Leaving Tranmere was my toughest decision, says Gareth Roberts
TRANMERE continue to pull the heartstrings of Gareth Roberts, even though he played his last game in a Rovers shirt more than six years ago.
The 34-year-old left-back is one of only three players to notch up 300 Tranmere appearances in the new millennium, Ian Goodison and John Achterberg being the others.
He continues to follow the Wirral team’s progress closely – wife Nicky, a Rovers fanatic, sees to that.
So Roberts was never going to allow a calf injury to prevent him playing against Tranmere for his latest club, Derby County, in the FA Cup.
“I wasn’t quite 100% but it was one game I did not want to miss,” said Roberts, whose typically composed and solid contribution helped the Rams to a 5-0 victory at Pride Park last weekend.
It was Roberts’ first encounter with Tranmere since he joined Derby in 2010 and he chose the occasion to reveal that leaving Prenton Park to join Doncaster Rovers in the summer of 2006 was the toughest choice of his career.
Roberts said: “It was probably the most difficult decision I have ever had to make. My head said I had to go. I had been there seven years and we had only just stayed up in League One that season. I think we finished fifth bottom and it was a very difficult campaign.
“Doncaster came in, I spoke to them and then Tranmere put a very good offer on the table. It would have been for another three years which meant I would have had a testimonial too.
“But I knew in my own mind that if I didn’t go then, I would never go.
“I felt I needed a new challenge but I remember driving to Doncaster with my agent and a number of times I nearly turned the car around.”
Born in Corwen, North Wales, Roberts started as a trainee at Liverpool and came through the system with Jamie Carragher and David Thompson. Striker Michael Owen was in the same youth team, although he was two years younger.
After failing to make the breakthrough into senior football at Anfield, Roberts was playing in Greece with Panianios when he was presented with the chance to join fTranmere in 1999, initially on a three-month loan and then permanently.
“The Tranmere team then were a mixture of young and experienced players like David Kelly, Andy Thompson, and Nick Henry – players that have played in the Premier League,” recalled Roberts.
“Then there was Clint Hill playing centre-back, Dave Challinor and Andy Parkinson, who scored loads of goals in the cup games.
“John Aldridge was manager, who was a great motivator, and Kevin Sheedy was his number two.”
Tranmere forged a reputation as cup battlers and they reached the League Cup final at Wembley in February 2000, when they lost 2-1 to a Leicester City side that included Tim Flowers, Emile Heskey, Neil Lennon, Tony Cottee and Robbie Savage, who later became a team-mate of Roberts at Derby.
“I remember walking around the pitch at Wembley before sitting in the dressing room before the game,” Roberts recalled.
“David Kelly, who was one of the more senior players at the time, asked all the staff to leave the dressing room. He then got all the lads together and said ‘listen, this is our chance now. We might not ever get back to Wembley again’.
“Unfortunately, Clint Hill got sent off after about an hour and Leicester’s Matt Elliott scored two headers from corners that day, while Kelly scored our goal.
“We deserved to get something out of the game but with Clint getting sent off it was an uphill battle from then. The occasion was certainly one to savour.”
Roberts had a successful time at Doncaster where he played 165 games and helped the club to win promotion to the Championship in 2008.
He joined Derby in 2010 and has made close to 100 appearances for the Rams.
The 34-year-old is out of contract in the summer but his good form, consistency and influence in the squad have drawn praise from manager Nigel Clough.