Injury-plagued ‘keeper Ben part of ‘Boro Cup folklore before Brighton promotion

BEN ROBERTS might only have played a handful of games for Middlesbrough in seven years on their books but one of them will never be forgotten.

He was between the sticks for ‘Boro when Chelsea’s Roberto di Matteo scored one of the quickest ever FA Cup Final goals.

However, Brighton fans prefer to remember him as the ‘keeper who helped the Seagulls to promotion from the third tier via the play-offs in 2004.

“That season at Brighton remains one of my best experiences in football,” Roberts told beatsandrhymesfc.com’s Christian Brookes, in a 2011 interview.

“Apart from enjoying living in the city, I remained relatively injury-free and played the most games of my career. So for a full season’s work to come down to one day in the Millennium Stadium with a full house in attendance was a very special memory.”

No-one knew at the time, of course, but it was also Roberts’ last game in goal for the Albion because a back injury forced him to retire from the game prematurely in 2005, aged just 29.

In an extended interview with Dominic Shaw for gazettelive.co.uk in December 2017, Roberts looked back on his time at ‘Boro and a playing career that was beset with injury.

Born in Bishop Auckland, the young Roberts was spotted playing for South Durham Boys by Dennis Cooper, father of ‘Boro legend Colin Cooper, and the club took up his recommendation. Roberts would set off by bus from his home in Crook at 6am each day to get to training on time in Middlesbrough, nearly 30 miles away.

At one point, it looked like he wouldn’t get the chance to continue his career because he was deemed too short, but he fed his face throughout the summer, shot up the required inches, and was rewarded with a two-year scholarship.

In fact, he was still a YTS scholar when he got his first involvement with the first team, being named on the bench for two of Boro’s first three games in the inaugural season of the Premier League (1992-93).

However, it was another two seasons before he actually got into first-team action, making his debut in an Anglo-Italian Cup game against Ancona, with Bryan Robson by then in the managerial hotseat.

In the 1994-95 season, Roberts got league experience under his belt during loan spells with Hartlepool and Wycombe Wanderers and the following season he went on loan to Bradford City before returning to Middlesbrough to help out a goalkeeping crisis.

Injury to Gary Walsh presented Roberts with his chance, and, aged 21, he made his ‘Boro league debut on 18 January 1997 in a 4-2 win at home to Sheffield Wednesday.

Although Mark Schwarzer arrived at the club, he was also hit by injury – and was cup-tied in the FA Cup – leaving Roberts, 21 at the time, as the stand-in No.1.

On 1 April that year, he also earned his one and only international cap, coming on as a sub for Chris Day as England under 21s drew 0-0 with Switzerland at Swindon’s County Ground. Also in the team for that friendly were Rio Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher, Darren Huckerby and Lee Bowyer.

Two of Roberts’ 17 appearances for ‘Boro that season were in cup finals: in the replay of the League Cup Final against Leicester City, and then the FA Cup Final against Chelsea at Wembley.

Roberts started the following season as first choice because Schwarzer was still out injured, but his final appearance of the season – at home to Birmingham in the September – was his final appearance for the club.

Several treatments for a back injury were unsuccessful and at one stage, still only 24, he feared he’d be forced to retire, until he underwent surgery in London. As well as operating on problematic discs, the surgeon found a blood clot in his back.

In between back operations, Roberts went out on loan again and in 1999 played 14 games for Division Two side Millwall, including another Wembley appearance, this time against Wigan in the Auto Windscreens Shields Trophy. The Latics won 1-0 with the winning goal scored by future Albion captain, Paul Rogers.

The following season, Roberts had another loan spell, this time at Lennie Lawrence’s Luton Town and in the summer of 2000 he finally left ‘Boro and joined Charlton Athletic. However, he played only once for the Addicks, coming on as a sub in the final game of the 2002-03 season after regular no.1 Dean Kiely had been sent off.

Prior to that, Roberts had been out on loan again, initially at Reading and then returning to Luton. His first association with Brighton also came in that season, as Steve Coppell’s Seagulls were battling hard to avoid relegation from the second tier.

He played three times and I remember one of those games was one I went to away at Bradford City (a 1-0 win) on 15 February 2003, when he pulled off some terrific stops on a rock-hard pitch.

Unluckily for him, he then picked up a dose of ‘flu and veteran Dave Beasant took over and kept the shirt until the end of the season.

However, Coppell saw enough to persuade him to sign Roberts permanently and, as referred to earlier, the 2003-04 season was to be the one time when he finally made his mark, culminating in the 1-0 win over Bristol City at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

When his back injury problems returned and ruled him out of the whole of the 2004-05 season, he quit the game and went travelling to Brazil, Asia and India before returning to the UK and going to Roehampton University to take a sports science and coaching degree.

Not only did he achieve first class honours, his dissertation on biomechanics (which applies the laws of mechanics and physics to human performance) earned him a ‘Pursuit of Excellence’ award from Adidas.

Although he intended to stay in the world of academia, his old Brighton teammate, Nathan Jones, persuaded him to join the coaching staff at Yeovil Town.

“I was at a stage where I missed the banter, the day-to-day interaction and being outside,” he said. “I went down and loved it and that turned into my career. ”

While at Yeovil, he worked with Alex McCarthy, who is now at Southampton, and the much-travelled Stephen Henderson, who is currently at Nottingham Forest.

Roberts himself had the briefest of returns to league action when in October 2010 he appeared as a substitute in a 3-3 draw against Swindon, replacing the injured Henderson at half-time and conceding two late goals.

At the end of that year, he followed Jones to Charlton Athletic and in four and a half years at The Valley worked with Rob Elliot (now Newcastle), Ben Hamer (now Leicester), David Button (now Fulham) and Nick Pope (now Burnley).

When, in the summer of 2015, the goalkeeping coach role at Brighton was vacated by Antti Niemi, who returned to Finland for family reasons, Roberts jumped at the chance to link up once more with coach Jones, then part of Chris Hughton’s management team.

Skysports.com quoted Roberts at the time, saying: “I’m ecstatic to be back at Brighton. I’ve made no secret that my happiest years as a professional footballer were spent down here, as I had a special affinity with the fans at Withdean.”

While that role continues it would be remiss not to mention THAT ‘Boro v Brighton Championship clash at the Riverside in May 2016. He told gazettelive.co.uk: “Obviously you want to win and it was so, so tight. My best mate and best man, Adam Reed, is a physio at ‘Boro and seeing him in the tunnel afterwards so happy with his kids, that levelled out the disappointment a little bit for me.

“It was still so hard to take, though. Adam said he felt a bit awkward as well and didn’t want to celebrate too much, but we were on holiday together a couple of weeks later and I was philosophical about it.”

Today, of course, Roberts remains Albion’s goalkeeping coach, putting Maty Ryan, Tim Krul and Niki Mäenpää through their paces.

Further reading

http://www.gazettelive.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/ben-roberts-losing-fa-cup-13983022

http://beatsandrhymesfc.com/ben-roberts-interview-samba-beat-still-plays-on-for-cup-final-boro-keeper/

Brighton pictures from Bennett Dean / Pitch Publishing’s We Are Brighton / Play Off Special;  from online, celebrating ‘Boro promotion with Bryan Robson and Nigel Pearson; flying the flag for Reading.

 

 

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