Bobby (third left, front row of main image) was one of many promising players whose career started at Leicester City before going on to make his mark elsewhere in a career which boasted nearly 300 games and well over 100 goals. ‘Bobby off the Saff’ became something of a cult hero, even featuring in the lyrics of a song released in 1995 by the rock band Half Man Half Biscuit.
Bobby’s footballing life began as a schoolboy at the old Linwood School on Leicester’s Saffron Lane estate. Until it closed in the 1970s, this school provided more players for Leicester City than any other school. They included Norman Plummer (Leicester City’s 1949 FA Cup Final captain), Jim Harrison (who also played in the 1949 FA Cup Final) and Graham Cross (who played a record 599 games for Leicester City, including two FA Cup Finals and two League Cup Finals). Other ex-Linwood pupils who went on to play for the City included Svarc, Alan Tewley, Clive Walker, Neville Hamilton and Derek Dawkins.
Carefully stored at Leicester City, there is an amazing archive which records, in meticulous handwritten detail, the match reports and statistical records of every single game played by every single Linwood team, from 1929 through to 1968. They indicate that as a mere 12-year-old Bobby broke into the school’s first team, scoring seven goals in one match.
Recalling these schoolboy years, Bobby began: “If there were any talented lads at primary schools outside the Linwood area, they used to make sure they went to Linwood. While I was at Linwood I played in the same teams as Graham Cross, Alan Tewley and Clive Walker. All four of us went on to play for Leicester City in the old First Division. I was a bit rebellious at school, but I had quite a bit of ability and was picked for teams with lads who were two or three years, older than myself.
“I left school when I was 15," Bobby continued. “I worked for Wigston Laundry for a bit. Then, on my own initiative I went to Filbert Street and asked for a trial, because I thought I was as good as any of the apprentices there. The manager was Matt Gillies who said, ‘We know you can play, but can you behave yourself?!’
“I joined the Club as an apprentice in 1961. George Dewis looked after us. I was an apprentice professional for two years, then I became a full professional when I was 17 years-old. In April 1964, I played in the first team for the first time in Colin Appleton’s testimonial game against an All Star XI. I played the full game, scored five goals and hit the post as well.
1959/60 Linwood side
Bobby is pictured in a 1959/60 Linwood team photo (second left, middle row).
“I made my debut against Peterborough in the League Cup in September 1964 when Ken Keyworth was injured. He was a good centre-forward and a nice lad.”
Bobby was still only 17 when he made his debut in the league. He had good close control, could turn quickly, had a good shot and was a good header of the ball.
“My first division debut was an evening game against West Brom,” he recalled. “We beat them 4-2. I scored. I can remember Ian King running up to me from the centre-half position and saying, ‘Well done Bob. I hope that’s the start of many for you'.
“I then had a run of games against Blackpool, Fulham, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. We won at Anfield against Bill Shankly’s Liverpool and that was lovely. We beat them 1-0. They were all over us. Banksy (Gordon Banks) was absolutely brilliant for us. Their team included great players like Tommy Lawrence, Chris Lawler, Peter Thompson, Tommy Smith, Gordon Milne, Ron Yeats, Willie Stevenson, Ron Yeats and Ian St John. I remember coming off and as I was going down the steps, someone tapped me on the backside and said, ‘Well done son!’. It was Ian St John.
“In that run of matches, there was also a game against Forest. It was on Match of the Day. I’ve only got a little bit of the tape. I’ve tried in the past to get the full match but I’ve not been able to get it.
“There were some great players at the Club and some really strong reserve players as well, like Clive Walker, Alan Tewley, Max Dougan and Tom Sweenie who had a very bad knee injury which finished his career. My career was also hindered by injury. I had a cartilage operation when I was 20. That slowed me down a bit. In those days they used to take the lot out.
“Bert Johnson was coach at the Club and he was very good. I played with his son for Leicester Boys. The manager was Matt Gillies. I respected Mr. Gillies. He was a very smart man.
“Years later I’d heard that he’d had had a stroke. I went to the secretary’s office at Leicester and asked where he lived. At that time he lived in Nottinghamshire. I went to his house, knocked the door. There was no answer. I knocked it again, no answer. Then the lady next door came out, and said he’d had a stroke and would come to the door when he was ready.
