Stephen Robinson endured narrow escapes from relegation, a pandemic, cup finals and plenty of highs and lows during his time at Motherwell – but the Northern Irishman says that he picked the right time to leave the Steelmen.
The 46-year-old resigned as Fir Park boss in December after almost four years at the helm, originally arriving as assistant to Ian Baraclough in the 2014/15 season, before taking over from Mark McGhee in 2017 after a spell at Oldham Athletic. As manager, he made over £6 million in player sales, kept the club up in his first season, made two cup finals, developed a fine crop of young talent, achieved a third place finish and brought Europa League football back to North Lanarkshire.
But with the club down the wrong end of the table this season and without a win in two months as he resigned, Robinson has told NTOF he felt his time was up: “I made a decision. I left with no animosity to the football club but I felt the time was right to move on.
“I felt I had did everything I could at Motherwell and results weren’t good enough. I am my own biggest critic and it was the right call. I have had plenty of thinking time. I have been catching up with the world outside of football as best as I can just now.
“You don’t realise until you sit in a managerial chair how intense it is. It’s non-stop, you do everything yourself. You get very little time to spend with the people who matter in your life so I have had a welcome break.
“The job the staff and myself did over that almost four years… we kept them up, rebuilt the whole side, got to two cup finals, developed a load of young players. The player sales were £6 or £7 million and we finished third. There were so many good things but a club like Motherwell can’t continue to do that with the infrastructure.
“It’s not sustainable, rebuilding teams all the time, it does drain the life out of you. It isn’t a criticism, that is the parameter I took the job on, but it was my biggest frustration with the whole thing. That won’t change unless there is outside investment. But I look back on everything with real fondness.”
Careful recruitment was a key part of Robinson’s plan at Motherwell, buying low and selling high, on top of developing players from the academy. Cedric Kipre, James Scott and David Turnbull all left the club for seven figures, the latter for a record fee upwards of £3 million.
While not everyone was a hit, Robinson believes his recruitment was exemplary for the resources he had: “People make me laugh sometimes when they say some signings were good and some were bad. We are shopping at the bottom of the barrel.
“We attract boys who aren’t playing in League One and Two, Tom Aldred is a good example of that. Tom couldn’t get a game for Bury in League Two, was brilliant, and got a move (to Australia, where he is now with Brisbane Roar). The people who get the big money moves are the ones who get the headlines. But your Peter Hartley’s, Curtis Main’s, Carl McHugh’s, all those boys moved to bigger and better.
“That’s what I look back on and I think we did really well on the vast majority of signings. Every transfer is a gamble. There wasn’t one player at Motherwell we recruited who was playing regular League One football as they players don’t want to come to Scotland and we can’t pay them the money to do so.
“Not once could we buy a finished product and I defy you to go and find any football club in the world that’s had a better transfer record than 50-50. On the vast majority, they were very successful, look at the players sold, the developed players, lots moved to get life-changing money like Carl and Peter in India.
“Liam Donnelly was someone who was criticised when he first came to the club. When Cedric Kipre first came in, people wanted to see Bira Dembele sign instead of him. Trevor Carson is the only player we paid a transfer fee for at £15,000. I challenge anyone to find a better transfer record than we had at buying and selling players while not paying fees.
“Of course you make mistakes with some. There are one or two I would have loved to have got in their minds before they signed, see their drive, commitment, because a few of them didn’t work for that reason. They wanted to be down in England.”
There were lessons to learn along the way for Robinson: “I learned a lesson this season that boys didn’t want to be here. On paper they looked good but if you don’t want to play for the club deep down… it’s something learned.
“You need boys who are fully committed and at times that was a problem. It’s a credit to the staff that they’ve continued to get boys up to a level to play for Motherwell and move on.”
In the midst of a pandemic, no fans and a team struggling with form, Robinson admits that this has been his toughest term so far. Taking care of others was something he and his staff had to do more so this campaign than in other seasons.
But taking care of himself had to become a priority: “It’s been my hardest season. People talk about mental health but all managing is now is a psychology lesson. For a manager and staff it’s difficult.
“All you do is worry about others’ mental health and wellbeing but sometimes you need to look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘look after yourself.’ It’s been the toughest season I have been involved with and a lot of it has been uncontrollable.”
Robinson knows that he can’t be picky about his next club, he needs to get working again at some point. He wasn’t short of interest, or at least speculated interest, in his services while at Fir Park. Hearts were one team strongly connected with his name as Craig Levein left Tynecastle but Northern Ireland was the only job he interviewed for.
He’s happy to see what the future holds for him as Robinson expanded upon previous interest in his services: “I love Scottish football and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I think the product is very good but some decision making at the top level could be a lot better and could help it.
“I am by no means comfortable in life with money so I have to work. But I am in a position to choose the right job, hopefully. But obviously Scotland is something I definitely wouldn’t rule out. I live here and I’m based here.
“I was in England throughout my playing career so I know the ups and downs in both England and Scotland, but beggars can’t be choosers. If the right opportunity comes up, whether that’s abroad, England, Scotland, you have to look at it.
“The only job I ever interviewed for was the Northern Ireland job but I didn’t think it was the right time to take it. Michael O’Neill had achieved things that weren’t sustainable so that was going to be a really difficult job.
“My agent did not put my name in for clubs that I was linked with but other agents did. I only found that out later through Austin MacPhee and people like that. People believe what they read but I did not speak to those clubs. Opportunism is the word I think of. The only body I spoke to was Northern Ireland.”
A Fir Park supporter
Enjoying a relaxing break away from football, Robinson has plenty of time for the Well, his son Harry still at the club. While the board at Fir Park didn’t want him to go, Robinson did depart, and he’ll be cheering on Graham Alexander’s men every weekend now.
In closing, Robinson said: “The club needed a change. I think you have a life span of about four or five years as a manager. I don’t think the hierarchy at the club agreed with my decision when I started speaking.
“They wanted me to stay, which I am thankful for, but we did things very amicably, which I always wanted. I have too much respect for people at that club for that not to have happened. I think people will look back on this as a very successful period for Motherwell Football Club.
“You will always have negative people and unfortunately those are the ones who make the most noise. But overall, the good times outweigh the bad over the years. I had some great memories and the biggest ones I take are ones with the people I worked with.
“Jim McMahon, you couldn’t wish for a better chairman in modern football, Alan Burrows as chief executive, you couldn’t get people who supported you more. Paul Matthew the groundsman, Karen Paterson the secretary who practically runs the football club, great people and great memories. I wish nothing but good things for them.”
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