were out the way. He worked harder than anyone (dedication), listening to and learning from criticism (multiple conversations with Klopp). He celebrated the successes of the team whilst not playing and retained that humility throughout ('he doesn't live like that').
The wonderful thing about stories like Robertson's is that they merely point to something we all already know, that we can all put our minds to positive change.
Maybe you're like me, you might have obstacles in the way, and require support through medication or counselling to take that next step. That's okay too. We're all different. Your Dagobah is not my Dagobah, and it's not Andy Robertson's Melwood either. Similarly, your Yoda is not mine, nor is it Robertson's Klopp.
The important thing is however that there are many Yodas and Klopps who are willing to listen, who are willing to help. Robertson is not unique in this instance. We all need someone to believe in us, and this can start by talking and listening.
"I don't believe it..." "That... is why you fail."
If you remain unconvinced by Growth Mindset, that's fine, we're not proselytising here. Robertson may well be unaware of the concept, but whatever he calls it - the framework of Growth Mindset accurately gives flesh and bones to his experiences, and that's good science.
Robertson's journey isn't a fairytale. It is the result of hard work, built upon rock-solid belief via a strong mindset. Through it, we can observe, like Mourinho and Neville, a commitment to constantly improving, even in the face of rejection, setbacks and criticism.
Crucially, it is the outworking of this which has unearthed the qualities which have made him an example to all in the Scotland camp. This is why he is our captain. His teammates know when looking at him that he isn't defined by 'luck' or 'fate' any more than they are, that they too can forge their own path.
His mentality helps people around him, it lifts them up - reflected once again by 'real-life' in his commitment to social issues, such as supporting food banks in Liverpool and Glasgow, giving rise to his subsequent 'working-class hero' moniker.
This story, the one about his mindset, is the real story... and I think you'll agree it's worth telling far more than the other one.
I’ve never wanted to be a poster boy, but if I’m going to be a poster boy for anything, it should be this ― if you don’t give up, and if you carry on believing in yourself when others are doubting you, you can make it... The same applies to us as a team and to Liverpool as a club. We are where we are because of our work ethic and our belief that pretty much anything is possible. That’s the reason we were able to come back from 3–0 down against a great Barcelona team. We didn’t wait for fate to play its hand and hope that it would go in our favour, we forced fate to go our way and not even Lionel Messi, the best player I have ever set eyes on, could stop that.
- Robertson, The Players' Tribune, May 2019
'There is no such thing as luck'