Diary of a footballing nomad

At the end of a long and turbulent season, Iwan Roberts reveals the real life of a footballer at the sharp end: goals and injuries, house moves and long car journeys
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The Independent Online

The 2003-04 season finished in bittersweet fashion for Iwan Roberts. His team, Norwich City, were promoted to the Premiership but the former Welsh international, with more than 300 appearances for the Canaries behind him but his 36th birthday approaching, was told his contract would not be renewed.

The 2003-04 season finished in bittersweet fashion for Iwan Roberts. His team, Norwich City, were promoted to the Premiership but the former Welsh international, with more than 300 appearances for the Canaries behind him but his 36th birthday approaching, was told his contract would not be renewed.

Poignantly his departure virtually coincided with the publication of his book, a diary of Norwich's season, called 'All I Want For Christmas' (Roberts' front teeth were removed, by an elbow, when he was 18). After a tearful farewell, and interest from Luton, Hull, Boston and Barnsley, Andy Hessenthaler, Gillingham's player-manager, called. The call marked the start of a unpredictable, uncertain year for Roberts....

The summer: book signings and signing for a new club

Hess [Hessenthaler] is a little rat when he's playing, a bloody nuisance, but I've always got on well with him. He's previously tried to sign me, now he wants me as player-coach. It is just what I'm looking for. My playing career is coming towards the end and coaching is something I want to do. I've done my Uefa B licence and it's an opportunity to get my foot on the ladder. I sign in June for two years. I'm really looking forward to it.

Before that I have my book launch. I do a signing in Jarrold's in Norwich. I'm there four hours non-stop signing autographs. I can't believe the response. They tell me it sells more first-day copies than the latest Harry Potter.

August: goals and big breakfasts

I'm living at the Holiday Inn in Rochester. Darren Byfield, another new signing, is also here. People say it must be great living in a hotel. It's lovely for a week, then you get fed up. You're eating the same food every day and you eat far too much at breakfast because it's there. I make my debut at, of all places, Ipswich, and get booked after about four seconds. It's for an elbow, straight from the kick-off, and I did catch him. Predictably, I get a bit of abuse from the Tractor Boys.

The home debut's much better. We beat Leeds, who are expected to be top-six. We outplay them and me and Darren hit it off straight away, both scoring. By the end of the month I've scored three goals in six games.

September: losing games and charged by the FA

I've moved into a flat in Rochester, but it's about the only thing that's gone right. We get done 4-0 at home by Sunderland, draw at Coventry, then lose three. On top of it all the Football Association have charged me with bringing the game into disrepute.

In my book I mention deliberately fouling Kevin Muscat - stamping on him in fact - as revenge for when he did Craig Bellamy when Bellers was at Norwich. The funny thing is I get on with Kevin, ever since I was in Australia for a wedding, went to see them play, and he was the only one who came up to have a chat. He's a smashing fella off the pitch but when he's crossed that white line he's done one or two things he knows he shouldn't have.

October: Life imitating Roy Keane

Our losing run extends to seven matches, dropping us into the relegation zone. You find yourself looking at the fixtures, thinking: "We have to go to West Ham and get something, anything, to stop this run."

And the FA ban me for three matches. To have to miss three weeks over something that happened six years ago, and was no fault of Gillingham's, is outrageous really. I was warned the FA might jump on it but if you take everything out of the book it's not worth buying. I know they had the Roy Keane thing [Keane was banned after he admitting deliberately kicking Alf-Inge Haaland in his autobiography] but when David Beckham gets off after admitting he deliberately got booked against Wales it left a sour taste. At least the team finally win, beating Wolves with 10 men.

Meanwhile, we're house-hunting. It's a big step having been at Norwich for seven years - my nine-year-old twin girls, Chase and Eve, have never known anywhere else. But I wanted to be 100 per cent committed and the commuting is tough. I would travel up on a Tuesday night, have Wednesday at home with the family, then travel back down Thursday morning. Then travel back on Saturday after the game. That's only two days at home and the kids grow up too quickly. I was missing everything.

November: To move or not to move

John Gorman joins us to assist with coaching. He's a smashing fella, so enthusiastic, but we have one falling out. He asked me to take the warm-up and, half-way through, took over. I pulled him aside after and told him how I felt. He said, "I'm glad you've said that. I should never have done it. I'd have felt the same and I won't do it again." After that we're superb.

Then Hess stands down. We've only got two points in four games since Wolves and lost 4-1 at Crewe. John takes over and we beat Nottingham Forest. It's a great result but then we hear he's off to Wycombe. I think he would have loved to manage us but he always said he would not take over from Hess.

On the positive side I get my first start in two months against Forest. My fitness has suffered during my ban and I've been struggling to get a run. We've also found a house. I couldn't face us all living in a two-bed rented flat, especially with Christmas coming. I'm away Christmas Eve and didn't want them on their own there. But with uncertainty over the next manager, I'm trying to delay completion.

