Coppell banking on Roberts' reliability

Clive White on Crystal Palace's little known pounds 2.3m signing, who has some hard acts to follow at Selhurst Park
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The Independent Online
Ten years ago pounds 2.3m would have bought you two Gary Linekers. Today, or rather last month, it bought Crystal Palace one Andy Roberts. No wonder the club's technical director, Steve Coppell, said afterwards, when he contemplated the sheer size of the fee for the 21-year-old midfielder, he found it difficult to rationalise things.

Those who are ignorant of the virtues of the Football League's currently most expensive player - including many Londoners - may find themselves no further enlightened by the reference from his former employer at Millwall, Mick McCarthy, who said of the young man: "He's not going to sit there and ping passes all over the place. Neither is he full of silky skills, and he's not going to beat players with his pace."

Non-plussed Palace fans will also be disappointed to hear that Roberts, who is scheduled to make his debut at home to Barnsley tomorrow, is unlikely, too, to step into the goal-scoring boots of the popular Gareth Southgate, whom Palace recently released for a not dissimilar fee to Aston Villa. So exactly what have Palace got for their money? Another Bruce Dyer? Certainly not a crowd pleaser, by all accounts.

In his role as television pundit, David Pleat recalls making him man- of-the-match in a game at Millwall only for the announcement to be roundly jeered by Roberts' own supporters. "They didn't think I should have given it to an anchor-man midfielder with no apparent verve or anything, but I knew that day he hadn't wasted a ball," Pleat said. "He is the kind of player I've had often in the past - a Grealish, Nicholas, Horton-type." He is also, specifically, the player Pleat would have liked to have had with him now at Hillsborough.

Because, far from being someone who is unlikely to appease Palace fans disgruntled by the summer departures of Chris Armstrong, John Salako and Southgate, Roberts, in fact, aspires to greater things than Palace can currently offer him. The feeling in the game is that Roberts is Premiership material and has sold himself short, even if Millwall certainly have not. A host of clubs, including the champions, Blackburn, were interested, but not even Walker-money would meet Millwall's asking price.

McCarthy, who fears the lad may have made "a sideways step", admits to being "hard-nosed" over the latest transfer of one of his precocious cubs. A crippling wage bill and the expense of inhabiting their plush New Den home meant that the pragmatic Yorkshireman was forced to put the club first.

The hard bargain he drove with Palace also got him a midfielder, Ricky Newman, in part exchange with still enough left over to pay for the acquisition of two proven strikers, Uwe Fuchs, from Middlesbrough, and Chris Malkin, from Tranmere. "It was purely a business transaction as far as I was concerned. Only time will tell whether it's a good move for Andy Roberts."

Born in Dartford, Roberts was one of those youngster who, McCarthy said, just ended up at the club rather than being head-hunted at any cost. But during his five years there he blossomed into a strapping 13 stone, versatile, dependable performer who last season graduated to captain.

He also led a Football League representative side to victory against Serie B in Andria and later played a leading role in taking Dave Sexton's England Under-21 team to the brink of qualification for the European Championship finals.

"I think he can ask more of himself because he performs whatever task you ask of him so comfortably," McCarthy said. "He has it in him to be a box-to-box player like Steve McMahon. Maybe I'd restricted him by giving him the holding role but then he and Alex Rae complemented one another so perfectly.

"What he gave me in three seasons in the first team was 140-odd games of consistently high performance. To succeed at the highest level 90 per cent of your performances have to be good, not necessarily brilliant. The aim is to be on the manager's list of definites every week, not in the question mark column. Andy Roberts is one of those you can hang your hat on."