Goalkeeper Derek Robertson has the distinction of being the first player to be signed by Willie Ormond for St Johnstone after his appointment as Manager in the spring of 1967. Robertson was playing for Petershill Juniors in Glasgow having previously won a Scottish Juvenile cap whilst with Possilpark YMCA. Two weeks after signing for Saints, on Wednesday 26 April 1967, he made his debut in a 3 – 0 win over Ayr United in front of 2,500 fans at Muirton Park.
The Saints team that evening was: – Derek Robertson, George Miller, Willie Coburn, Bill McCarry, Benny Rooney, Ian McPhee, Bruce Munro, Jim Townsend, Tom Wilson, Gordon Whitelaw, Fred Aitken. Sub: Alex MacDonald. Scorers were McPhee and Whitelaw (2).
Little would anyone present that evening have thought that this promising young goalkeeper would go on to spend 13 seasons at Perth during which time he would make 265 first team appearances.
Previously, Jimmy Donaldson had established himself as Saints No 1 and it was not until February 1968 when he was injured that Derek got his opportunity to stake his claim for a permanent place. At that time Saints were experiencing contrasting fortunes. On one hand they were fighting against the prospect of relegation and at the same time they were enjoying a great run in the Scottish Cup. A run that would see them reach the semi-finals and come within a whisker of reaching the final.
Accordingly, it was something of a baptism of fire for the young keeper. In only his third match Saints were on the receiving end of a 6 – 2 hammering at Ibrox with Alex Ferguson scoring four. However, ‘Gers keeper Eric Sorenson was so impressed with his counterpart’s performance that at the end of the match he came all the way down the pitch to shake his hand. A few weeks later Celtic’s Bobby Lennox also scored four as the European Cup holders won 6 – 1 at Muirton. In quite a number of his 18 appearances that season, Derek Robertson received the “star man” award in the Perthshire Advertiser.
As mentioned earlier Saints reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup and met Dunfermline Athletic at Tynecastle in a game Saints should have won. Tom Wilson had put Saints ahead early in the match and Pat Gardner equalised for the “Pars” with the contest ending 1 – 1. ( A match in which Fred Aitken “scored” direct from a corner, but unbelievably neither referee Wharton nor his linesman saw the ball was over the line. A newspaper photo subsequently showed John Lunn clearing the ball from a good yard inside the goal – not that I’m bitter! )
So the teams were back at Tynecastle on the Wednesday night for the replay. Alex MacDonald put Saints ahead in the second half before Bert Paton levelled matters. Dunfermline were later awarded a penalty when Findlay McGillivray brought Ian Lister down in the box. Hugh Robertson took the spot kick and Derek dived to his right to save, and then, when Paton hammered in the rebound, the keeper managed to make another brilliant block. Lister scored 2 minutes from the end of extra time to give the “Pars” a 2 – 1 win. Saints agony was further compounded when Dunfermline went on to defeat Hearts 3 – 1 in the Hampden final to lift the Cup. Oh what might have been!
Thanks to some further “man of the match” performances Saints did manage to avoid the drop and finished in 14th position in the 18 team League table.
Even although Donaldson had recovered from his injury, Derek retained his place as the first choice keeper at the start of the 1968/69 season. In the first match against Hibs at Easter Road in the League Cup he saved a second half penalty as Saints went on to win the game 1 – 0 thanks to an earlier Kenny Aird goal.
Later in the League campaign the “P.A.” reporter in his account of a 2 – 2 draw against Hearts at Tynecastle, when Saints played the whole of the second half with only 10 men, said “ Derek Robertson, who once again proved he is one of the top goalminders in the country with some saves that could only be described as fantastic.”
Big Derek’s displays at that time had attracted the interest of some of the top English clubs and former Saints Manager Bobby Brown, who had taken up the position of Manager of the Scottish International team, selected him for the Under 23 pool to meet England at Roker Park, Sunderland. Unfortunately, that game at the end of February 1969 was postponed due to bad weather and Derek’s opportunity would not return.
After 56 consecutive appearances, disaster struck for the keeper in a midweek fixture with Celtic at Muirton Park, at the start of April, and in front of a reported 16,800 crowd. Saints had raced to a 2 – 0 half time lead thanks to goals from Henry Hall and John Connolly. As expected the visitors raised their game in the second half and despite Derek making brilliant saves from Billy McNeil and Harry Hood, Willie Wallace pulled one back. The disaster came when Tommy Gemmell equalised with a 25 yard shot that the keeper appeared to have covered but somehow the ball eluded him and went in off the post. In the final minute Hood scored to give “the Hoops” a fortunate 3 – 2 win. The following Saturday, Donaldson was back between the posts.
During the next four seasons Jimmy Donaldson played some of the best goalkeeping of his career and Derek Robertson had to be content with mainly reserve team football.
