For a long time towards the end of his time at Scottish Premier League side St. Mirren, Steven Robb struggled to raise a smile. Dodgy, weather-ravaged pitches, precious few first team opportunities and a manager who barely seemed to remember he existed combined to leave the diminutive left back-cum-winger disillusioned with the Scottish game.
So it should perhaps come as a considerable quirk of fate that the former Dundee and Dundee United winger should wash up in a country that has come to be known as ‘the land of smiles’.
No wonder, then, that a wry grin emerges from the corners of Robb’s mouth when it is suggested that, at 29, eyebrows may have been raised at his choice of the football backwater of Thailand as the latest stopping off point in his injury-chequered career.
Now into his third month with Thai Port, a Bangkok-based outfit who play in the country’s Premier League, the man from the pleasant countryside of small-town Perthshire is beginning to reap the benefits of a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. His story of life playing in a foreign land is not one steeped in the riches and fortunes of football’s glitterati. Rather, it is one of a once highly-rated youngster whose prospects were cruelly diminished by recurring injuries, perhaps hinged, suggests Robb, on a deep-seated pelvic problem that escaped diagnosis until fairly recently. Tellingly, his early experiences in Thailand have also galvanised a scathing outlook on the state of the beleaguered Scottish game he left behind.
Scottish football, of course, has this year been littered with scandal that has done much to detract from a product on the pitch, which, in its own right, has left a lot to be desired. There has been bitter acrimony between referees and coaches, a referee’s strike, an upsurge in sectarian chanting, and, most recently, parcel bombs addressed to the Celtic manager Neil Lennon.
“I know I’m supposed to have dropped down a level,” says Robb, a slight hint of nervousness etched across his brow. We’re in an Italian restaurant in an upmarket Bangkok mall, and Robb is tucking into a post-training meal of pizza and potato wedges. He relaxes a little. “But honestly, I don’t miss [Scottish football] at all,” he continues. “You’ve got no idea how great it is to wake up in the morning and put on shorts without having to look out the window and check the weather. Who wants to play on muddy or hard pitches, and in the freezing cold we’ve seen this winter.”
For Robb, the baggage that comes with the Scottish game – the perils of the Rangers-Celtic dichotomy, the tedium of teams playing each other four times per season, the glut of meaningless games that often come toward the season’s end – are firmly fixed in his rear-view mirror.
If anything, his short four months amid the sunnier climes of Thailand have only sharpened a resolve that a winter shutdown is now a must for the game back home. And it’s not just the state of the pitches that underpin his reasoning. “Ask any player,” he says, “and they will tell you they would rather have the time to spend with their families at Christmas and New Year.”
As for the standard of the Thai game, Robb is circumspect. He has been impressed by much of what he’s seen so far. Technically, the local players are gifted, he says, but they often lack in tactical awareness and physicality. Cash is being thrown at the game in increasing volumes and the top league is only three years old as a professional entity. As for the local pitches, apparently Scotland can’t compete with many, particularly after the ravages of a Scottish winter. “Some of the surfaces are like bowling greens,” Robb enthuses.
Around him in the Thai Port squad, he can count no less than two Cameroonians, a pair of Brazilians, a Nigerian, a South Korean, a Japanese, and, mercifully, an Englishman, the journeyman Jay Harris, formerly of Gillingham and Lincoln City. That is aligned to the colourful surrounds of Thailand itself: pristine tropical beaches, verdant jungle and, of course, Bangkok’s infamous lady boys. The latter has already raised a chuckle or two, but it is this kind of cultural smorgasbord that appears to have reignited a fire in Robb.
It won’t have gone unnoticed, too, that Thai Port’s home colours are a suspicious tangerine and blue – the respective stripes of his first two clubs, city rivals Dundee United and Dundee, between whose fans the atmosphere might not be septic but which often treads the fine line dividing banter and acrimony. Robb is one of a few examples in recent time who have crossed the city (well, street really, as the teams’ ground are just a couple of hundred yards apart) amid if not a hail of abuse then at least a loaded reminder the welcome mat might be swiped from under their feet should they ever have cause to return. Robb, though, may have been cute in circumventing this pitfall. Shortly after his release from St. Mirren – and with Dundee in the pits of despair after going into administration for a second time, leaving them with a thoroughly depleted squad – he answered an SOS call from the Dees to play as a trialist in a single league game during the festive season. He didn’t hang around long to get the United reaction, as, soon afterwards, he jetted out for his new home in the tropics.
That hurdle cleared, tropical life has thrown up tribulations of a different kind. In attempting to circumnavigate Thailand’s legendarily myriad work permit process, he has managed to fit in trips to Cambodia, twice – one of which included a visit to majestic 12-century temple Angkor Wat – and obscure Laos. “I’ve seen more in the last seven weeks than I have in the last seven years,” says Robb. “This is a great opportunity for me and my family to try something different. I’m not worried at all about Scotland. I had the chance to go on trial down south and there was one supposed chance in Scandinavia, but that didn’t pan out.”
Lately a pall of uncertainty fell over Thai Port as a boardroom wrangle threatened to see the withdrawal of major financial backing. That could have meant his time with the club being brought to a premature end — the kind of sudden shifting of the goalposts that is highlighted all-too-regularly by bristling players returning prematurely from overseas expeditions. Yet, for now, Robb is sitting tight, assessing his options as the sting has apparently been taken out of the dispute. In any case, staying in Thailand or going elsewhere in Asia appeals to his new-found sense of adventure.
Neither has he been put off by the misadventures of former Rangers defender Maurice Ross in China and ex-Hearts man Michael Stewart in Turkey. Ross complained of a lack of professionalism, while Stewart returned home claiming to have gone months without pay. “Everywhere is different,” he says. “I’ve had problems myself in a cultural sense. The manager had to tell me to calm down one time in training because I was screaming at one guy for not pressing the ball. I just have to adjust to their style and realise it’s not the same.”
Yet, there is more to the eyebrow-raising at his Thai move than the fact he has dropped off the British radar. There remains a niggly undertone that Robb might have been playing at a higher level today had it not been for the string of injuries that hampered him since his early days. It was perhaps for this very reason that back in June, then newly installed St. Mirren manager Danny Lennon awarded Robb only a six-month contract with a view to Robb proving his fitness. Then came the hernia problem. Robb says he has been fit since. By that point, though, it appeared St. Mirren had already decided to dispense with his services – and he left with a slightly bitter taste having, he says, been ignored and overlooked.
His biggest disappointment came at Dundee United, where he reckons under no less than the Tayside club’s former manager and now Scotland national team boss Craig Levein he had the platform, like his then contemporaries Barry Robson, of Middlesbrough, and Craig Conway, linked with Rangers and Watford, to kick on in his career. Injury misfortune was to riddle his time there too, however. He attributes these long-running injury problems to a misaligned pelvis, which he traces back to a broken ankle suffered as young boy. That was rectified, he says, by a specialist who fitted a special insole into his boot last year.
Such has been the turnaround in the demeanour of Robb, even wife Jacklyn had been slightly unnerved before joining him in Thailand. “’You’re too happy’, she was telling me when we talked on the internet. She said I’m always smiling and that I needed to calm down,” he chortles.
Not now. Jacklyn and 4-year-old son Owen have joined him in the Thai capital. Barring a failure to settle, Robb says he plans to spend at least two years in the Southeast Asian hub – then perhaps see what other opportunities the continent throws up. He expects his wife’s love of shopping, eating out, and activities with their son will be more than satisfied by Thailand. That should mean another set of happy campers in ‘the land of smiles’.
Written by Bryan Kay