Football / FA Cup Countdown: Roberts revels in return to the spotlight: Enfield guided by a veteran of many a campaign who still fills the role of hard man - Alyson Rudd meets a player-manager whose appetite for success is not sated

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The Independent Online
THE grandest thing about Enfield Football Club appears to be its Starlight Suite. An innocuous-looking building from the outside, it holds a fantasia of bright pink-clad tables with room enough for Enfield's average home gate of 750.

But the real star of the Diadora Premier Division club is Graham Roberts. When Enfield troop out tomorrow to face Cardiff in the FA Cup, they will look to Roberts to calm their nerves. The team's player-manager won two FA Cup winner's medals with Tottenham and captained the Spurs side who beat Anderlecht to lift the Uefa Cup in 1984. Cardiff will have to go some if they are to unnerve Roberts. In the first leg of the Uefa Cup final someone was shot dead outside his hotel. Back at White Hart Lane for the second leg, with only six minutes to go, Roberts scored the equaliser that took the final to a penalty shoot-out. As captain he opted for Spurs to shoot first and he took the first penalty. 'That was the most nerve-racking moment of my whole life.'

It was one among many moments. Roberts won Scottish championship and Skol Cup winner's medals at Rangers and he helped Chelsea win promotion in 1989.

Given the current thirtysomething influences in the Premiership, Roberts's fans might expect him, aged 34, to be playing at a higher level. With his old team-mate Micky Hazard now back at Spurs, Roberts jokes that he could get a recall. But he doesn't dwell on the fact that his peers can still claim a Premiership place. 'Take my best mate Chris Waddle. We were chatting the other day, and all he's won is a French winner's medal and been runner-up in the FA Cup. These players, they've got all the money but they haven't got what I've got.'

As he glows about the wonder years, a message is handed to Roberts. Another player has called in sick. A cold seems to be doing its rounds at the club. Roberts reacts with amused disappointment but he is not patronising. He admires his team for putting in the training on top of their normal jobs, and of the FA Cup dream says: 'They want it more than the professionals sometimes.'

Roberts is trying to give them the professional edge. In August last year he signed up as a player and three months later took over as manager. Since then he has pared the club down, shedding 11 players and now fielding a team with an average age of 22, nine of whom Roberts believes could play League football.

If that is true then Cardiff could be shaken tomorrow, but there were few clues as to how at last weekend's goalless Diadora clash with Yeading. 'Come on you Es,' echoed the Enfield faithful but they might have done better to urge their side to take some Es. Presumably, the lack of concentration could be put down to the distraction of the looming, all-important FA Cup tie. They usually play with more cohesion, don't they? 'No,' answered a pair of Enfield supporters, looking at each other in bemusement at the assumption.

Roberts, though, remained true to his tough tackler reputation, winning every aerial challenge. 'I enjoyed being the hard man at Tottenham. They never, ever had another one while I was there and it was a great privilege. I've still got my hard-man tag and I've still got the hard man in me.'

As at his other clubs, the fans love the hardness. But he is disarmingly honest about how he came to Enfield. On being given a free transfer by West Brom last year when Ossie Ardiles took over, lack of interest from other clubs led Roberts to the dole queue. 'I got a bit dejected, I just got a bit fed up with professional football.'

It might have all ended there but for the fact that when Roberts went to sign on, the first social security official he dealt with turned out to be a Spurs season-ticket holder. 'I refused to go back, I was so embarrassed.'

Roberts accepted the financial security of his Enfield contract, having only been able to muster pay-as-you-play deals from the likes of Partick Thistle and Leyton Orient. Generally he believes managers were not keen because they suspected he might have designs on becoming manager. 'Everyone thinks if we take him, he's after my job.' They would be right. Roberts, by his own admission, is ambitious and wants eventually to manage Tottenham or Rangers.

Enfield, which he calls 'probably the biggest club in non-League football', could set him on his way. Tomorrow night the star attraction in the Starlight Suite are acts from The Comedians. Roberts will be hoping no parallels are drawn with his team's performance.

(Photograph omitted)

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