Former County skipper and Australia international midfielder Mark Robertson spoke to Sam Byrne of the Stockport Express recently about his time at Edgeley Park, and the honour and pride of captaining the Club through troubled times.
As far as international talent goes, Stockport County have had more than their fair share pass through the doors of Edgeley Park.
From iconic goalkeeper Harry Hardy turning out for England back in 1924 while still a County player, to the likes of Wayne Hennessey and captain Ashley Williams for Wales tens of years down the line, County have enjoyed a range of nationally capped players over the years.
But one who may fly under the radar is Australia international Mark Robertson – a man who still speaks of his “great pride” in captaining The Hatters, despite a period of struggle for the club during his 18 months in SK3.
The midfielder originally came to the country via a spell with County’s old rivals Burnley after an impressive campaign at the 1997 World Youth Championships for his nation – a move which Robertson explains was a world away from his upbringing on Australia’s east coast.
“I made my debut in the top league in Australia at 16 years old, and played at the World Youth Championships in 1997 for my country not long after against some real top teams. I remember we played Argentina and they had the likes of Riquelme, Cambiasso, Saviola, and Michael Owen was there for England, too.”
“It was a great opportunity for me to showcase myself on a big stage, and at the end of the tournament it was Nottingham Forest, Rangers and Burnley who were vying for me to sign.”
“Burnley brought me over, and it was definitely a culture shock! It wasn’t what I was used to from the surfing and stuff like that to the weather and other elements over in Burnley. But I always wanted to be a professional footballer, and that’s a part of it.”
After three years in Lancashire, the youngster found himself settling into a playing career in Scotland via trips back to Australia and a season at Swindon Town.
And, after a successful spell at Dundee, the combative midfielder had found himself on the footballing scrap heap thanks to financial ruin at the Scottish Premier League club – until a new manager through the doors at County came calling for a “hugely excited’ Robertson.
“I spent three years in Scotland and had a really great time. We played in Europe, played in the big games against Celtic and Rangers and just had a good bunch. But we began to hear rumours that the club would go into administration, and eventually the club was on its knees.”
“They had to forego people’s contracts and twenty of us were left on the scrap heap, if you like. The PFA couldn’t help us as it was Scotland and not in England, and we had to walk away.”
“I got a voicemail soon after saying ‘Hi, it’s Sammy McIlroy, can you give me a call?’”
“We had a good chat and he said he’d been speaking to people in Scotland, and had basically been told ‘if you sign anyone, it should be this Australian bloke at Dundee, he’d be great for you’.”
“I rang him back, we had a chat, and I asked if he wanted me to come down for a trial, and he said ‘no, I want to sign you!’”
“Gillingham were interested at the time, and so were Yeovil – but I knew where I was going once I’d had that chat.”
Robertson came into the club during a period of real transition at Edgeley Park – one of many the club has found itself going through since the New Millennium.
Sammy McIlroy had stepped down from his role as Northern Ireland manager following their unsuccessful Euro 2004 qualifying campaign in order to re-enter club management with The Hatters in October of 2003, and brought Robertson in at a time when The Hatters were looking to stave off relegation to League Two.
But despite the club’s tribulations early in the noughties, Robertson’s memories of County from his early days in England meant that his move to Edgeley Park was a no-brainer.
“If you rewind all of my time at the club and go back even to me signing for Burnley in 1997, I lived through the era when Stockport were flying.”
“For me, people see this Australian guy signing for the club in 2004 and probably think that I’ve come from nowhere and don’t know much about the club. But I lived through that time, so for me to sign for the club was massive and a real honour.”
“I’m good friends with Derek McInnes, I called him when I knew of the club’s interest and he was just so positive about the place. He told me it was a great club, he’d had a really good time there and he said ‘if you get the chance, definitely go’.”
“I had such great pride in signing – I remember going home to my wife and saying ‘I’ve just had a missed call from Sammy McIlroy at Stockport County. How good would that be?!’
McIlroy eventually guided County to League One safety following an eleven-game unbeaten run at the back end of the 2003/04 campaign, with Robertson playing his part.
But for the former St Johnstone man, it was a conversation with McIlroy about County’s close season exploits which had Robertson excited for his Hatters future.
“We went to China at the end of the 2003/04 season for a tour there, and that was the first time I’d ever seen that in terms of not having a break until later on in the summer.”
“Sammy had asked me to captain the club at the back end of the previous season when Danny Griffin was injured. That was one of the proudest moments of my career, and then Sammy pulled me in for a chat to ask me to go to China at the end of the season even though I was injured.”
“He wanted me to really help in pulling the lads together – so I went home and told my wife that I was off to China with an injury!”
Although the 2004/05 campaign ultimately ended in relegation following a dire season for the club, Robertson recalls great optimism around the squad and supporters prior to the start of the season.
County started their new season with a seemingly lethal front three of Rickie Lambert, Luke Beckett and Warren Feeney and a number of talented members of the squad peppered throughout the rest of the side – and late into the opening day of the season, things seemed to be going well for McIlroy, Robertson and company.
