From Watford to Huddersfield, Leicester to Wolverhampton, Norwich to Gillingham and finally to Cambridge, Iwan Roberts stuck his feet, head, and heart into places and spaces that other players wouldn’t dare. The Welshman’s infectious enthusiasm, tireless effort, and unnerving ability to hit the back of the net saw him immediately taken to by fans of all ages. A cult hero, perhaps, but one with genuine substance.
In the decade since his retirement, Roberts has been a constant in the cold gantries and cramped press boxes of stadiums up and down the country. His engaging analysis and comment stand out from the bland superstars that somehow find cushy careers in TV studios, and his deep affection for the game that we all love is reassuringly infectious. Retirement did lead to Iwan getting his teeth finally fixed, a decision that could have gone to waste during wet weekends spent battling hard-nosed defenders with pointy elbows, but his steely demeanour and self-deprecating pride haven’t changed at all.
Where did it all start for you?
I played for my school, then my county, and then for the region in Wales that I came from, but I didn’t get picked for the Welsh U15s. I kept going, though, and eventually ended up getting selected for the U18s. The manager of that side was Wyn Owen from Caernarfon, who was best friends with the youth team manager at Watford—Tom Walley. Wyn used to send a few boys down from North Wales to him, and he invited me down. I had a couple of games in the youth team, and I just thought it was the right place for me. I had trials with Man Utd, Leeds, and was at Wolves for a month but none of them had the right feel. At Watford, there was another lad down there from North Wales called Malcolm Allen, who I‘d played with in the local Caernarfon District League. I knew Malcolm and thought if I did join Watford, having another Welsh speaker would help me settle down.
Then Graham Taylor gave you your professional debut.
He pulled me into his office after training on the Friday and said “Colin West isn’t fit; he failed a fitness test this morning, so I’m going to give you your debut. And I wouldn’t normally do this, but I want you to get a good night’s sleep, and I want you to ring your mum and dad, get them to come down. It is important that they are here to see your first professional game. We’ll put them up in a hotel and get them tickets for the game”. It was just typical of the man—I learned so much off Graham. Not just how to conduct yourself on the pitch, but most importantly off it as well. He was a lovely man, but he had a side to him that you wouldn’t mess about with. He wasn’t the biggest, but we were all shit scared of him. He had a real air of authority about him, but he was an amazing person.
What was it like to have John Barnes as a team-mate?
I have been very lucky to have played with Ryan Giggs for Wales and with Barnsey at Watford—and it’s hard to separate either, to be honest. Both were magnificent players with so much ability. What John could do with the ball was phenomenal. In training, you just couldn’t get it off him. I don’t think he was electrifyingly quick, but he could just glide past people. And once he did that, you knew his wand of a left foot would pick you out. He was a gentleman too; he treated the young professionals and apprentices how they should be treated. He wasn’t a big-time Charlie; he didn’t get carried away with the great success that he had. And if I have to choose one, he’s the best player I played with.
Very early in your career, you lost your two front teeth, how did it happen?
We’d gone down to Devon for preseason tour and, on the very last night, we were playing Exeter at St James’ Park. There was a lad who played for them called Darran Rowbotham, who was my roommate for Wales U18. For some reason, he was picking me up from a wide free kick—he was five feet ten and I was six feet three, why one of the centre halves wasn’t picking me up I will never know! The ball has come in, and he has caught me flush in the face, flush in the mouth with his elbow, and I knew I was in trouble straight away. I went to the dentist the next day, he said he could save them, but it would mean hours of hard work. I was a young professional footballer, a big centre forward, and I did alright in the air. I said, “Just take them out because it is going to happen sooner or later.” So, he took them out there and then and it was absolute agony. I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody. The toothless grin started from there. I never really bothered with implants or a bridge, and it’s probably the one thing people recognise me for.
Your form for Watford saw you called up for Wales.
Graham Taylor called me into his office and said: “Wales have got a few injuries and have a friendly in Israel, they are flying from Heathrow in four hours’ time and you have been called in, along with Malcolm Allen”. We turned up really nervously because we knew we were going to be involved with the likes of Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall, Kevin Ratcliffe—household names and players that I looked up to. I mean, Ian Rush—I was a Liverpool fan, and I loved the fella. I get on the plane, and I see Mark Hughes walking on, and he puts himself next to me. I was like bloody hell! So, I just started to ask him questions about what Barcelona was like, how was he finding Bayern Munich and he was just giving me one word answers—fine. I don’t think he really wants to be sat here next to me and wants to be sat next to his mates. So, the first fifteen minutes went quite quickly because I was throwing questions at him, but the rest of the time he never said a word! But what a player he was, and I learnt so much in training from him alongside Rushie and also Dean Saunders.