Bert Johnson was coach at the Club and he was very good. I played with his son for Leicester Boys. The manager was Matt Gillies. I respected Mr. Gillies. He was a very smart man.Bobby Svarc
“He came to the door eventually. I said hello and introduced myself. ‘Bobby Svarc!’ he exclaimed. He grabbed hold of my hand and pulled me in the house. We got talking and he said, ‘Bobby! I had such high hopes for you, but you would never conform!’
In Bobby’s time at Filbert Street, the Club was well blessed with good forwards, such as Ken Keyworth, Jimmy Goodfellow, Jackie Sinclair, Derek Dougan, Ally Brown, Mike Stringfellow and British transfer fee record holder Allan Clarke. Feeling that his chances in the first team were limited Bobby moved to Fourth Division Lincoln City in December 1968.
“When I went to Lincoln City,” Bobby remembered, “it was a bad move. There was no one to direct me. The move didn’t really work for me there although I scored a few goals there.”
While he was at Lincoln, Bobby went on loan to Barrow in September 1970.
“I was taken there by their manager, my old captain at Leicester City Colin Appleton,” Bobby recalled. "But I was recalled by Lincoln when the two clubs met in the FA Cup."
At Lincoln City Bobby played with Jim Smith who later went on to become a high profile manager at the helm of nine different clubs, He was to figure very largely in Bobby’s subsequent career.
Bobby spent eight years at the Foxes before moving to Lincoln City in 1968.
“When he became a manager, Jim Smith took me wherever he went,” Bobby continued. “He was a very good and enthusiastic manager. He knew the game. It’s unlucky he didn’t have a lot of money to spend because he would have been a top, top manager. He knew how to get a side together. He knew what he wanted and he didn’t get excitable.
“In October 1971 he took me from Lincoln City to Northern Premier League high-fliers Boston United where he was player-manager. They were a very good Northern Premier League side. That season they finished runners-up to Stafford Rangers but in the days before play-offs, Boston didn’t get enough votes to be elected to the Football League.”
In October 1972, Colchester United, towards the bottom of the Fourth Division, appointed Jim Smith as their player-manager and two months later he paid Boston United £6,000 for Bobby’s services. That season, as Colchester finished towards the bottom of the Fourth Division, Bobby scored eight goals, but the following season, Bobby was top scorer with 26 goals, helping Colchester United to promotion. He was also the U’s top scorer the following season with another 25 goals.
Bobby Roberts, who had been another of Bobby’s team-mates at Leicester City, was coach at Colchester.
“I liked Bobby. He was a good coach although he could be a little fiery! Then he became manager at Layer Road replacing Jim Smith who had become manager at Blackburn Rovers."
In September 1977, I went on loan to Watford. Graham Taylor was the manager there and I’d played with him at Lincoln too. In my first kick of the game, I got the ball, my knee went and that finished my career.Bobby Svarc
Bobby’s decision to reject term at Colchester United and move to Blackburn Rovers with Jim Smith is immortalised in the lyrics of a song released in 1995 called ‘Fear My Wraith’ by the rock band Half Man Half Biscuit. The song ends with the line, ‘I heard the news today, oh boy, Svarc rejects new layer terms'.
Thinking back to this time, Bobby recalled: “In October 1975, when Bobby Roberts became manager, Smithy brought me for the third time, this time for £25,000. Jim Smith was there all the time I was Blackburn where I was top goalscorer. We didn’t have a bad side. I enjoyed it at Blackburn. There were all cobbled stones outside the ground. They used to take cups of tea made in an old tea urn to the players at half-time. It was a very homely and down to earth club. It reminded me a lot of Leicester.
“In September 1977, I went on loan to Watford. Graham Taylor was the manager there and I’d played with him at Lincoln too. In my first kick of the game, I got the ball, my knee went and that finished my career. I’d had trouble with my knee before. I went to see a specialist on the Monday, he looked at it and told me I was finished. That was it. When that happens you get lost really. I had a bit of a bad time. A lot of players do.”
Bobby then explained what happened next: “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness and have been for years,” he said. “I got baptised in 1975 when I was still playing at Blackburn. When I finished playing, one of the brothers suggested that I used my name and become a burglar alarm installer, which I did. I started up a burglar alarm business, which I still do part time. I’m 73 now and I’ve got a living out of it ever since.”
Bobby concluded by saying that he has fond memories of his time at Leicester and hopes to be a visitor at King Power Stadium for a game later this season.
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