Beckett and Feeney had given County a 2-1 lead over Huddersfield at Edgeley Park on a summery August afternoon, before two goals in the final three minutes gave The Terriers all three points on a sickening curtain-raiser to the League One campaign.
A defeat by the same 3-2 scoreline came at Colchester the immediate Tuesday after, before a 4-0 rout of Blackpool the following Saturday seemed to have kickstarted County’s season – proving only to be a false dawn, as just one win in sixteen league games followed.
“I remember the Huddersfield game, I thought we were absolutely flying. I had a swagger about me in midfield thinking ‘this is easy!’”
“From there, we let it slip but even then, we went to Blackpool and embarrassed them. I genuinely walked off the pitch at Blackpool thinking that we’d go close to promotion, I really did. For it to turn out the way it did, I wonder to myself even to this day whether the club made the right decision by removing Sammy.”
“We were such a good side in terms of we had a lot of fantastic footballers. I know people can look at a side which gets relegated and think ‘what are you talking about?’, but who was to know at the time what the likes of Rickie Lambert, Aaron Wilbraham, Ashley Williams, Adam Le Fondre and others would go on to achieve?”
“I think it was probably a battle of trying to accommodate those players and get us singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of the style of play.”
“We knew what we could contribute individually, but as a collective we fell short, and the results reflect that.”
“I think the players need to take responsibility for that time as we didn’t pull ourselves together as much as we could have done and work as a collective unit on the field. It’s a time that sticks in my mind even now as, I know what happened at each club I was at, but I just can’t get my head around the time at Stockport County and why it didn’t go to plan.”
Although he didn’t depart the club for a number of months following, the former Perth Glory midfielder admits that McIlroy and (Chris) Turner’s respective exit and arrival meant that he could see the writing on the wall.
“I left the club on my own terms, I didn’t believe in the way things were going with the new management and new staff, and I just let them know that it wasn’t for me.”
“It was just unfortunate as I would have loved to have stayed at the club for longer, and I still have that affinity and go back to Edgeley Park when I can. I wore the strip with pride and captained the club with pride, and yes we had some down days, but I really had some good battles on behalf of the shirt.”
Turner’s reign at the club came to an end following relegation into League Two and a dire start to life at that level, culminating in a 6-0 whitewash by neighbours Macclesfield Town on Boxing Day, 2005.
Club legend Jim Gannon burst onto the scene as manager alongside assistant (and fellow icon) Peter Ward, keeping The Hatters in League Two on the final day of that campaign – and, pressed on whether an earlier arrival for Gannon may have seen Robertson’s “hugely enjoyable” time at the club continue, the Australian is firm on his thoughts.
“A thousand percent, yes. I know Wardy really well, I know Craig Madden really well who was a youth coach at the time, all the backroom staff were brilliant. The figureheads for the club after Sammy left just weren’t for me, and I wouldn’t be the only player at the time to say that. I just couldn’t be a part of it.”
“I was at a stage of my career where it wasn’t for me and I wanted to enjoy things. If Jim and Wardy had taken over straight away, it would have been a real ‘wow’ situation, and I think they really would have galvanised that particular squad.”
Back to 2005, however, Robertson did eventually depart the club after Turner’s appointment – and explains that he “didn’t have any interest” in staying in the country despite offers from other clubs in the Football League.
Then 27 years old, Robertson headed back home Down Under – and he cites his Edgeley Park exit as a contributing factor.
Retirement from his playing career came about shortly after, with Robertson’s injuries throughout his Hatters days taking their toll.
“Leaving County was really the end of my time in the country as far as my playing career. I went home from Edgeley Park and had a conversation with my wife that County was really my chance to help lead a club up the table, and if I couldn’t do it there then I wouldn’t want to hang around anywhere else, and we went back home to Australia.”
“I called it a day at 29 years old after knocking around the Australian league for a year or two. I had been having all sorts of injections and medications for injuries at Stockport just to get me through games.”
“I never wanted to be someone who was just going through the motions in a County shirt, and eventually all of those injections and medications caught up with me at 29, and my body told me I couldn’t go any further.”
These days, Robertson is able to enjoy watching his family’s footballing legacy continue, via his son Alexander, who’s recently penned a new four-year deal with Pep Guardiola’s Man City as he continues his rise through the ranks of the club’s youth set-up.
And, while the former Hatter is able to have an influence on both his son’s career at the Etihad Stadium – and on the game in general through a foray in to scouting – the one-time Australia international still always has an eye on Edgeley Park.
“In terms of County, I’m still good friends with a few of the lads from that team, and a lot of people around the club. I actually spoke to Ashley Williams recently and we both spoke about how good it would be to help get the club back up the leagues!”
“Jim has got the side absolutely flying, and I love being back at County even just watching games. I speak to Steve Bellis, Simon Dawson and others regularly, I love speaking to fans when I’m back at Edgeley Park watching games.”
“It’s just difficult not to play for this football club, even for a shorter amount of time than you’d like to as I did, and not have a real love for the place and the people.”