December: Stan is the new man

Paul Scally, the chairman, asks me, captain Paul Smith, and Darren Hare, head of youth, to pick the team for Cardiff. The local rumour is that the chairman's picking it and he threatens to sit on the bench, but that's a wind-up though he does want to know the team first. I enjoy it but we lose. If we'd won I might have tossed my hat into the ring, but we're in dire straits and the job is going to go to someone experienced.

Stan Ternent gets the job and moves into the Rochester Holiday Inn. He tells me to carry on as I have been doing. So we complete on the house and move in. Stan's first game's at Wigan. We play well but lose. I come on as sub and get booked.

January 2005: The family settles in to a new area

We win one game in six, scoring two goals. I make three sub appearances, but the family are settling. We've got Ben and the girls into good schools. Ben, who's 13, was my main concern. The twins have each other, but he's made friends really quickly and through them found himself a football team. Julie's made friends with the other wives and with mums from the girls' school. And we can live a normal life.

Norwich is a lovely city but it's very small and we couldn't go anywhere without being recognised. As nice as that is it was getting on the kids' nerves. Down here we blend in and can go out.

February: Stan doesn't like me

It's not really working out with Stan. We had a couple of fall-outs and I don't think he was willing to forgive and forget. It's a shame as I could learn a lot from him - tactically he's brilliant. But he's told me to take the reserves which is a step down. I'm not playing, I'm not coaching, not doing anything really. I haven't started under Stan which is odd because he tried to sign me a couple of times so he must rate me as a player, and we're struggling to score goals.

March: To Cambridge to get a game, and my 200th League goal

I move to Cambridge on loan. I had to get away. I'd lost a lot of enthusiasm for the game. Barry Fry rang me but I told him Peterborough was too far. He thought I was still based in Norwich. Colin Todd at Bradford also rang. Cambridge is one-and-a-half hours' drive and I knew Rob Newman, the assistant manager, really well. They're bottom of League Two and in trouble but I thought, "What have you got to lose?" Maybe I can give them a lift. And I get to play and enjoy training again.

I score on my debut. We lose but I get my 200th League goal. I'd thought I'd never get there, it's been six months since No.199. Then we beat Wycombe, John Gorman's team. I scored the winner. "Bloody typical," said John.

April: Team news and travel news

We finally sold the house in Norwich. Bit of a shame really given I'm playing for Cambridge. As it is I go up Saturday, go to my gym in Rochester on Monday, travel up Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, staying up if we are away Saturday. It's not a bad drive but it took five hours the other day when a lorry broke down on the M11.

We played Scunthorpe away the day they had a minute's silence for Graham Taylor's father, he'd been associated with the club for years. Afterwards I was signing some autographs before getting on the coach and someone said, "Can you sign this please?" I signed it and the voice said, "You're not even going to look at me, are you?" It was Graham. He was my first manager, he signed me for Watford, and he's stayed to have a chat with me after the game. What an absolute gentleman. And he always asks first: "How's your mum and dad?"

Cambridge go down, then into administration. People are worried about their jobs and there's a bit of despondency but I've really enjoyed it. The people have been first class. They've made me feel so welcome and I've got my enthusiasm back. For Bury away I was up at 7am to prepare. I've not done that since I was in the youth team at Watford 17-18 years ago.

May: two relegations and an uncertain future

My loan at Cambridge finished on Saturday. Gillingham get relegated on Sunday. I'm gutted as I feel part of it even if I've not been playing.

So what next? I've another year at Gillingham and I'm not going to walk out on it. I've not done anything wrong. It probably depends what happens with Stan, who's contract's up. If I saw him I'd shake his hand and chat, but I don't think he wants me here. Stan deserves a chance to get us back up because he's done a good job, but if something came up further north I think he'd go.

I might go to Cambridge. I always thought I wouldn't want to go down the divisions and they are in the Conference but I enjoyed it there and there'd be a coaching role. I'm doing my Uefa A licence in the summer. I want to get as qualified as I can, I just wish I'd done it earlier.

Julie points out I've been relegated twice in barely a fortnight. It must be a record. I just hope Norwich don't make it a sort of treble. I was going to take Ben to see them on Sunday but his team is in their cup final. At least one Roberts has been successful this year. So I'll be watching him, with a radio in my pocket.

'All I Want For Christmas' by Iwan Roberts, with Karen Buchanan (Vision Sports Publishing). Hardback £17.99, updated paperback published in July, £7.99.

The life and times of Iwan Roberts

¿ 20 years, 753 appearances, 239 goals

¿ Born Bangor, 26 June 1968 (native Welsh speaker)

¿ International honours 15 full caps for Wales

Playing career

1985-86 Watford (joins as apprentice) 83 apps, 12 goals

1990-93 Huddersfield (joined for £275,000) 182 apps, 68 gls

1993-96 Leicester City (joined for £100,000) 111 apps, 44 gls

1996-97 Wolves (joined for £1.3m) 38 apps, 12 gls

1997-04 Norwich (joined for £900,000) 306 apps, 97 gls

2004-05 Gillingham (free) 22 apps, 3 gls

2005 Cambridge (loan) 11 apps, 3 gls

¿ Total 753 apps (638 starts plus 115 as substitute) 239 gls

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