THERE won’t be a prouder Welshman on parade at Saturday’s first-ever meeting between Dagenham & Redbridge and Wrexham than home goalkeeper Tony Roberts.
The Holyhead-born former international is enjoying a new lease of life with this season’s Football League newcomers fully nine years after a serious hand injury forced him to quit the professional game, seemingly for good.
It interrupted a career that had seen Roberts join Queens Park Rangers straight from school where he spent the best part of 12 years, initially as understudy to future Arsenal and England star David Seaman.
Although he never really nailed down a regular first team spot at Loftus Road, he made 188 appearances for the club and picked up two Wales caps before breaking a knuckle in 1997.
A move to Millwall followed in the summer of 1998, but after only eight matches – which included a 0-0 draw against Wrexham at the Racecourse – Roberts suffered a recurrence of the same injury and after eight months on the sideline he was released.
“I had to finish when I was 28,” Roberts said this week. “I had a spell in North America with Atlanta and when I returned to this country I went into non-league with St Albans before joining Dagenham in 2000.
“Now I’m 38 years old and back playing league football, which is just great and shows what can happen if you work hard. I certainly feel it’s a reward for all the effort I put in to come back from the injury.”
After joining the Daggers Roberts combined playing with a full-time coaching job at Loftus Road and only last month he switched to Premiership outfit Arsenal, where he is still finding his feet as a member of the Gunners’ academy staff.
“It’s very different from what I’ve been used to and it’s been a real eye-opener,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to come in every day and work with some very talented young players and I can do my training here and meet up with Dagenham one day a week and for matches.
“I’ve got the majority of my badges and I’ve been coaching for seven years, so I feel I’ve got the best of both worlds at the moment.
“I want to keep on playing for as long as I can and, when you look at the likes of Neville Southall, Paul Jones and Peter Schmeichel, who were still playing at 40, I reckon I’ve got a couple of years in me yet.”
Dagenham are currently two points ahead of struggling Wrexham who, along with Liverpool, were the side Roberts supported as a youngster in Anglesey and he admitted that family – parents Eddie and Ruth and sister Donna – and friends travelling from North Wales for Saturday’s match might have divided loyalties for what promises to be a basement battle.
“We’ve had a mixed start because, although the performances have not been bad, we have found ourselves being punished for silly mistakes and we’ve conceded goals in the last 10 or 20 minutes far too often,” he added.
“Last year we were able to get away with things like that, but we are now coming up against more well-organised sides and in games that could have gone either way we have lost out.
“It’s a steep learning curve for everyone at the club and a lot of the lads at Dagenham are new to league football. The boss (John Still) has been loyal to the players who won promotion and wants to give them the time to turn it around.
“But I’m really looking forward to playing against Wrexham because they are the side I followed as a kid and they are Welsh, which is something I’m also proud to be.”
So proud, in fact, that Roberts wears a Wales shirt under his goalkeeping jersey in every game and he is looking forward to the banter from visiting fans this weekend.
“I always try and have a laugh with the opposition supporters and if they give me stick I lift my top and kiss the Wales badge,” he added.
“Hopefully that will go down well with the Wrexham fans and I won’t get as much abuse as I would normally expect.”
Obviously enjoying his unexpected Indian summer, Roberts regrets only that he did not have many opportunities to play for his country, such was the pre-eminence of his international rival Southall.
But he said: “I played with some great goalkeepers in my time, including Seaman and Jan Stejskal, and Nev was one of the best in the world who also taught me a great deal.
“I was a member of the Wales squad for four years and enjoyed every minute of it alongside players like Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes and Gary Speed.”
And Roberts has high hopes for current Wales No 1 Wayne Hennessey, one of the younger generation being groomed by John Toshack for the bid to reach the 2010 World Cup.
“Wayne is a big lad and an excellent prospect,” he said. “He’s playing regular first team football at Wolves and some of his performances for Wales have been outstanding.
“I know from talking to Paul Jones (Wales goalkeeping coach) at Queens Park Rangers last season that the lad has a bright future ahead of him and that augurs well for Wales.
“It’s always going to be tough for a small nation like ours to qualify, but I believe that Toshack is doing a good job, despite the criticism he has taken.”