Bobby Roberts

Former Player Remembers: Bobby Roberts

Bobby Roberts, who was Leicester City’s record signing in 1963, played many games against Manchester City, the Foxes' most recent Premier League opponents. Last month, at his home in Leicestershire, he spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about some of these encounters against sides which contained such stars as Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee.

In September 1963, Leicester signed wing-half Roberts, a Scotland Under-23s international, from Motherwell for a Club record fee of £41,000. Over the next seven seasons, six of which were in the old First Division, he went on to make 281 appearances for the Foxes, scoring 36 goals. His appearances included a League Cup Final and an FA Cup Final.

In the four seasons between 1965/66 and 1968/69, Leicester played an astonishing 13 times against Manchester City. Eight of these matches were cup ties, six of which were FA Cup ties, a sequence which included two memorable replays. At this time Man City, under the guidance of manager Joe Mercer and his assistant Malcolm Allison, won the Second Division title in 1966, the First Division title 1968 and the FA Cup a year later, when they defeated Leicester City at Wembley.

Bobby only missed one of the 13 games in this four-year period against Man City and he played in all eight of the cup ties. Sitting in his lounge last week, Bobby thought back to these games.

He started by recalling the fifth round FA Cup tie at Maine Road in March 1966, six months after Mercer’s side had defeated Leicester 3-1 at the same ground in the League Cup. It was a 2-2 draw. Right winger Jackie Sinclair and left winger Mike Stringfellow netted for Leicester and Neil Young scored twice for the home side.

“Yes, it was 2-2 at Maine Road,” Bobby recalled. “I think it was Jackie Sinclair who had a goal disallowed which would have put us 3-1 ahead. That would have seen us home and dry if it had been allowed to stand. Jackie was a good finisher. He got 20-odd goals from the wing that season and the next season also. If he got a chance, you always thought he was going to score, and he generally did.”

The replay was four days later under the floodlights in front of a Filbert Street crowd of nearly 42,000.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Bobby recalled. “I remember that game very clearly. Neil Young scored with a shot that Banksy (Gordon Banks) would have saved 99 times out of 100. It was so rare for Banksy to concede a soft goal. There was a bad bobble on a dodgy pitch admittedly but normally he would have gobbled that shot up. When he didn’t it took your breath away a wee bit.”  

It was a real battle. They were a very good team. They won the league that year and our record against them wasn’t great.

Bobby Roberts

Leicester City lost the replay 1-0. The following season (1966/67) the team was once again knocked out of the FA Cup by Man City, who won 2-1, with Tom Sweenie scoring for the Foxes.

The next season (1967/68), for third season in succession, Matt Gillies’ Leicester City side was drawn away against Joe Mercer’s side in the FA Cup.

“The first game was a 0-0 draw,” Bobby continued. “It was a real battle. They were a very good team. They won the league that year and our record against them wasn’t great. It was a really hard match, but it’s safe to say that our back four, with Peter Shilton in goal, did really well that day. It was a defensive battle. We didn’t do an awful lot going forward, but we got a no score draw. The pitch was hard and bumpy. It wasn’t a good surface.”

Some 51,000 had witnessed the game at Maine Road and another 39,000 turned up at Filbert Street for the replay two days later. This tie turned out to be one of the epic FA Cup matches in the Club’s history. The game was described at the time as the most exciting cup-tie seen at Filbert Street in years. Davie Gibson, one of Leicester’s stars in the 1960s, recently told us that the game was one of his all-time top three most memorable games, even outranking his two FA Cup Finals.

Man City were the overwhelming favourites to win the replay. Not only was the Maine Road club, with star players such as Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee, to win the league title that year, they had already beaten Leicester 4-0 (in the League Cup) and 6-0 (in the league) at Maine Road earlier that year.

The visitors went ahead after six minutes when Francis Lee, who was notorious for winning penalties, was adjudged to have been fouled by John Sjoberg. He duly scored from the spot. Manchester City continued to look dangerous and, after 22 minutes, went further ahead when Colin Bell put through a ball to Mike Summerbee, who slipped the ball into the net past Peter Shilton.

However, Leicester stunned their opponents and the huge crowd by scoring an incredible four goals in a remarkable 20-minute spell to take a 4-2 lead. Leicester’s Rodney Fern, playing in only his third game, scored seconds before half-time. Five minutes into the second half, Frank Large, who was already a cult hero three months after signing for Leicester City, lashed home the equaliser. Eight minutes later, skipper David Nish smashed in a third goal through a crowded goalmouth. The fourth goal came in the 64th minute, when Large headed in a curling corner kick for his second and Leicester’s fourth goal. Colin Bell did get a goal back in the last minute for Manchester City, but this didn’t detract from what had been an unforgettable achievement.