He was an unused substitute in all 6 of the UEFA Cup matches during the 1971/72 season but when Donaldson was injured in December, Derek played in the remaining 19 matches of the season. One of those I suspect he will not wish to remember was a 7 – 1 hammering at Easter Road by Hibernian in April. The PA headline – “Saints’ problem – a powder puff attack and no defence” The forward line that day was Aird, Rooney, Pearson, Muir and Hall. Powder puff? I ask you! More realistically, Coburn and Argue couldn’t cope with the pace of Duncan and the craft of Edwards. Also Alex Rennie and Alec Gordon in central defence had no answer to the height of Alan Gordon.
Just to prove the old saying “It’s a funny old game” the following Saturday Saints thrashed Kilmarnock 5 – 1 at Muirton Park with Billy McManus and Dave Cochrane replacing Coburn and Gordon. Oh! … and Aird, Pearson and Henry Hall with a hat trick were the scorers. Powder puff? I ask you!
At the start of the 1972/73 season Saints met Newcastle United in a pre season friendly match at Muirton Park. Unfortunately, the game got off to a sensational start with Malcolm Macdonald scoring in just 4 SECONDS, and embarrassing Derek in the process. When Newcastle kicked off Robertson was stretching at the edge of his penalty area. Tudor tapped the ball forward to “Super Mac” who leathered it 50 yards downfield and the ball sailed over the keepers’ head into the unguarded net. Manager Ormond substituted him at half time with Saints 4 – 1 down and the keeper’s confidence clearly affected. Donaldson was back in goal in the midweek and although Willie Ormond was appointed Scotland International team Manager in January 1973, his successor Jackie Stewart stuck with the status quo. Robertson made only 1 appearance that season in a Scottish Cup replay against lowly Stranraer at Muirton Park. An extra time Billy McManus own goal gave the Second Division team a shock 2 – 1 win.
So, during a 4 year period due to Donaldson’s consistency Derek had to be content with mainly reserve team football making only 26 appearances from a possible 202 matches.
Who would want to be a goalkeeper?
1973/74 would see a similar pattern continue with Donaldson being first choice and Robertson covering on occasions of injury. However, this situation would change when sadly “Jimmy” suffered a career ending knee injury against Dumbarton in March. This effectively gave Derek a new start.
The great Saints team of the late 60’s and early 70’s had more or less been replaced and in the remaining games of the season Saints obtained sufficient points to avoid relegation, finishing in 12th position.
Interestingly, in December 1973 in a 5 – 1 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox the attendance was given as just 6,000. Scottish football was clearly in need of a revamp!
A proposal to form a new “Premier League” for 1975/76 season meant that the new season was vitally important as qualification for the proposed new set up would be restricted to the teams finishing in the top ten places at the end of the 1974/75 campaign.
This proved something of a struggle but Saints did manage to qualify on the final day of the Season when they came back from a goal down to defeat Celtic 2 – 1 at Muirton Park in front of 9,000 fans. Jim O’Rourke and Gordon Smith, from the penalty spot, saw Saints finish in 9th position.
Derek Robertson played a massive part in that success and in another quote from the P.A. reporter he wrote. “Derek Robertson never had a mishap and he produced some incredible instinctive saves in the closing half-hour to keep the Celtic forwards at bay.”
Having watched Derek throughout his career I think the word “mishap” is perhaps a well chosen one as not only was he a great shot stopper, but, as with all goalkeepers, he was also prone to the occasional mishap. For example some quotes and headlines from that season, which show both the highs and lows that a keeper can have.
v Airdrie 0 – 1. “Robertson’s only real mistake of the afternoon. The ‘keeper failed to fist away a Wilson corner and the ball dropped right on the toe of Reynolds who had the easiest of tasks to prod it over the line.”
v Rangers 1 – 2 “Derek Robertson had a very good game in goal and produced several top class saves at decisive points in the game”
v Dundee 0 – 4 “Two errors spoil Derek’s superb ‘keeping display”.
v Arbroath 0 – 0 “Goalkeepers put shutters up and points are shared”
v Dundee SC 0 – 1 “Dundee were gifted a goal in the 30th minute through a Robertson blunder.”
The 1975/76 first Premier League season would turn out to be the worst in the Club’s entire history. Only 3 League games were won all season and with just 21 goals scored in 36 matches by the end of March relegation was inevitable. A 3 – 2 loss in the Scottish Cup to First Division Queen of the South and a 5 – 0 thumping by Hibs finally saw Jackie Stewart resigning and being replaced at the end of April by Jim Storrie.
After a disappointing start to the season in both the Anglo-Scottish Cup and the League Cup, somewhat ironically, Saints won their first Premier League match, against Dundee United 1 – 0 in front of 3,300 spectators 1 – 0 at Muirton, thanks to a John Muir goal in 86 minutes.
Derek Robertson also had the “honour” of saving the first ever penalty kick in the new league set up. It was awarded in only the 6th minute of the match and when United striker Billy Steele shot at goal the keeper dived to his right and the ball struck his trailing heel before being cleared.
