Bobby Roberts

Former Player Remembers: Bobby Roberts (Part One)

Earlier this season, Club Historian John Hutchinson sat down with Bobby Roberts, a Club record signing in 1963 who went on to play nearly 300 games for Leicester City, including an FA Cup Final.
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Bobby recalled his formative years at Motherwell, why he came to Leicester City, his memories of Leicester City’s League Cup win in 1964 and his tales of playing with and against some of the stars of the 1960s.

Edinburgh-born midfielder Bobby started his career at Motherwell as a 17-year-old in 1958. He began by explaining how he came to be a midfield player having started off as a left-winger and a centre-forward.

“Motherwell were called the ‘Ancell Babes’ at the time," Bobby began. “Their manager Mr Ancell, a lovely man, had a lot of young players in the team as well as some older ones. They had this brilliant forward line of Hunter, Reid, St.John, Quinn and Weir. They were really magic.

"I was just a reserve biding my time and then, by virtue of a couple of injuries and somebody being sold I gradually got into the team, but it was as a forward. A left-winger would you believe! I took over from Andy Weir who was injured and then Ian St. John left for Liverpool and they played me at centre-forward.

"I got a few goals but I was never going to be a centre-forward, not like Ian St. John was. Then our right-half, Charlie Aitken, who was good in the air, was played at centre-forward and I went to right-half.

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Bobby Roberts
Bobby Roberts

Roberts signed for Leicester from Motherwell in 1963, joining for a Club record transfer fee.

"It was like a different game for me. I felt it was much easier to play there than being up front. When Charlie came back to right-half they put me at left-half and from then on, I was always a midfield player.”

While at Motherwell, Bobby was selected for the Scotland Under-23s side and for the Scottish League, as well as being named Player of the Year in 1962. That season he scored in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Glasgow Rangers.

In September 1963, Leicester City paid a club record fee of £41,000 to bring Bobby to Filbert Street to strengthen the famous Ice Kings squad which had been realistic contenders for the league and cup double the previous season.

“Davie Gibson (Leicester City’s Scotland international inside-left) was a friend of mine. When he was at Hibernian he’d trained at Easter Road which wasn’t far from where I lived. Now and again, he’d call round to my place and we knew each other very well.

"With his group we used to go to Gullane beach near Edinburgh on summer days and go to the dancing sometimes. After he’d moved to Leicester (in January 1962), Davie told me how good it was at Leicester.

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Bobby Roberts
Bobby Roberts

Having watched on when Leicester lost 3-1 to Manchester United in the 1963 FA Cup final, Roberts would later play against the Red Devils for the Foxes.

"He told me that the football was different and that it was harder. He got tickets for a friend and me to watch Leicester’s FA Cup final in 1963 against Manchester United, who had only just escaped relegation so Leicester were overwhelming favourites.

"We turned up thinking ‘Davie’s going to collect a medal here’ but Leicester lost. I think what happened was Leicester had played the whole winter on dodgy pitches and then suddenly they were at Wembley which had a beautiful pitch at the time.

"Manchester United had the likes of Giles, Crerand, Quixall and Charlton who were better passers of the ball and the pitch suited them better.

“In Scotland I’d got an Under-23s cap and when I got a Scottish League cap against Ireland there was talk that if I played well I might get into the Scottish team. I thought I’d played well but I was contesting with Dave Mackay, Jim Baxter, John Greig and Billy Bremner, who were all terrific players.

“Then the chance came to move England. Ipswich Town wanted to sign me and I think Newcastle United did. I spoke to (Newcastle legend) Jackie Milburn, but I’d spoken to Davie and I wanted to come to Leicester, so that was it. 

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Leicester City Training 1967
Leicester City Training 1967

The squad receive a pre-match talk from trainer David Jones, who worked alongside Scottish manager Matt Gillies.

“Davie told me afterwards that Leicester had wanted to sign me the previous winter. They thought that even if I couldn’t get a regular game I could come in to help if someone was injured. This might have helped towards the end of the season when (going for the League title) Leicester tailed off, having maybe played too many games.”

When Bobby came to Filbert Street, in the days before substitutes, Frank McLintock and Colin Appleton were very established in the wing-half positions, but this didn’t concern Bobby.

“I could play in the two wing half-positions or the two inside-forward positions. They were virtually the same. In midfield, you do the donkey work, try to get forward and defend when you have to. I never really thought about displacing Frank [McLintock]. It was a just a case of playing.

