Friday 23 August 2019

Bliss family Robinson

The Preston striker has taken a long road to the Ireland shirt but the support from those closest to him gives him a sense of belonging, writes David Sneyd

Callum Robinson at yesterday's press conference in Dublin. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Callum Robinson at yesterday's press conference in Dublin. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

The voice outside the dressing room at Preston North End's training ground is unknown, although it is certainly one of Callum Robinson's teammates.

"He's not even Irish, why are you talking to him?" the anonymous individual shouts, in a tone that cannot be easily dismissed as banter.

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Alongside his parents Peter and Claire after a match in 2015
Alongside his parents Peter and Claire after a match in 2015

"See, this is what I get," Robinson sighs.

He begins to leave his seat to try and confirm the identity of the culprit before giving himself an extra second to think and pulling back.

Robinson simply smiles instead.

The 24-year-old smiles about a lot of things over the course of an hour prior to training, just before his club season ended last month and attention turned to Republic of Ireland duty.

He smiles about suffering a hamstring tear last November, an injury which meant the player, who was one of the few positives from a torrid Nations League campaign under Martin O'Neill, was unavailable for new manager Mick McCarthy's opening squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers. It required the first surgery of his career, ruling him out for almost four months at a point when he had already found the net 10 times in the Championship campaign.

"Ye know, it was probably good for me, I'm out of it now. For the long run, mentally, I know now how to deal with being out for so long," Robinson explains.

He smiles about almost being released by Aston Villa at 14, only for the intervention of one of his coaches, Sean Verity, to give him a further year to develop. "I was tiny, I was so small, I wasn't growing at all, but that's when I kicked on, thankfully," Robinson recalls.

When there is adversity or pain, Robinson simply greets the struggle with a smile. The biggest one of all is reserved for memories of his childhood, in particular the relationship with his mother, Claire.

Pride

Since first being brought into the Ireland set-up last summer, having represented England from Under-16 level to Under-21s, Robinson has explained the pride she feels that her son now plays for the country where her own mother was originally from.

He has given the overview of the family tale before. Anne Deighan moved to the English midlands from Monaghan 50 years ago but was killed in a car crash when Claire was just nine.

"You always get the question, because you're born in England and play for Ireland, they feel like you're not committed and just doing it because you can't play for England. It's ridiculous, really. When you're younger, I got picked for England," Robinson begins.

"I understand the doubts because you're not born in Ireland but you can still have the same feelings and the same emotions - 100 per cent. It means much more to me to be making my Mum happier playing for Ireland than if I played for England. Who am I really making happy then? Whereas the smiles on my mum's face, the emotion, that's what it's about."

Robinson then starts to peel back the layers of what turned into a complicated life for Claire after her mother passed away. Her father re-married, starting a new family that she never quite felt part of. That loss extended to her mother's side in Ireland and, at 15, she left home to live in a flat by herself.

Claire fell pregnant at 19, having started a relationship with Peter, who is of Jamaican descent, and Callum arrived soon after. When he was three his parents - who never married - split. It was an amicable break up, their relationship remains strong to this day, and he lived with his mother in their home on Abbey Road - "not the famous one, the one in Northampton" - while spending weekends with his father and his new family.

Claire knew how it felt to lose a family as a child so was determined her own son wouldn't suffer the same fate. "If there is anything important my mum would be the first person I'd call," Robinson insists. "It's funny because you can have different relationships with your mum and dad. There are things I would tell my dad that I couldn't tell my mum, because we're like best friends, I'd be thinking 'I can't tell my mum that' but then there is probably more serious stuff that I would tell my mum. It's good that I've got that balance, I've always had it."

It meant he was able to go through his childhood smiling, for the most part, something Claire was not always able to do.

"She never had it easy. When grandad remarried it was hard. For any kid, your parent passes away and then there is another mum figure in the house, grandad had more kids when he re-married. That made it harder, she moved out so young and was on her own.

"She lost quite a bit of her young life by having me. I say to her it was a blessing to have me, she says it was bloody hard work," Robinson adds fondly. "She's a strong woman and when I think I'm worried about something it's good to speak to her because I realise it's not a real worry, she has had it much harder.

"She has done so much for me, I still get it from my girlfriend now, 'look at you, she does everything for you, you're a grown man'."

His smile turns into a booming laugh. "It makes me happy that I make her happy. It's not just a football thing and being able to play for Ireland, I can see the joy that she gets from that but I could be working on the bins and she would still be like 'you're doing a great job, Callum. Well done, Callum'.

"What I'm doing now, I get to help her, support her, playing for Ireland makes her happy so it's all worthwhile. She's smiling."

But the case of belonging - Irish, English or both - has also brought much strife for Robinson and his mother. FAI scout Mark O'Toole realised his eligibility when he was an Under-15, along with Jack Grealish, but an administrative error with Claire's mother's paperwork led to an identity crisis.

"Because of what happened and how mum grew up, she lost contact with her family in Ireland. She used to go over all the time, she knew she was Irish but it all sort of stopped when granny passed away.

"Before I ever played a game for England I was supposed to come over at 15 and play for Ireland against Hungary but there was a name difference, we know now what it was. We went to get paperwork done and when we did we couldn't find my granny in the system, which wasn't good for my mam. That messed my mam up, it wasn't good for her at all. There was a letter missing in the paperwork so we couldn't get it sorted.

"That messed her up for a few years, she was doubting everything. It was tough and then six months later I got called up for England and just ended up going through their system.

Together

"That's another good thing about playing for Ireland, it brings everyone together. There is family in Ireland my Mam is back in touch with. It's a lot more than me just saying "ah yeah, I'll go and play for Ireland then". Some people still won't buy into that, they won't believe that when I say it which is hard, but I know myself in my heart."

The way his parents maintained a bond, despite no longer being a couple, provided Robinson with the structure needed to persevere through the Aston Villa academy from the age of eight. Neither Claire nor Peter drove in those early days, so it was an uncle who brought his nephew to that first trial.

"There was a big hall with all these kids, there must have been a hundred and he said years later that he was thinking 'what are we even doing here?'"

His Mam and Dad eventually passed their driving tests, but it was Peter who carried out most of the chauffeur duties as his ex-partner worked as a receptionist in Northampton College. Callum, though, was not a model student and left school when he was 15, often pretending to get ready in the mornings before Claire left for work and then simply playing FIFA for the day before training in the evening.

"School just didn't appeal to me. It wasn't because of football, some teachers thought that, it was never because I thought I was going to be a footballer. I knew that it was never a guarantee to become a footballer.

"There were times when I thought it wasn't going to happen, I saw friends going off at weekends, down the park with girls, stuff I always had to keep away from, even when my confidence with football was low."

Robinson made his Villa debut in the Premier League at 18 but it is only now, six years later, that he feels as if he is beginning to finally understand what is required to make it at the very top.

"Fabian Delph used to say to me at Villa, 'how am I coming in here before you and leaving after you?' He was so right, I got comfortable, now I always want to be better than who I am playing against. I want to take you on and my mindset is 'I wanna do you today'. If it doesn't work then fair enough but I will go back and do it again and again. That's how I'm thinking."

And he's doing it with a smile on his face.

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