EXCLUSIVE: By CALLUM SCOTT
Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar da Silva, Lionel Messi …and Robbie Muirhead. No, that’s right, you don’t have to re-read that and your eyes are working fine.
In 2015 the lad from Shortlees in Kilmarnock earned the right for his name to be gasped in the same breath as these footballing phenomenons. It came to fruition when then, 19-year-old; Robbie was nominated for the UEFA Goal of the Season award amongst these extraordinary footballing talents.
Laughing, Muirhead simply states: “It was nuts and just totally unexpected.
“I just remember waking up one day and getting all these retweets coming through my phone. Obviously it was my goal again and was thinking ‘what’s happening here?’ as the goal was from the year before. Then once I clicked onto it I seen I was up for UEFA’s best goal which was great to get recognition for.”
However, Muirhead wasn’t ever going to get carried away with his wonder strike against Norway for the Scotland u-19s. When I asked him what he thought his chances were the Hearts forward was quick to dismiss them.
He quipped: “They select the top ten and I finished ninth but I’m never going to win because I’m against the calibre of Messi, Ronaldo, and the like.”
Robbie recollects being taken to Rugby Park with his papa at a young age before being influenced by players like Michael Owen and David Beckham. He’d then go on to make his papa and the rest of his family proud –to whom he hails as his biggest influences- by signing for his home team of Kilmarnock but in an unfamiliar position now looking back:
“I was a left back up until I was 16 but I remember at u-13s or something I scored about 34 goals from there.
“It wasn’t until halfway through the season in u-17s that Paul Wright realised I was one of the worst defenders on the planet!
“I remember one game against Dunfermline, I lost the ball and started jogging backwards and he just went off his head, shortly after that I started playing up front.”
Shortly after this transformation Robbie went on to make his debut for Killie in a, what seemed like meaningless, end of season game against St Mirren. An extremely proud moment for Robbie and his family:
“I was buzzing. That’s what you play football for and it’s what you dream about as a wee boy. I did feel overcome with emotion that day after working so hard to get there. I’m no going to lie, there are only a lucky few who go on to do it (play professionally) and I was lucky enough that I am one of them.
“I’ve grew up in the town, my papa is a Killie fan, my dad is a Killie fan, my mum is Killie fan so it’s in the family. I know Killie fans who follow the club home and away so it did mean a lot to me. The home town boy playing for his home town team.”
However, a 3-1 defeat that day saw Kenny Shiels’ reign as manager come to an end but it was Shiels’ successor, Allan Johnston, who really gave Muirhead his chance to prove himself:
“It was good playing under him, I enjoyed it. Because that was the guy who really, really gave me my start in the game. Obviously Kenny gave me a taster but Allan Johnston really showed a lot of faith in me to start games and it’s something I appreciate.”
However, not even the faith Johnston showed in him would keep the hot prospect at the club. After months of contract talks, – or lack of – eventually breaking down and on January Deadline Day, 2015 would see the forward up sticks, and move to Tannadice in a fee worth £150,000.
It’s no secret that Muirhead had his contract disputes with Killie but the 20-year-old showed a lot of maturity by not dwelling on ‘what could have been’ at his hometown club:
“It was the same with Greg Kiltie, and in fact it’s the same for most young boys who come through the system in Scotland, they will not give you as good a deal as what a boy from down south would get.
“In my personal opinion, they make you feel like you owe them something although you don’t owe them anything, but that’s just my own opinion and it happens to a lot of young boys in this country.”
Things started off well with Muirhead at Tannadice but because of his January move, the then 19-year-old missed out on playing in a national final at Hampden for United but it’s not something he lets get to him too much:
“I was cup-tied because I played against Ayr for Killie. So at the same time, I don’t let it get to me because I got to play against them. You can look at it that I missed a cup final but I played against Ayr and we beat them 1-0 at Rugby Park.
‘I’m an Ayrshire boy, so you want to play in the Ayrshire derby and if you beat Ayr 1-0 then it’s happy days isn’t it?”
The next season would see Muirhead on the move again, this time coming back down the road on loan to Partick Thistle.
The ex-Killie star admits it was a move which surprised him but it was a move which he enjoyed:
“I really enjoyed my time at Thistle, it was a good bunch of boys and a good club. The fans aren’t on top of you, I don’t want to say they don’t have high expectations, but they don’t have as high expectations as Kilmarnock and Dundee United – they have far more realistic expectations.”
Maybe Muirhead’s fond memories of Thistle are linked to their 5-2 hammering of his old club Killie, to which Robbie had his finest 90 minutes for the Firhill side.
The forward bagged two goals that day including a screamer from all of 30-yards in his return to Rugby Park:
“It was my first start against Killie and I just wanted to prove a point. I used to get a bit of stick from some of the fans, so I just wanted to prove them wrong and that probably spurred me on more that day.”
However, Muirhead does not let comments from fans get to him, the 20-year-old concedes that it used to get to him but it’s just water off a duck’s back to him now:
“When I was younger I used to take it to heart and it did get to me but as you get older you learn you have to be thick skinned to play football. It’s just one of those things you have to deal with in the game.”
Muirhead modestly added: “You have to accept criticism as well as you do with praise.”
A miserable last few months at Tannadice -which Muirhead admitted was the lowest he’s ever felt in the game- saw him frozen out of Mixu Paatelainen’s squad which eventually was consigned to life in the Championship. But Robbie drew the conclusion that he wouldn’t have been part of Mixu’s plans come the end of the season:
“It’s just one of these things in football and you can’t change people’s thoughts of you over night.
“I think I just accepted the fact that if Mixu was there then I wasn’t going to play, so I had to go if I wanted to play football. When you’re in Dundee and two hours away from your family, you have a lot of time to make up scenarios in your head and think of things. Taking this into consideration I just accepted the fact I wouldn’t play under him.”
Although disappointed that things didn’t work out at United, Muirhead is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and now the forward is enjoying his football again, playing for Hearts.
A club with rich history and Muirhead now knows this first hand:
“You don’t realise the size of the club until you actually go there and you’re staying in the city. For me, I thought this was a good opportunity to go and play my football there.
“I loved Tynecastle as an away ground anyway because the fans are tight to the pitch and I enjoy that.”
Muirhead was the hero of last Wednesday night after scoring both goals in Robbie Neilson’s last game as Hearts boss and the forward will be forever in debt to his old Hearts gaffer for resurrecting his career:
“This is the most I’ve ever enjoyed my football.
“I’ve gone from thinking it might not be for me to completely falling back in love with it.
“So, so much of that is down to Robbie and I’ll always be grateful to him for everything he’s done for me.”
The 20-year-old was even considering chucking the game after his stint at Tannadice before he bounced back under Neilson at Hearts:
“When you don’t play for six months you start to doubt yourself, you start to doubt your ability, and you start to doubt whether football is the thing for you.
“There’s players that go through spells like that in their career but it’s about how you react, and how you become better as a player – and I think I have done this fairly well.”
Some have questioned whether a one-year contract was the right move for Muirhead, due to the fact there is no long-term security but it’s something that never even crossed the forward’s mind:
“I think it’s better because maybe I did rest on my laurels up at United but this keeps you on your toes and makes you fight for your place in the team.”
The Scotland u-19 cap is far from the finished article and when asked what the future holds for one of Scotland’s hottest prospect, Muirhead prudently states: “Just to have a club for next year. Whether it is or isn’t Hearts, as long as I’m still playing football.”
It’s fair to say that if Muirhead continues the form he has shown at Hearts so far this term, the 20-year-old won’t have to worry about where he is playing his football next season. There is still plenty more to come from this raw, Scottish talent.