If Andy Robertson has proved anything it’s that there’s no one sure-fire way to make it to the top.
The Scotland captain’s journey from an early setback to leading his country, via an appearance in the Champions League Final, is already the stuff of legend.
He will doubtless inspire a whole new generation of Scots to dust themselves down from an early disappointment and go again.
Among them is 18-year-old right-back Kieran Freeman, a Scottish FA Performance School graduate and youth international who had the world at his feet when he swapped Dundee United for Southampton back in the summer of 2016.
The Saints have a proven track record for developing young talent and the signs were all promising for the former St John’s High School pupil, who was a long-term target of Manchester United.
Sadly since then his progress has been derailed by three serious injuries but, as he works his way back to full fitness, Freeman believes he is stronger for the hardships and credited Robertson for helping fuel his determination to come back even stronger.
Kieran, you were only 16 when you moved to Southampton and it’s fair to say you’ve not had the best of luck since then. Talk us through what’s happened to you since you left Dundee United.
Where do I start? When I moved to Southampton I went to Italy as part of the pre-season. I had a good two months of training while I waited for international clearance. Then, on the day that came through, I did the ACL in my right leg. It kept me out for nine months. I was integrated back into pre-season training the following summer, only to suffer a meniscus tear that required an operation and three months on the sidelines again. Southampton were patient and built me back up gradually over a five or six-month period. I felt back to normal when I went over my left knee in training and knew, from experience, that it was a repeat of the original injury.
An injury like that is hard enough for a young player to get their head around without doing it twice, especially when you’re so far from home. How have you come to terms with it all?
It’s obviously been tough because no-one will do the rehab work for you. You have to put in the graft. But, mentally, I’ve felt a lot stronger second time around. I feel very different dealing with this now at 18 than I did when I was 16. I’d never been injured before and didn’t have a clue what it entailed. Now I know exactly what it takes to get the most out of rehab. I feel as if I’ve had to grow up pretty quickly. Southampton have also been great. They’ve gone above and beyond to look after me, whether it’s letting me go home from time to time to catch up with family and friends or reassuring me that I didn’t have to worry about a contract, that I was just to get myself right and that I would have time to show what I can do. I owe a lot to Ross Wilson. He’s our Director of Football Operations and a fellow Scotsman. He keeps in close contact just to see how I’m doing. He’ll often come over to speak to me at lunch, for example, and he’s just generally a good guy. It’s nice to know people like that want the best for you. I’ve also spoken to Stuart Armstrong. I was only in the Under-13s when he was at Dundee United so he wouldn’t have remembered me from back then but I think he’ll go on to be a great signing for Southampton.
What’s the rough schedule at the moment?
I’m hoping to be in and around the squad to train in December which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t too far away now. I’ve done some work with a sports psychologist at Southampton, whether it’s as a squad or individually, and I’ve found that helps. It gives you perspective on an injury when it would be easy to get downhearted or distracted. I’ve been keen to make sure I’ve made the most of my time out and used to work on areas that you might not otherwise get the chance to when games are coming thick and fast. I want to be better for the whole experience.
You’ve had some support from a familiar face?
When I picked up the last injury I got a message from Andy Robertson, which came totally out of the blue. It’s not exactly an everyday thing to hear from someone like him. He told me that he’d had an early setback that he’d had to overcome but that I had to stick in and keep fighting. He said he hoped to see me in a Scotland shirt one day. I still look at that message every so often, whenever I think I’m in a bad situation. It would be around this age that Andy would have been working his way back up the ranks. Now he’s played in a Champions League Final and is captain of Scotland. It really has helped keep my head up. It was a nice touch and sums up the kind of guy he is. It might be a small thing for him to do but he should know that it means a lot to me. I think to myself that if he had let his head drop then he wouldn’t have got to where he is now. His hunger sets him apart and he’s a great example to other young Scottish players like me.
Finally, Kieran, how do you look back on your time within the Scottish FA JD Performance School programme?
I graduated from St John’s and it’s the best thing I could have done. To get that extra coaching every day – something like 800 hours in the end – is something you maybe take for granted when you’re there but I look back on it and think how lucky I was. It’s been good to see other boys who were in and around my group, like Logan Chalmers and Zak Rudden, kick on. My coach, Iain Jenkins, was a big influence on me and I’ll always be grateful for the work he put in to help me improve. I was also involved with the Scotland youth teams at that point and really enjoyed working with Scot Gemmill. When I was coming back from my injuries I would hear wee things about the staff keeping tabs on my progress and that has also been good for my spirits. I am determined to show Southampton they were right to take me down here and I really want to pull that Scotland shirt on again. That keeps me going.