Thomas Robert is no stranger to the limelight. Being the son of former France International and Premier League winger Laurent Robert would make it difficult to avoid, I would imagine.
But that same spotlight recently diverted its direction to shine brightest on the young prodigy from Paris back in July as he weighed up his next gig. The attacking midfielder had just turned down a four-year deal with Montpellier and, in doing so, attracted the attention of some of football’s best performers.
Bundesliga. Ligue 1. Premier League. Premiership. Yet Thomas never budged.
But waiting in the wings, and with a glisten in their eye, were the Diamonds. Airdrieonians stepped in to offer Robert Jnr. a route in to first-team football and a return to British soil; a country that Thomas feels most comfortable in from his early years in Newcastle. An understudy no more.
The stage is set and the script is written for the young Frenchman to act out his own story as he bids to eclipse the stratospheric goals set by his father. It may be a sign that his senior career will begin at The Excelsior Stadium, a name derived from the Latin word for ‘Ever Higher’. Oh, wait. It’s The Penny Cars Stadium now, isn’t it? Never mind…
Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the show, so let’s hear from the man in question. We met up in Glasgow’s West End for a coffee and a chat; here’s what was said.
Firstly, tell us about your earliest memories of football. It would be when my dad played for Newcastle. I was born in Paris, but he signed for Newcastle when I was six-months old. So I remember being in the stadium when I was maybe two or three years of age, so that would be my first memory of it and why I love it!
St. James’ Park is a beautiful stadium, isn’t it? Yeah, it is. And the supporters create a good… ambience! (Laughs)
Good word choice! On being the son of Laurent Robert; was it always football for you growing up? I play a little bit of golf and tennis, especially when we are on holiday. But it was always football when it came to choosing a career.
Did you never want to rebel as a teenager and not play the game? No, not at all. It was always my intention to be a football player, so I had it in my head that’s what I would be, and it never changed. The challenge now is to become better than my dad!
Was your father your footballing inspiration growing up? Or were there other players you admired? My dad is an idol of mine for sure as, firstly, he’s my dad! But he was also a very good player; a fantastic player. I did have two or three other inspirations that I looked to when coming through as well, though.
Who would they be? Ben Arfa, Hazard and, of course, Messi and Ronaldo. But these guys are extraterrestrial! (Laughs) So I like to watch a lot of Ben Arfa and take inspiration from him.
After leaving Newcastle United in 2006, Robert Snr. signed for Benfica before moving on to Levante, Derby and Toronto; what do you remember from your early years when your dad was still playing - did you have to move around a lot? Yeah, every time my dad signed for a new club, we all moved with him. It was great to see different countries, cities and cultures. It was good to do it when I was young as I would pick up bits of the language and experience a different style of living.
Did living in different countries also mean that you experienced different styles of play as a young footballer? Not really, as I didn’t start playing properly until we arrived back in Paris when my dad finished his career. I only played with the Benfica youth-team for around six months, so it wasn’t something I managed to do. It was only when I signed for PSG that I began playing football seriously and realised that I wanted to do it as a career.
At which point did you realise you were better than your peers when growing up? I think it was when I signed for Montpellier as a fourteen year-old that I knew I had the ability to progress in football. My dad was always supportive of this as well; he gave me good hints and tips to improve. He actually told me that I was better than him when he was that age! So I just need to work and work to improve and reach his heights.
Just on your early teenage years, did your dad apply any pressure on you when you were playing, or did he let you get on with it? No, he didn’t himself, but I think that, given he was a Premier League player in England, it surrounds me with that element of pressure having his name associated with mine. Even when he came to watch me play, I saw that as pressure to perform.
"I just want to prove myself as a footballer as quick as I can. I don’t want to be at a big club if I am only in the youth team. I will return to the big clubs in the future if I can prove myself as a footballer, and I plan to do that with Airdrie."
You’ve spoken about starting out at PSG then moving to Montpellier; can you give us an insight in to what your youth career was like over in France? In Paris, it was a strange environment for me. The other guys in the team didn’t like that I was Laurent Robert’s son and it created a divide in the dressing room. So that’s why I moved down to Montpellier. But, even when I did move, I still wasn’t very happy in France. Montpellier offered me a long contract but I just didn’t want to stay, that’s why I made the decision to come here!
That makes sense! On the back of turning down that offer, you had a host of clubs looking to sign you. Tell us what your mindset was like at that point - were you excited about trying something new or scared you wouldn’t find the right club? No I wasn’t scared about that. I trusted that my agent would find the right club for me. He told me that Airdrie would be a good fit and it felt right for me as well. I came over, saw the stadium, met the chairman, had a look around Glasgow where I am living, and it was the perfect club for my next move - it felt like a good family.
Did you ask your father for advice? Yeah I spoke to him at length about it. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave France, as much as I wasn’t happy there, as that’s where my family and friends are. But my dad told me I was doing the right thing. It was always my dream to experience British football and base myself here for the majority of my career.
Laurent obviously played in the United Kingdom for a number of years with three different clubs, but how is your knowledge of the Scottish game? I knew a little before I came here. I knew about Celtic, Rangers, and the other big clubs. But it’s difficult as we don’t get access to Scottish games over in France. It would predominantly be the Premier League that I would have watched growing up, either on TV or watching my dad.
Do you think that the speculation linking you with big clubs adds a degree of pressure to you to perform when you take to the field with The Diamonds? No, I just want to prove myself as a footballer as quick as I can. I don’t want to be at a big club if I am only in the youth team. I will return to the big clubs in the future if I can prove myself as a footballer, and I plan to do that with Airdrie.
Your father had a wand of a left foot which specialised in set-pieces and long distance shooting; but how would you describe your style of play? It’s not like my dad - I think I am faster than him! I am right footed, although my left foot isn’t bad!
You mentioned the players who inspired you above - the likes of Hazard, Ben Arfa - would you say your playing style is similar to theirs? Yeah, I would say that. I try anyway!