Neville Southall was great as well, especially with the youngsters, he really looked after you. When you first get into the side you have got senior pros, and there is a bit of piss taking, and you expect that. Nothing nasty, nothing malicious, just harmless fun. But Nev was brilliant; he wasn’t like that. He looked after you. If you were sat at the dinner table in the hotel and you were too shy to go and join the senior pros, you’d go and sit on your own. He would call you over and make you feel a part of the squad. And, since day one when I was called up for Wales he was magnificent with me. I think if you ask any youngster that got into that situation, I think they would say exactly the same. Don’t get me wrong—he had a vicious tongue when he wanted to, but with the youngsters he was brilliant.
Which players didn’t really turn up in training?
Believe it or not and they would admit it themselves, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes were probably the worst trainers that you could ever, ever have. But, that just goes to show what special players they are. There aren’t many footballers that could turn it on and off like a tap with not performing in training, but on match day play out of their skins. They were like that. Rush’s finishing was unbelievable despite the fact he couldn’t be bothered when it wasn’t a proper game. Even when he was having a bad day, you could just pick up little things—the positions he took in the box, the runs that he made. Those two were unbelievable players, but training was not their strong point.
What was it like to make your debut against then European champions Holland?
They had a great side—Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard—top, top players, so we knew were going to be right up against it. I thought I was physically capable of… I wouldn’t say bullying someone, but competing with these big horrible centre halves. But Koeman was absolutely solid I tell you; he was like playing against a rock. I think I got taken off just short of the hour mark, but to make my debut for my country in front of my family and friends was unforgettable.
You left Watford to sign for Huddersfield; we’ve heard a story about your first preseason tour?
We went to Dublin, and halfway through the tour, Eoin Hand said we could go out for a few drinks as long as we were back in our rooms by 12 o’clock. We went out as a team, we all came back, but me and Peter Jackson fancied a couple of more pints, so we snuck out. It was the first time I’d ever broken curfew. As I was walking along the kerb up to one of the bars and I fell off and went over on my ankle. It swelled up straight away, and I said to Jacko, “I’m not going to be able to play; my ankle’s killing me, look at the size of it”. I knew I had to go back and put it under some cold water to get the swelling down. So, I did all of that, went to bed and woke up the next morning—it was completely black and blue and even bigger than it had been.
So, I went to see the physio and explained to him what had happened. He said he’d keep it to himself, but that I would have to start training that day. So, he strapped it up as best as he could and sent me out to start the warm up so I could then pretend to go over on my ankle. For the first four or five days we were out there, we’d got on a bus that had taken us to the training facilities which were a couple of miles away. But, on this particular day, Eoin had decided that we were going to run down as part of our warm-up. Every yard was absolute agony. We got down there, and within a minute or two of ball work, I went down, Wayne came over, and took me off to one side, called the Manager over, and he had a look at my ankle, and obviously he knew that it was the end of the session for me. I learnt my lesson there to never break curfew and luckily things only got better for me at Huddersfield.
After a successful spell at Huddersfield, you signed for Leicester, what do you remember of the Play-Off Final in 1994 at Wembley?
I had watched games at the old Wembley many, many times but never played. It was such a memorable day. I’d been injured for the last six weeks of the season after breaking some ribs against Oxford, and it was touch and go if I was going to be fit. Brian Little decided to play me—it was a hot day, and it was a struggle because I was nowhere near fit really. I had a bit of involvement in the first goal when I clattered their keeper—Walshy stuck the header past Paul Williams, who was on the goal line. I would like to think I played a little part in us winning promotion on the day. It was a tough game. I came off after about 60 minutes for Julian Joachim, and when the winner went in it was a massive relief. I was now going to be a Premier League footballer. I only had one season in the top division, but it’s something I’m very proud of.
You had only one season at Wolves as well, but what was it like to score a hat-trick against West Brom in the Black Country derby?
I always scored against West Brom, I don’t know what it is, but I always did well against them with my previous clubs. To get two before half-time was a dream come true, and then to get the hat-trick in front of 5,000 Wolves fans was a really great feeling. I still get reminded of it to this day, and it is something I will never forget. I ‘d scored one for Leicester against Derby, but, the Black Country derby was that little bit more intense.
You seemed to enjoy derbies, tell us about the East Anglian derby when you were at Norwich.
Until you’ve played or been to an East Anglian one, you’ll never realise how passionate and volatile it is. I played in eight, won five, lost one and drew two. So, I had a good record, and out of those five wins, three were at Portman Road. For some reason, I always used to enjoy that derby better away from home. I don’t know why, whether we felt less pressure on us going down to Portman Road. They are tense, there is hostility there, but I really enjoyed them.
