A Wolves hero and Villan at Blues
He may now live over 10,000 miles away in Melbourne, but there is one day in September when Darren Roberts can close his eyes and dream of St Andrew’s. And Birmingham City.
Which is quite a statement considering he is a devout and lifelong Aston Villa fan.
The afternoon of Sunday, September 27th, 1992. Thirty years ago on Tuesday. A Wolves side unbeaten in their first eight games of the season in the equivalent of the Championship, travelled to face Blues who had also started strongly and, with a game in hand, were just two points and two places behind, occupying fifth position in the table. And all shown kick-by-kick on ITV at a time when live football on television was still something of a novelty.
So even the most optimistic Wolves fan, and most pessimistic Bluenose, would have struggled to predict that the visitors would find themselves four goals to the good after a scintillating opening 45 minutes. And even more so that the identity of the striker who notched a first half hat trick for Wolves was not infact a certain Steve Bull, but a raw and enthusiastic 22-year-old not only making his club debut but his first ever appearance in senior football.
Darren Roberts could not have dreamt of anything more. If Carlsberg did debuts for Aston Villa fans, eh?
“What a day,” he recalls.
“A local derby, live on TV, and getting to make my debut, as a Villa fan, away at Blues.
“And then scoring a hat trick in the first half, it all happened so quickly and was so surreal.
“It was an amazing day, an amazing debut, and I will always be proud of what I achieved that afternoon.
“It couldn’t have happened against a better club for a Villa fan, could it? It would be like a Wolves fan going out and scoring a hat-trick against the Baggies!”
There must be something about the surname ‘Roberts’ and grabbing a treble in a big local derby!
For Darren, the road to that memorable goal-blitz in Brum was very much a long and winding one, and had rarely progressed in a straight line.
Born and brought up in Kingstanding to the north of the Second City, he turned out for Perry Common School and the Erdington & Saltley District team, showing sufficient promise to become part of the youth-set up at Villa under the watchful eye of Brian Little.
When Little made the short trip across the Midlands for his spell as caretaker manager with Wolves, he took Roberts with him, and, as a 16-year-old, the young frontman was all set for a Molineux apprenticeship.
“But I didn’t want to do it,” says Roberts.
“For some reason, I just got it in my head that it wasn’t quite right and it wasn’t for me.
“At the time I just wanted to be a lad from Kingstanding, going out and being a teenager, which sounds stupid now, but football just wasn’t my priority.
“I remember Brian phoning my parents and telling them they were going to offer me an apprenticeship, and my Dad couldn’t believe that I wasn’t interested.
“Maybe it was because I’d been pushed too much, but I’d had enough, and I just wanted to go back to being a kid and doing what every other teenager was doing around my neighbourhood at the time.”
Roberts gave up any pursuit of a professional career for almost three years, reverting to playing on Sundays in the Festival League, before, slowly but surely, the interest and the excitement returned.
He stepped up several levels to play for Armitage 90 in the Midland Combination Division, and then higher still with Burton Albion then in the Beazer Homes League, all the while scoring goals and attracting attention.
Attention that eventually led to a straight shootout for his services between Wolves and Derby County.
Whilst Wolves had a certain striking combo by the names of Bull and (Andy) Mutch, Derby had more depth in the position with several others challenging Marco Gabbiadini and Paul Kitson for a place in the starting line-up.
Not to mention that, for Roberts, there was a feeling of unfinished business at Molineux.
“I went to meet (Derby manager) Arthur Cox and played in a trial game at the Baseball Ground, and then went to meet Graham Turner at Wolves,” he explains.
“I just felt Wolves was the right move for me, even knowing the quality of Bully and Mutchy, because having been there before, and the way I had left, I just thought it was the right thing to do.
“I also knew Burkey (Mark Burke) from my time at Villa, and bumped into him again on the day I came to meet Graham, which was another reason why I decided to go for Wolves.
“It all seemed to happen very quickly, because while the scouts had been watching me for a while, as soon as the interest came out it was all agreed within a week.”
Signed towards the end of the 1991/92 season, Roberts quickly settled into the reserve set-up with a regular supply of goals followed by a promising pre-season, including scoring in a friendly against Dumbarton.
Very much a part of the first-team set-up as the new campaign kicked off, he was on the bench as cover for Bull and Mutch until an injury to the latter saw him land his chance in a top-of-the-table derby.
“We trained on the Saturday morning and Mutchy must have picked up a problem and told the boss afterwards but I had no idea at that time,” Roberts recalls.
“I only really found out the next day when Mutchy didn’t travel but even then, I thought the boss might mix things around a bit and put a few square pegs in round holes.
“I had no inkling I was going to start until the team meeting an hour before kick-off, so there wasn’t any time for the nerves to set in.