The Saints team that afternoon was; Derek Robertson, Gordon Smith, Sandy Smith, Billy Ritchie, Ian Macdonald, Andy Kinnell, John Muir, Jim O’Rourke, Bobby Thomson, Gordon Cramond, Duncan Lambie. Subs Gordon McGregor and Duncan MacLeod.
The keeper missed only 4 games that year and despite the team conceding a total of 79 league goals ( Dave Nicoll losing 9 ), the St Johnstone Supporters Club recognised Derek’s fine contribution to the team by voting him as their Player of the Year.
Financially the club was losing money at an alarming rate and the directors had no option but to sell players and revert to part time football. Gordon Smith ( £80k ) and Ian Macdonald ( £60k ) left for Aston Villa and Carlisle United respectively with Jim O’Rourke joining Motherwell in a player exchange deal. Micky Lawson was the only summer spend at ( £15k) and when the annual accounts were published later in the year they showed that a loss of £19k had been incurred. This would have been over £50k had the Supporters Club and the Aid Club not contributed greatly to the financial cause.
As others were leaving Derek remained loyal to the club, going part time and securing work with British Rail. Unfortunately season 1976/77 would see Saints downward spiral continue. In the League Cup Derek was in goal when a Saints team fielding 5 teenagers was hammered 9 – 2 at Easter Road. That said the match report says “ Derek Robertson had no chance with any of the nine goals and but for some inspired goalkeeping in the second half Saints could have lost by a lot more.”
Who would want to be a goalkeeper?
In the final few months of a struggling campaign the league position was becoming more and more precarious and manager Jim Storrie brought in new players, Derek O’Connor, Davie Ross, John Brogan and Drew Rutherford in an attempt to stabilise the sinking ship. Thankfully, Saints managed to avoid what would have been successive relegations on the last day of the season with a somewhat surprising 4 – 1 win over Queen of the South at Palmerston. This meant that they leapfrogged both East Fife and Raith Rovers in the table resulting in the Stark’s Park team joining Falkirk in the dreaded drop to Division 2.
Season 1977/78 started well with 3 wins in the first 3 matches and Saints were on top of the First Division albeit only briefly. In the League Cup Rangers were their opponents and following a creditable 3 – 1 defeat at Ibrox the Glasgow team went through to the next round with a 3 – 0 win at Muirton. Derek played well that day and another P.A. quote “ Derek Robertson saved Saints from a heavier defeat.”
Similarly, in a 3 – 0 reverse to Hearts at Tynecastle the P.A. report states. “The big keeper had a series of tremendous saves and had little chance with the three that got through.”
That said, perhaps due to the part time nature of the game, his form began to drop off and in December Andy Geoghegan, the former Aberdeen goalie, was brought in from Ayr United, resulting in Robertson playing second fiddle again. When Geoghegan was injured towards the end of the season Derek saw out the final matches. Saints finished that season in mid table so it appeared progress was being made.
1978/79 would turn out to be his 13th and final season with Saints. Geoghegan was back in goal at the start of the season, but there was a surprise when Jim Storrie resigned after only four matches. This followed a 0 – 0 draw with Berwick Rangers at Muirton, that had seen Saints exit the League Cup 0 – 2 on aggregate.
Caretaker Manager Frank Christie restored Derek to the No 1 position and after a seemingly lengthy period Alex Stuart was appointed Manager in October 1978. A foot injury sustained in an abandoned match at Clydebank in early December kept Derek out for 3 months and although he made a partial recovery his final appearance would come on 14 March 1979 in front of a 1,757 crowd at Muirton Park in a 1 – 0 loss to Clyde.
The team that day was – Derek Robertson, John Weir, Tom McNeil, Lindsay Muir, Gordon Hamilton, Drew Rutherford, John Pelosi, John Brogan, Walker McCall, Johnny Hamilton, Micky Lawson. Subs Andy Brannigan and Billy Thomas.
He was released at the end of the Season.
Derek Robertson proved to be a fine servant to St Johnstone and his total of 265 starts places him in equal 15th position in the all time list of Saints appearances. This total would undoubtedly have been substantially greater particularly between 1969 and 1973 had Jimmy Donaldson not been such a consistent goalkeeper.
In my view Derek never really fulfilled that early potential and whilst he could make some fantastic saves he always seemed vulnerable with crosses. Outfield players can get away with mistakes, but unfortunately goalkeepers rarely do.
Summary of Derek Robertson’s St Johnstone career
Season Appearances Clean Sheets
1966/67 1 1
1967/68 18 4
1968/69 38 7
1969/70 6 1
1970/71 0 0
1971/72 19 4
1972/73 1 0
1973/74 16 2
1974/75 40 9
1975/76 41 3
1976/77 41 7
1977/78 25 7
1978/79 19 4
Totals 265 49