Sun, Sea and Soccer.
Those are the three words that instantly jump to mind as Mark Robertson recounts tales of growing up in Sydney.
His early memories are filled with sport; From surfing and beach nippers to competing in the back yard against his older brother.
Despite being born in to a football family, the son of a Socceroo, there was never any pressure to pick up the round ball, but Robertson concedes, he was probably ‘destined’ to fall in to football some how.
“There was no pressure from Mum and Dad, more a pressure from me and my brother who wanted to emulate what my Dad had done as a soccer player”, he tells Kick360.
“He’d played professionally, he’d played for Australia in the national team, so we always went to every one of his games, we sat in the changing rooms and listened to the coaches talk, we sat and watched him get prepared for the game, watched him have his massages, watched him tighten up the studs on his boots… we just emulated a lot of that stuff.
“It was unbelievable. They’re probably the best memories me and my brother, we always talk about it. The physio would have his medical kit, and we’d get the strapping out and strap our own little ankles, steal all the chewing gum, we’d get the dank rub and rub it on our calves as if we were going out to play… My dad was one of the only players who had kids so me and my brother run the changing room!”
This unbelievable access gave him the bug for the beautiful game.
But it certainly didn’t make his path any easier.
“It was bloody hard, mate. What people don’t know is I was overlooked up until the age of 15, I was overlooked completely.
“I’d go to all the trials and I’d be there and thought that I’d done well and then never got selected. I went through a period where it was ‘it’s a no from us, it’s a no from us’ and I was thinking, What do I have to do here?
“When I was playing my club football, I was playing down the pecking order like two divisions. When I got the opportunity to jump in to the first team, I took it with both hands. It was just a bit of luck that I got called in to the first place… I got called in for a practice match and pretty much tore up trees straight away.”
Breaking in to a first team environment, playing senior football at just 16 soon caught the eye of the international set up. Roberston was soon making up for lost time, playing up the ages with the U20s, travelling the world…
It was here that he came to the attention of big British clubs like Rangers and Nottingham Forest.
However despite interest and trials, it would be with unfashionable Burnley, then slogging it out against the likes of Grimsby, Wrexham and Carlisle in the third tier, where he would get his chance.
Swapping Bondi for Burnley was quite the culture shock.
“When I sort of parachuted in to Burnley, I was kinda like, what’s this place!? I’m not gonna lie to ya, I was pretty depressed for the first six months. I used to ring my Dad up and be ‘I think I wanna come home’, but he told me ‘if you can get over the hurdle of the first six months, you’ll never look back, you’ll have the time of your life.’ If it wasn’t for him saying that, because my mum was in the background saying ‘let him come home, bring my boy back home’…if he hadn’t have done that, I might have gone back home with my tail between my legs.
“I think the only saving grace was that Chris Waddle was the manager, so here’s me, I’d seen him represent his country at the highest level, I’d seen him play for Marseille, Spurs… if this guy can do it, surely I can do it.”
He did stick it out and was rewarded with a career that saw him take in stints across England, Scotland and Australia; and follow in his father’s footsteps as an Australian international.
But at just 29 years old, it was over.
“I retired at 29. I had my first ACL reconstruction at 17.”
“Funny thing is, and most people don’t know this, I didn’t actually do a medical at any football club that I played for until I got back to Australia.
“I’d already had 10 operations by then… for me to last that long was a blessing but I was bumping my arse down the stairs each morning after I trained or played and my wife caught me once and said, ‘it’s probably time you hang them up…’
“I’d come to an all time low in my life because everything had been taken away from me. The camaraderie in the dressing room, the adrenaline of coming out in front 10, 15, 20, 40, 60,000 people was all taken away. It was tough, really though, but as they say life goes on, you have to get over it and I think I’m a better person now.”
Few have experienced as many highs and lows across such a short career as Robertson.
It’s left him with a desire, a passion to give back back, to help the next generation of footballers.
Set him on a journey that has taken him from an initial soccer clinic in his old primary school to senior management with Hakoah FC to a life-changing move for his family to England where he works closely with Manchester City, and one future star in particular; His son, Alexander.
