Bobby Roberts

Former Player Remembers: Bobby Roberts

Bobby Roberts was Leicester City’s record signing in 1963. He also had the experience of managing a club in European competition.
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Earlier this month, prompted by the two-legged UEFA Europa Conference tie against Randers FC, Bobby sat down at King Power Stadium to recall his career as a coach and a manager and how, as Wrexham’s manager, he was involved in a memorable run in the European Cup Winners’ Cup when his side, against all the odds, beat Porto and then faced Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Roma.  

Leicester signed Motherwell wing-half Bobby in September 1963 for a then Club record fee of £40,000. He went on to play nearly 300 games for the Foxes including the 1969 FA Cup Final. He left Filbert Street for Mansfield Town in September 1970, where he spent two seasons, before turning his attention to coaching.

Thinking back, Bobby began: “After two years at Mansfield, there wasn’t another contract coming and I got the chance to become youth team coach at Coventry which was really good. I was there for about six months. At that time, Jim Smith, who I’d met on coaching courses when we were both doing our badges, was manager at Colchester. When his coach left, he rang me to ask if I’d be interested in the job. I went to Colchester, we took to each other and I took the job.

“He was a great bloke, absolutely brilliant. He was called the Bald Eagle, but he was very knowledgeable. He knew everybody, had contacts everywhere, and was as sharp as a tack. His record at all the clubs he managed over the years was terrific. Years later, I worked with him again at Derby and at Oxford.

“When Jim left Colchester to manage Blackburn (in 1975), I took over as Colchester’s manager.

“When he left, he took our goalscorer, the ex-Leicester City striker Bobby Svarc with him. What a goalscorer Bobby was! Against my advice, the board sold him to Blackburn for virtually nothing. I think it was £20,000. He did very well at Blackburn.

“I never thought about becoming manager. I enjoyed coaching. Jim had liked the administration side, which he was very good at, and left the coaching to me. When I took over as manager, I still wanted to coach. I had a coaching assistant and we did all the coaching together. I enjoyed working with the players. I was okay with the administration, but I tended to leave that to others.

“We had some good young players at Colchester like Ian Allinson and Perry Groves, who both went to Arsenal. We got promoted but then went down again. We always had to sell our best players to balance the books.”

When I was appointed, I was told there was a slight problem with finances and that the club was £50,000 in debt. When I got working with the secretary, the debt was actually £500,000. They’d missed a nought off!

Bobby Roberts

Bobby was manger at Colchester for seven years. He then became manager at Wrexham, where he found himself competing against Porto and Roma, two of Europe’s most prominent clubs, in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Explaining how this happened, Bobby continued: “When I left Colchester (in 1982), within a month I got a call from Wrexham asking if I was interested in becoming their manager. I went up for interview at Chester and they gave me the job straightaway. Apparently, when Colchester had played Wrexham at Colchester that season, we took the team for lunch at the hotel where Wrexham had stayed overnight. When I gave my team talk in a room in the hotel, two Wrexham directors were listening behind the door. They’d liked what they heard so, when their managerial vacancy came up, they got in touch. I didn’t have to do anything. They just said: ‘The job is yours!’    

“When I was appointed, I was told there was a slight problem with finances and that the club was £50,000 in debt. When I got working with the secretary, the debt was actually £500,000. They’d missed a nought off!

“I’d have taken the job anyway. They had some good players. Then the chairman, who gave me the job, got cold feet over the finances and he resigned before I had the chance to get anything done. The guy who took over didn’t fancy me and that was a real barrier.

“I was at Wrexham for three years, but it should have been better than it was. We had to sell the experienced players who were on better wages. They had to go. We lost Eddie Niedzwiecki, a brilliant ’keeper, to Chelsea, who were managed by John Neal, a previous Wrexham manager. Joey Jones, who had played for Liverpool, was also sold to Chelsea, because he was on better wages than some of the young players. I didn’t want to transfer him, but the chairman sold him for only £50,000 even though I told him I could sell him for more. I thought we gave him away. There were other players who had to leave too who were really good and dependable at that level. This meant that I had to get in youngsters and free transfers.”

Bobby then went on to explain how his Wrexham side had an unbelievable campaign in 1984/85 when they competed in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

“Winners of the Welsh Cup qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup,” Bobby continued. “Three or four English teams also played in the Welsh Cup like Hereford, Shrewsbury and Worcester.

“In 1982/83, we were drawn against Worcester. The ’keeper who had taken over from Niedzwieki wasn’t fit for the game and the reserve goalkeeper was a 16 year-old, so I played in goal as a 41 year-old. I’d done this once before, for Leicester at Old Trafford for 10 or 15 minutes when [Peter] Shilton got injured. I’ve got a great photo at home with me punching the ball away with George Best trying to head it. That was as close as I ever got to Best!