"But at the start it didn’t quite work because I had a lot of problems with my ankles. (Manager) Gillies kept playing me, sometimes up front. I scored a couple of goals at Everton and played quite well but I knew in my head I wasn’t a centre-forward.

"If I played centre-forward, I’d play deep, I’d come off the centre-half and almost be like a link man, rather than playing up front. They needed somebody up front all the time.”

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Leicester City 1967
Leicester City 1967

The Leicester City squad of 1967 featured a young Peter Shilton, playing alongside Roberts.

Referring to the thunderous shots which became a feature of Bobby’s play, he continued: “I got better chances to do that when I was playing wing-half because the game was in front of me."

At the end of Bobby’s first season at Filbert Street, Leicester City won the League Cup in a two-legged final against Stoke City. Bobby played a crucial part in the two-legged semi-final against a West Ham United side containing future World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst. 

Thinking back, Bobby recalled: “We murdered West Ham at Filbert Street in the first leg. We were 4-1 up and absolutely coasting. I think we must have taken the foot off the pedal and they pulled it back to 4-3 so the second leg was going to be tricky.

"I scored in the 4-3 game. You know when you are playing well and I thought that I did. Then we won 2-0 at West Ham. I think Frank scored and I scored again. When the final came round it wasn’t at Wembley in those days. It was a two-legged final, playing home and away.

 "I can’t remember exactly but I think I’d played in all the games up until then. When the team sheet went up for the Final, I wasn’t on it! There were no subs at that time so if you weren’t in the team you were out. To be fair the team went to Stoke and got a draw and then they won at home without me.

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Frank McLintock
Frank McLintock

Roberts soon found himself coming up against his former midfield partner, Frank McLintock.

"I didn’t play in either leg and he (Matt Gillies) never, ever, explained why. I never asked him either. I thought, ‘Well, he’s left me out, he must have a reason for it.’ To be fair, at that time, I did have a problem with my ankles.

“If I twisted them or went over on them a wee bit they blew up like a balloon, it cost me a few games. There were a couple of times when I was due to play but would turn my ankle a bit in training on the Friday morning and have to miss the game.”

When Frank McLintock, who also missed the 1964 League Cup Final, moved to Arsenal for £80,000 in October 1964, Bobby found himself playing against Frank rather than with him. 

“I loved playing with him at Leicester,” Bobby recalled. “Generally, when we played in midfield together, I always thought I played quite well. We complemented each other. If he went forward, I filled in, and vice versa. He was just one of these guys you wanted to do well with.”

Reflecting on the games he played against the Gunners, Bobby continued: “When Frank moved to Arsenal they had some good players at that time. They were a team that you thought would do better through the ‘60s than they did. When he went there he was still playing in midfield.

“Then Bertie Mee took over as Arsenal’s manager and Don Howe became the coach and they suddenly started to win things. I’d played against Don a few times, they saw Frank’s potential as a defender. He was an all-over-the-park player.

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Leicester City 1967/68
Leicester City 1967/68

Roberts (front row, middle) captained a side that included a young Peter Shilton, during the 1967/68 season.

"He was never captain at Leicester, Colin Appleton was and he was a good lad. When Frank became captain at Arsenal though, it didn’t surprise me. At Leicester, you could tell that he was a born leader. On the pitch, Frank would be the one that was talking to you and driving you on.

 “When we played Arsenal, they had some good players like George Armstrong (who later played for Leicester City when Frank McLintock was manager at Filbert Street) who was a lovely lad and a good wee player who was with me when I later coached in Kuwait. They also had Jon Sammels who later came to Leicester and the goalscorer Jon Radford.

"England international Joe Baker (who had also played for Hibernian and Torino) was there too, he was a terrific finisher. Davie played with him at Hibs. They also had a goalkeeper called Jim Furnell, he made save after save from me.

"There was one game when I must have had about five shots that normally would have been goals and he somehow touched them over the bar. The one time he punched one out, it came to me and I chipped it and then someone headed it away from right under the bar.

“I remember we beat them several times here and down there as well. I remember once playing at Highbury and I think they beat us 4-3, George Eastham (an England international who played a pivotal part in establishing players’ freedom of contract in 1963) was playing for them, it was amazing.

"They told us afterwards that a fan had gone in five minutes before half time to get a cup of tea and then came out five minutes after half time. In those ten minutes of play he missed four goals! He thought it was still 1-1 when he came out and it was something like 4-2!”

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