“I know so many former athletes that fall in to the same boat as me, we’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all achieved great things but we’d all like to give back to sport or young people coming through to help them make the best of their opportunity. You only get one shot, you only get one shot at life and one shot at being a professional athlete and if you don’t do it right… hence the reason I’m mentoring my son and if anyone else ever asks me, I try and help out them with their mentorship too.”
He’s been heavily involved in guiding and coaching his son.
“Probably no stone unturned would be the right phrase”, he concedes.
“I’ve tried since day one to get it right for him. Right for him on the football field, right for him technically, get it right for him physically, get it right for him mentally.”
Robertson must have been doing something right, because the third generation footballer has thrived in England, impressing in the centre of the park for Manchester City’s youth sides since making the switch from their cross-town rivals.
The next step on his development was to go out and experience competitive, senior football and it would see him return to familiar surroundings. The home of his grandfather, his father’s old stomping ground and the land of his own birth; Scotland.
“I never, ever wanted it to be about him going back to his birthplace. He was born in Dundee, the two clubs who showed a massive interest in Alexander was Ross County and Dundee. The reason we went to Ross County was the manager was a little bit more experienced.
“My first thought was if you went a little bit more old school with someone who’s been around the game and been around the traps, I was naively thinking that might be the right thing for a player to learn best, but it just goes to show, there is no right or wrong in the way of old school or ‘new age’ coaches and probably looking back on it or the next time something comes around, I wouldn’t base the opinion or the assumption on age.”
The move didn’t quite work out the way many had hoped, the younger Robertson managing just 74 minutes of football for The Staggies before returning to his parent club earlier this month. However, despite the lack of game time, the young midfielder learnt a lot.
“He could have easily been sitting playing U23s football week in, week out, going home after the game with no worries, no issues. No disrespect to U23s football, it doesn’t have the intensity of what the Scottish Premier League does. You’re now in a changing room with adults.
“They’ve got families at home, they’ve got mortgages, they’ve got cars to pay for. No disrespect to the young Premier League academy footballers, but they do have it relatively easy compared to these guys playing in the Scottish Premiership, or League One in England, League Two. It is a grind, day in, day out.
“Alexander wasn’t quite used to that.
“They (City’s Academy) don’t train with the level of intensity that makes them want to be winners and what he certainly found when he went to Ross County was that everybody in that session was a winner. The manager all the way down to the kit man, it was all about intensity and it was all about winning. That’s something he learned and it will be something he’ll take with him for the rest of his career.
“He’s highly respected at Man City for going out on loan. Not once did he say, ok I’ll go out on loan but it needs to be within a 60 mile radius of my house in the North of England. He asked where he was going, the club said Dingwall, and he was all right. That was a seven hour drive from home. He lived on his own up there, he cooked for himself, he cleaned for himself… I think a lot of people up there at the club respected him too.”
Alexander’s development has many in Australia excited about the potential of him becoming a third generation Socceroo someday.
Unfortunately, Australia might face some stiff competition as he is currently represents England at youth level and also qualifies for Peru and Scotland.
“It wasn’t until he came to England and had the three lions on his shirt, and learnt the patriotism and what it meant to play for them… and the longer that he stays in England, the closer he becomes to that tie. That’s not to say he’s lost any heart.
“He loves the Socceroos, he’s always watched the games, me and him have travelled the world watching the Socceroos and he’s always had aspirations of playing for the Socceroos.
“I think it’s going to be a matter of time. Football changes the dynamics every day and tomorrow might hold something different for him…. But he certainly hasn’t written off the idea of playing for Australia, in fact, we’ve had close contact with Graham Arnold, who has been fantastic. He’s reached out to me and Alexander on several occasions. He’s not put any pressure on it, just little ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Hope your football is going well’ and he’s been fantastic in that respect.
“Maybe one day he could wear the Green and Gold.”
Robertson admits his son’s international future leaves him torn. A battle between personal and professional.
“If you make decisions in life with your heart you end up in a different place to where you might end up if you made the decision with your brain. Unfortunately, that’s what I have to do. I can’t keep making decisions for the kid based on my heart because they might not be the right decisions.
“Any time that he’s played for England that’s me making a decision with my brain knowing fine well my heart is telling me I’d love to see him play for the Socceroos but ideally for his development, playing with the best players of his age group, in a country that is held in such high regard for football, it’s a no brainer.
“If you ask him, he might feel it more in his heart.”
Image Source: Stockport County