Forty years ago Graham Roberts was plying his trade at non-league Weymouth when out of the blue Tottenham Hotspur manager, Keith Burkinshaw, tabled a bid for £35,000. At the time, it was a record fee for a non-league player but although a few eyebrows were raised, it was seen as a relatively low-risk gamble.
A year later and Roberts was walking out at Wembley for the 100th FA Cup final, one season into a professional career that would see him win honours both side of the border as well as be capped half a dozen times by England.
Rated by no less an authority as Graeme Souness as ‘one of the hardest players I ever played against’, Roberts quickly obtained a reputation for toughness and tenacity as he made up for his relatively late introduction to the professional ranks. It was a characteristic trait that meant controversy was never far away in a career that polarised opinions of not just opponents and opposing supporters but at times of those of teammates and his own clubs’ supporters.
Early Beginnings and Move to Tottenham
Originally signed on schoolboy forms by Southampton, Roberts failed to impress and was subsequently released. He joined neighbours Portsmouth but failed to make a breakthrough there either and then was sold to non-league Dorchester Town before moving to Weymouth.
In the hard-knocks environment of senior non-league football, it was simply a question of sink or swim. Refusing to be intimidated, Roberts chose to swim and he spent two years at Weymouth before Burkinshaw made his move in the summer of 1980.
Roberts had to wait for a while before getting his chance at White Hart Lane, with his debut not coming until October 1980 in a 3-2 defeat at Stoke. By the New Year, however, Roberts had forced his way into the side to stay and was pretty much an ever-present in the side until the end of the season.
Forging a centre-back partnership with fellow ‘hard-man’ Paul Miller, Roberts experienced immediate success as Spurs won the FA Cup at Wembley against Manchester City after a replay. Roberts’ performance in the replay was particularly outstanding, with many considering it a Man-of-the-Match display. In the first match, Roberts had two of his teeth kicked out in an accidental collision with teammate Chris Hughton, but refused to leave the field for treatment.
The FA Cup was retained the following season as the exciting Tottenham side of this time had to content themselves with just one trophy after having been in contention for an unprecedented quadruple as late as March.
Defeat in the 1982 League Cup final to Liverpool and the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final to Barcelona were bitter pills to swallow, as was a falling off in league form over the final dozen games of the season which saw Spurs ultimately finish fourth in the table.
Two seasons later, success in Europe was achieved as Spurs won the 1984 UEFA Cup on penalties, defeating Anderlecht on a memorable night at White Hart Lane. After a 1-1 draw in which Roberts scored Spurs’ goal, the match was settled by a shoot-out. Again Roberts netted, and with Steve Perryman out injured, Roberts was named captain for the night and so had the honour of lifting the trophy aloft at the end of an exhilarating night.
Roberts’ and Millers’ partnership at the heart of the Tottenham defence was an effective if uncompromising one. Roberts was largely regarded as the better ballplayer of the two, with Miller contributing mainly through his tenacity and reasonable positional sense.
In that 1983-84 season, Roberts was called into international contention by England manager, Bobby Robson. Indeed, this particular period was not exactly a golden one for England, as the nation failed to qualify for Euro ’84 in France and Robson was looking to build for the future, but nevertheless, Roberts did well enough in the opportunities he was given. In total, he played six times for his country in this period.
Roberts was a crowd favourite during his spell at The Lane, with fans taking to his aggressive style and sense of commitment. One incident that perfectly epitomised this occurred on New Year’s Day 1986 and has entered into North London folklore. Tangling for the ball on the half-way line with the darling of Highbury, Charlie Nicholas, Roberts hit the Arsenal man hard in the chest with his shoulder with his momentum sending both men crashing through the advertising hoardings and into the front row of spectators. Although largely acknowledged as an accident at the time, songs are still sung about the incident to this day.
However, by late 1986 Roberts was moving on from White Hart Lane. In the summer, David Pleat had been appointed and Pleat was not a fan of Roberts’ style of football. The two men clashed and with Pleat signing Richard Gough from Dundee United, the writing was on the wall for Roberts.
In December 1986, Roberts was transferred to Glasgow Rangers where manager Graeme Souness was in the first stages of initiating his famed ‘Ibrox Revolution’. Before he left White Hart Lane for good, however, Roberts was to suffer the ignominy of being both sent off and carried off at the same time in a particularly bad-tempered clash with Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang.
Perhaps it was this incident that prompted Pleat to see Roberts off to Ibrox with the words, “He’s kicked a few down here, and now he’s off to kick a few up there”.
Rangers: More controversy awaits
Joining Rangers at the end of the year, Roberts went straight into the side and in doing so formed another formidable centre-back partnership, this time with fellow Englishman, Terry Butcher, who had been signed from Ipswich Town the previous summer. Once again Roberts quickly became a crowd favourite as the Ibrox faithful were as taken by his wholehearted commitment as the Spurs legions had been.
A successful first season resulted in the Scottish League title being secured in the spring of 1987 to go alongside the League Cup that had been won in the autumn before Roberts’ arrival.
The second season was not as successful for either the club or Roberts individually, however. Stung by losing what they saw as ‘their’ title in 1987, Celtic came out with new determination to recapture the crown the following season. Matters came to a head in an infamous clash at Ibrox in October of that year when Rangers players Butcher and goalkeeper Chris Woods were ordered off alongside Celtic’s Frank McAvennie. All three players, alongside Roberts, were charged in court with Breach of the Peace, and although McAvennie was found not guilty, and Roberts not proven, the other two Rangers players were convicted.
The season wore on and ultimately Rangers were unable to defend their title, with Celtic prevailing. If that wasn’t bad enough, Roberts managed to fall out with manager Graeme Souness and his time at the club was brought to a swift and abrupt end.
It was a huge shock to Roberts to find himself surplus to requirements by Souness, but the way both men tell the story now Souness was left with no choice. A fierce stand-up argument in the changing room after an end-of-season defeat led to Roberts challenging Souness to sell him, so he did.
Back to London (and beyond)
Next stop was back to London and to Chelsea who had just been relegated from the top flight. Once again, Roberts settled quickly and soon won over any fans harbouring doubts because of his Spurs background. Promotion from the Second Division was achieved at the first time of asking, and so Roberts was back in the top flight in England in time for the 1989-90 season. Roberts took on penalty-taking duties during the season and from the 15 goals he netted, 12 came from the spot.
Unfortunately, once again things were to end in acrimony for Roberts. Appointed to the coaching staff, Roberts’ form began to dip and his lack of pace was exposed as the years started to catch up with him. Roberts also lost some of the goodwill from the terraces with his continual on-the-field berating of some of the younger players. In an FA Cup defeat to Bristol City, Roberts was seen to strike out at a young Graham Le Saux and following this, a contract dispute with Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, led to Roberts leaving for West Brom.
Two largely undistinguished years were spent at The Hawthorns before Roberts drifted out of the professional ranks and into non-league football.
He combined managing with playing at clubs such as Enfield and Yeovil before spending some time back north of the border at the helm of Clyde. Here highlights included defeating Celtic, Roy Keane and all, in a Scottish Cup match and taking his former side, Rangers, to extra-time in a Scottish League Cup tie at Ibrox.
Almost inevitably it was all to end in tears at Clyde as just six months after the famous victory over Celtic, Roberts was sacked amidst allegations of a personal nature. Roberts sued for unfair dismissal and was awarded damages, but with his reputation perhaps now working against him, he found it impossible to find another role in management within Britain.
He did enjoy further spells overseas as head coach of the Pakistan and Nepal national sides.
Today Roberts is employed as a match-day host by Tottenham and also works on the after-dinner circuit.