“We drew 1-1 and won the replay with the goalkeeper fit again. We beat Hereford in the semi-final, and then faced Shrewsbury in the final. They were a good side and they beat us over two legs. However, we knew we would be in the Cup Winners’ Cup the following year as Shrewsbury was an English club, so they didn’t qualify.

“In the first round of the Cup Winners’ Cup, we were drawn against Porto, who had reached the final the season before. Due to our finances, there was no chance of me flying to Portugal to watch them but Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side had played Porto so I rung him to asked if there was anything he could do to help us. He was absolutely brilliant. He sent me a video and a dossier about how they played and what we could expect from them.

“Shortly afterwards, he came to Filbert Street with his Aberdeen side to play in a match to celebrate Leicester City’s centenary. Before that game, on the same evening, I played in a 20-minute each way match between Leicester City teams from the 1960s the 1970s and I managed to speak to him again. He couldn’t have been any more helpful.

I rang Jim McLean, whose Dundee United side had been beaten by Roma the year before in the European Cup. He had the reputation of being a bit brusque and short. I’d never met the guy but he was absolutely brilliant.

Bobby Roberts

“Porto were a good team. They had a new sensation, Paulo Futre, playing for them. We knew Porto were in a different league from us, but when I studie  the video and the dossier, although they had big lads at the back, I didn’t think they were that great in the air and that we could cause them problems from set pieces.

“In the first game, they played really well, but we beat them 1-0. Jim Steel scored a late goal. I’d got Jim initially on loan from Oldham. He was brilliant for us. He was a big lad, a target man and good in the air. He terrified their centre-halves. It could have been 5-5. Both sides hit the woodwork three times.

“Then we went to Porto for the second leg. We were there for three days and it never stopped raining. It absolutely bucketed it down. It never stopped. We were 3-0 down after 20 minutes! Their first goal was a dodgy penalty, the second looked offside then they scored a really good third goal.

“We’d done a lot of work on set pieces in training because I thought we could give them problems with free-kicks and corners and, just before half-time, we scored two rapid goals from corners. All of a sudden it it was 3-2.

“In the second half, it was nip and tuck, but they scored with about 20 minutes to go, making it 4-2, but we kept pegging away. We had a young team, with two or three youth players and one of them crossed to (future Everton player) Barry Horne, who I’d signed for £2,500. He never hit a better ball in his life. He connected with his right foot and it went into the top corner, so now it was 4-3, 4-4 on aggregate and we went through to the next round on the away goals rule. It was the first time that Porto had ever conceded three goals at home.

“In the next round, we played Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Roma. The previous season, they had been beaten in a penalty shootout by Liverpool in the European Cup Final.

“Once again, I couldn’t fly out to take a look at them, so I rang Jim McLean, whose Dundee United side had been beaten by Roma the year before in the European Cup. He had the reputation of being a bit brusque and short. I’d never met the guy but he was absolutely brilliant. Like Ferguson, he sent me a dossier and a video of their match against Roma.

Falcão, who hadn’t played in the first game, played in the second leg at Wrexham in front of 14,000 fans. He controlled the game.

Bobby Roberts

“In Roma’s team were the Brazilians [Paulo Roberto] Falcão and [Toninho] Cerezo, who could run all day. I felt that Cerezo either had three lungs or he’d got an oxygen mask tucked under his jersey. They were a class outfit with a few Italian internationals as well.

“The first leg was at Olympic Stadium in Rome. In the first half, we did well. They hadn’t really threatened then, just before half-time, they got a corner kick, and their centre-forward handled the ball. The referee said it was one of our players who had handled it. He gave a penalty and they scored. It was obvious that it was their guy who had handled it!

“Then Cerezo scored their second with a 25-yarder. It was an absolute screamer! I think, if we’d had two goalkeepers, we still wouldn’t have stopped it! We lost 2-0.

“Falcão, who hadn’t played in the first game, played in the second leg at Wrexham in front of 14,000 fans. He controlled the game. He could slow the game right down and we found it difficult to get the ball off him. He was a world-class player playing against Fourth Division players. We gave everything but there was a big gulf. We weren’t ever going to be able to outplay them. What we had to do was to get chances or half chances when the ball entered the box. The idea was if we got a free-kick or a corner kick, we had to try to knock the ball into the box and then see what happened. If they went short, we’d go long and visa versa. It did throw them a bit but Roma were good defensively. They scored in the second half and we lost 1-0.”

Bobby continued to work in football for many years after his time at Wrexham, including managing Grimsby Town, coaching in Kuwait and at Leicester City, and working with Jim Smith again as chief scout at Derby County and Oxford United.  

However, reflecting on these European exploits, Bobby concluded: “To qualify for that tournament and then to play against two of the top teams at that time was probably the highlight of my managerial career.”

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