I liked playing against blokes like that because it was always a challenge.

Bobby Roberts

As Bobby recalled: “The pitch for the replay at Filbert Street was an absolute mud heap. We were two goals down very quickly and then it was the fight back of all fightbacks. Everybody played their part, but Frank Large was the turning point. He absolutely terrorised their back four and their goalkeeper. We got a lot of crosses into the box from the wingers and wing-halves. If you kept getting the ball into the box, Frank would make something happen. He absolutely frightened the life out of them. He was the bravest player I ever played with. He just launched himself at goalkeepers and defenders. He must have been punched in the face by goalkeepers or fouled by centre-halves umpteen times. He just got up and got on with it. He was scrupulously fair himself. He never fouled people. He always went for the ball. That night he was an absolute handful!”

Turning his thoughts to his Manchester City opponents that night, Bobby continued: “Colin Bell (see ‘Football Statues’ article on page 49) was a fabulous player. They had a lot of good players, but he was something special. I don’t know how many caps he got for England, but he was a handful. I liked playing against blokes like that because it was always a challenge. They called him Nijinsky didn’t they? I don’t know whether that was after the ballet dancer or the horse. He was so fit and a lovely bloke as well. I met him a couple of times afterwards when I was scouting. He was very modest, a really nice guy. A terrific player!

“Then there was their striker, Francis Lee. I’ve always thought that the real tough guys were the forwards, rather than the defenders who kicked them. You don’t need to be tough to kick people from behind but you have to be tough to take all that and keep coming back for more. Francis could handle himself.

“I remember once he whacked me good and hard in one game. It was a 50-50 ball and he clattered me. It was a bit naughty and I thought at the time I would struggle a bit to be fit for the next game. I was on the ground and said: ‘What the hell was that?’ And he said: ‘Your two centre-halves (Graham Cross and John Sjoberg) are kicking lumps out of me and I replied: ‘Well kick them then!’ He just looked at me as if I was mad.

“Neil Young, Manchester City’s striker, was a very good player and they also had players like wing-halves Mike Doyle and Alan Oakes together with full-backs Tony Book and Glyn Pardoe who were steady Eddies and really good players. Tony Book came to the game late, but for a bloke of his age (he was 31 when he joined Manchester City in 1966), he was very, very quick.

“And, of course, there was the manager Joe Mercer and his assistant, Malcolm Allison, who were reinventing the game with the training they did, although some of this was propaganda in my view.”

The following season (1968/69) Bobby played against Manchester City in the FA Cup Final at Wembley, which Leicester City lost 1-0.   

“It was a bit of a surprise for us to reach the final,” he added. “We were near the bottom of the league and we finished up, five games after the final, getting relegated. We beat West Brom in the semi-final at Hillsborough when they were favourites to win. The pitch was very bumpy. The match wasn’t a classic, but Allan Clarke nicked a goal for us near the end and we hung on for the last five minutes which seemed like 50! We won 1-0 and got to the final against Manchester City, who had beaten Everton in the other semi-final.

Although I have a video of the final, I never watched it until about a year ago because I was disappointed with the result. Then I did watch it and my God, we had some chances!

Bobby Roberts

“Manchester City were league champions the year before and the press had written us off. We knew it was going to be hard, but we were capable of winning. That year was the first year in my time at Leicester that I hadn’t really thought about getting to the final. Every other year I thought we had a good chance to get there and it never worked out.

“Although I have a video of the final, I never watched it until about a year ago because I was disappointed with the result. Then I did watch it and my God, we had some chances!

“Lenny Glover had one. He got to the ball in front of the keeper and had he been 100% fit he’d have taken it by the goalkeeper and scored. Peter Rodrigues and Andy Lochhead also had good chances and Rodney (Fern) had a half chance. There were a lot of half chances, but unfortunately, none of them fell to Clarkey (Allan Clarke) who was our best finisher. He shared the Man of the Match award with Manchester City’s captain Tony Book. I think the game was harder for Manchester City than they’d expected.”

The final was the last time that Bobby played against Manchester City, a side he admired. “They had really good players, they were a really good side,” he said.

Bobby is also an admirer of the current Man City side. “What Mr. Guardiola has done is unbelievable. When I started coaching, I would have loved to watched him working for a couple of months. The great Ferenc Puskás once said that to have a great team, you have to have five or six players who can play the piano and the other five or six who can carry it. I think Man City today have got 11 blokes who can play the piano and 11 blokes who are prepared to carry it. I love watching them play.” 

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