You played in another Championship Final in 2004, is it true that you thought you had scored the winner in extra time?
During the prematch we hadn’t really spoken about penalties or extra time—we’d gone there to win the game in 90 minutes. But, it went into extra time—and thirty seconds in, a great ball comes into the box, right onto my head, and I headed it in. There’d been a couple of international games that had been settled with a golden goal, and I instantly thought that I’d scored the one. All the lads had jumped on me—I’d scored the most important goal I’d ever scored, for what would be my last chance of playing at the top level. Understandably I was ecstatic.
I got up to straighten my collar and looked back to the centre circle, and you have got Stern John and Geoff Horsfield about to take kick-off. I’m thinking “bloody hell, it’s not bloody golden goal at all is it?!” I was on such a high—the best high I have ever had as a player—and that was taken away from me. Horsfield equalised ten minutes later, and we lost the penalty shoot-out. Was a very tough trip home that evening.
Tell us about your last game for Norwich after over 300 games and 96 goals.
It was an emotional day; I knew it was going to be the last time I put that famous yellow shirt on after seven years of being there. I knew we’d won the league, I knew we’d won promotion to the Premier League, but it was tinged with sadness because my contract wasn’t getting renewed. I was hurting because I thought the club could have given me another year. I was 36, I was still as fit as a fiddle, and I still thought I had something to offer. I knew I wasn’t going to start every game, but I thought I would be an option to come off the bench, but it wasn’t to be. It was a good day, and I went out with a bang. I had never scored on the last day of the season in my career—in twenty years I played. To do it that day, in my last game at Norwich—it was a special moment.
What happened next?
Things just didn’t work out at my next club Gillingham. I always said once my enthusiasm went then it’s time to call it a day and my enthusiasm had been drained at Gillingham. Andy Hessenthaler got sacked, Stan Ternant and then Neale Cooper for whatever reason didn’t like me and forced me out, and so when I retired it was a relief more than anything. I also knew I had been given a chance with the BBC in Cardiff; they’d asked me to start working for them covering games. So, I had another path, another career in front of me. So, it’s not as if I was going to have lots of spare time to dwell on whether I made the right decision. I’ve now been doing the media role for 11 years, as well as my coaching qualifications. But I’ve always said you can do all your coaching badges but for me the best coaching badge I think you can have is going out to watch games on a weekly basis. Watching different teams play, how they set up, what formations they have, I think that’s invaluable. I’m settled in the media side of it, but, never say never, if a coaching or manager’s job came up then I would have to think long and hard about it. Especially if it’s a club that I’ve got fond memories of.
Which ground had the biggest effect on you?
I have got to say Anfield, not that I had much luck there. Being a Liverpool fan and having been there and watched them, it’s where I always wanted to play. For me, there’s something special about Anfield, even if you’re playing for the opposition the atmosphere makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. If it does that to someone who is on the other side, what it does to Liverpool players, God only knows.
Who was the most difficult player you played against?
It has to be Des Walker. He was as quick as you can be, he was strong, he was good in the air. If I’m up against someone the same size, strength, and physicality, I am happy. If I’m up against someone who is quick, nippy, wants to try and nick the ball in front of you, always on the move, constantly asking questions of you, I hate that. Give me a battle any day of the week, and I would thrive on that, but playing against Des Walker required a different skill set. A fantastic player.
You can’t have many regrets after such a great career, but is not scoring for Wales one of them?
It really hurts me. A centre forward for 15 games but no goals. The closest I got was a great chance against Argentina in the Kirin Cup out in Japan when Gary Speed—bless him. He crossed a great ball to the back post, and it was one of those that as it was coming over, I was thinking I’m going to score here. All I’ve got to do is get good contact—I’m unmarked and the keeper’s at the near post. The contact was decent, but I didn’t get the direction and it went into the side netting. I’ll be honest; I think about that chance a lot.
Ultimately though you must be very proud of what you achieved?
I am. 202 league goals and there are not a lot of players who can say that. I don’t think I ever became a big-time Charlie—I’m quite a humble man. I was given an opportunity and I worked hard with it. I was limited, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the most skilful player ever to walk the planet, but I had strengths, and I think I used them. 750 games and 239 goals. 15 caps for Wales and a professional footballer for 20 years. I couldn’t have wished for any more really.
We really, really enjoyed talking to Iwan. He, like you and us, really loves football. You can read more things like this in our quarterly magazine, which you can subscribe to here or grab our latest issue here. Iechyd Da.