graham roberts ... hard as nails

This article originally appeared in MEHSTG Vol. 2 Issue 20 (April 2001)

When a player gets two front teeth knocked out and plays on, then you think he must be hard.  When it happens early on in a FA Cup Final and it by the boot of his own team-mate as he tried to head away a low ball, then you know you are dealing with a tough cookie.

But then that was Graham Roberts all over.  His reputation preceded him to a certain extent after he had made his name at Tottenham, coming straight to the club from non-League Weymouth in 1980.  Tottenham only just beat West Bromwich Albion to sign him and the fee of £35,000 they offered when he chose Spurs, was a non-League record at the time.  Robbo had had a tough time as a junior.  Southampton rejected him and then when he was doing well at Bournemouth, their youth system was done away with because of the cost to the South coast club.  His next port of call was Portsmouth and again he impressed, but just when they were about to offer him a contract, he broke an ankle and they didn’t pursue their interest in the tough youngster.  At this stage of his career, he was making a name for himself in the forward line and it was only at Weymouth that there was a move backwards in the team to midfield, where he really started to catch the eye.  Even then, he was still playing with his mates at the shipyard, despite playing at a much higher standard at the weekend.

You could never accuse Roberts of hiding on the pitch. Once he established himself in the Tottenham line-up, he formed a formidable partnership with the central defender, Paul Miller.  The two were difficult opponents for any strikers and their presence in the heart of the Spurs side saw them win two successive FA Cups in 1981 and 1982.  More appropriately, they were the scoring heroes of the 1984 UEFA Cup win, which is a fact that was overlooked when many only remember Tony Parks’ penalty shoot-out saves.

Roberts was always more than just a hard man.  His reputation came from a no-nonsense style which blended hard tackling with a good use of the ball and a determination to get forward.  This was never better demonstrated than in the opening exchanges of the 1982 FA Cup Final replay against Queens Park Rangers, when he took the ball just inside the opponent’s half and ran forward with it.  He withstood Rangers’ players attempts to knock him off the ball and it was only when Tony Currie made a forward’s tackle on him in the box, that he was stopped.  The ref pointed to the spot and Glenn Hoddle duly converted the penalty to give Spurs the only goal of the game and the trophy.  It was typical of Robert’s ability, which was often overshadowed by his rugged approach to the game.  Remembering his only hat trick for Spurs, it had a bit of everything.  A header and two shots, it must have given him a great deal of pleasure as it came against his hometown team of Southampton, who had shown him the door all those years before.

Since Dave Mackay had left the club over twelve years before, Spurs had not had a lion-hearted midfielder, who could get stuck in, but also produce passes and goals from that position. Roberts did that unerringly.  I do not claim that he was as skilful as the Scotsman, but he played to a much higher skill level than many recognised, because they did not look any further than the crunching tackles and the gapped dentistry. Roberts deserved more than that.  His inspirational play made him look at home amongst the likes of Hoddle, Hazard and Ardiles.  His power alongside Villa and Miller; his stamina ranked with that of Galvin and his determination with Perryman and Hughton, made him a vital cog in the side of the early Eighties that came close to that of the Sixties in number of trophies won.  His goal that took the second leg of the UEFA Cup final into extra time was typical of the man.  Having seen the ball rebound from the crossbar following an Ardiles shot, he stayed in the box as Micky Hazard swung in a cross.  Taking the ball on his chest and as the boots flailed around him, trying to get the ball away, he stormed through to ram it home from a couple of yards out.  Not only that, but when the game went into the penalty shoot-out, it was he who took a captain’s role by stepping up to take the first penalty for Tottenham and burying it in the net.  The fact that he was captain for the night against Anderlecht in the UEFA Cup Final of 1984 deputising for the suspended Steve Perryman crowned his time at Tottenham.  Lifting the UEFA Cup at White Hart Lane must have been as wonderful a moment for him as it was a choker for Stevie, who watched on from the sidelines.

But if we go back a season, to the same pitch and the infamous match against Barcelona, it was Roberts who was one of those feared by the “animals” from the Nou Camp.  When they took great joy in hacking lumps out of the more refined players in the side, they could only run away from Roberts and Miller as they “dared” to stand up to the bully boy tactics the Catalans employed to intimidate the Spurs players.  It must be said, that both the Spurs men were lucky not to have been sent off as they would have been in normal circumstances, but then there would only have been a couple of Barca players remaining should the referee have taken proper action against them for their on pitch behaviour.  Spurs went out in the away leg, which was equally as dirty and it left a sour taste in Spurs player’s mouths.  That’s why the UEFA Cup win, albeit on penalties, was that much sweeter when it came.

When David Pleat came to Tottenham as manager, he tried to change things around to his way of play.  Roberts was squeezed out of the frame, as Pleat wanted to play a passing game with skilful players and a five man midfield.  What he forgot was that there was the added advantage of Roberts’ determination there that could have turned the 1986-87 season into something wonderful.  While players were brought in to bolster the areas that DP thought needed strengthening, Richard Gough was the type of player he thought would suit his style best – not Roberts.  And as for replacing him directly with Steve Hodge – that was never going to work.  It was no surprise when he was sold to Glasgow Rangers for £450,000 to take over the “enforcer” role left by manager Graeme Souness.  Ironically, it was only the next season that he was joined in the ‘Gers side by one Richard Gough !!

Spurs have not had a player like him since he left the Lane.  Tim Sherwood would have been a similar type earlier in his career, but there has never been another Robbo.  We miss the crunching challenges like the one on Eric Gates in the 5-3 over Ipswich and that which got him carried off and sent off on a stretcher against Wimbledon; the long-range rocket shots like the one against Bruges; the gap toothed grin as another one hit the net.  All were memories of the man who wore the number 4 shirt with great pride.  Oh, and he was the man who put Charlie in the stand !!

Marco Van Hip

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