“Having said that, when you are young I don’t think you get that nervous, and at the time I was confident that I could go out there and do a job.”
Do a job he did, and so too Wolves. With bells on.
After 14 minutes Roberts headed home a throw from Kevin Ashley, on 39 he struck again after Bull had pressurised the Blues back-line into a mistake, and
after Keith Downing added a third, another header wrapped up the hat trick and a derby-defying four-goal cushion.
What on earth was going through his head at half time?
“I was just told to sit down and calm down,” he laughs.
“The game was won so as a team we were told to go out and consolidate, get another goal or two if we could but nothing stupid, no injuries, no red cards – use our common sense.
“For me the adrenalin was pumping, I don’t think I slept for three or four days afterwards, and so it was very much about calming down and trying to come back down to earth.”
There were no further additions to the scoresheet in the second half, a hat trick was enough, and a momentous day was celebrated in the only way befitting of a debut day treble. Down the pub!
“Football is very different now to what it was then,” says Roberts.
“Nowadays it’s all about recovery, resting up, listening to the sport scientists, getting the right fluids on board.
“Back then the only way to celebrate a result like that was fluid of a very different kind, a few beers down the pub!
“You can take the lad out of Kingstanding but you can’t take Kingstanding out of the lad and I just went back to the local and celebrated with my mates – it’s fair to say it was a good night!”
Contained within those reflections from Roberts are a nagging sense of what ‘might have been’ in his career had he perhaps approached things differently.
Had he used that Blues hat trick as a kick-start to work harder, to work smarter, and try and establish himself as a Wolves regular.
Having said that, he had Bull and Mutch for pretty formidable company in the battle for places, and acknowledges that – with only two more goals from a further 25 Wolves appearances, almost half of which came from the bench – he eventually ‘found his level’.
“My only regret from that time at Wolves is not working that little bit harder, staying longer, working more in the gym,” Roberts explains.
“We weren’t encouraged to do that as players are now and I would have loved to have played in an era of sport science and psychologists and just looking after myself better.
“Nowadays they do the outdoor training and then the gym and weights sessions but in my day I’d be home at lunchtime and be bored out of my mind.
“Maybe you’d go off to the snooker club or what have you, but you wouldn’t really be getting the rest and recovery in.
“Of course, it was always going to be a big challenge to get into the team ahead of Bully or Mutchy, but I just wish I could have given them more of a challenge.
“They are both great blokes, they were always supportive and encouraging me, and working hard and setting an example.
“They were a good group of players at Wolves at the time, and I blame nobody but myself for not going that extra mile after training and doing more to improve myself behind the scenes.
“I would always say to young players now, football is a blessing and a gift and one they should never take for granted.
“I’ve never been afraid of hard work through my life but maybe I didn’t quite do enough when I was a young player, and, if I was to have my time again, I’d like to think I would do that little bit more.”
Roberts admits he can’t turn the clock back, and is perhaps being particularly hard on himself as he certainly went on to forge a decent career within the game in the lower leagues after leaving Wolves in 1994.
Perhaps his most notable period came with Darlington, including an FA Cup tie at home to Wolves when he received a warm ovation from the travelling fans, whilst he also turned out for Exeter, Peterborough, Chesterfield, Hereford and Scarborough, amongst others.
As he wound down his career within non-league football combined with working as a gas engineer, there was still however another opportunity to wear the gold and black, on several occasions, and this time to win silverware.
That’s because for several years Roberts was part of the Wolves team who played in the popular Masters tournaments for over-35s, and, once again, he was amongst the goals.
Twice Wolves won the Midlands competition when Roberts was part of the squad, and once, alongside the likes of Burke, Don Goodman, David Kelly, Andy Thompson and Mick Gooding, the national competition as well.
And the Brummie striker once more proved he was the man for the big occasion, when, with the final against Manchester City locked at 3-3, he grabbed a brace to secure Wolves’ success.
“I really enjoyed those Masters events, especially when we won the national one,” Roberts admits.
“It was great to meet the lads again, put the Wolves top back on, and score a few goals.
“I remember after we won the main competition Burkey and myself were invited to a game at Molineux to show the trophy off at half time!
“It was great to get that connection because I still have a lot of love for the Wolves fans and I love the club, except when they play against Villa!
“When I come back over, I will always try and get to a game or pop into Molineux and I am really going to miss Graham (Hughes) who I would always come and see.
“Graham used to make me a cup of tea before training, he was part of the furniture at Wolves, and he always gave me such a warm welcome and a chat when I was back visiting the club.
“It was very sad when he passed away last year.”
Those visits back to the UK now take place every two to three years as Roberts checks back in to catch up with family and friends, including his Mum, who turns 90 this year.
It was back in 2009 that Roberts and wife Cindy headed Down Under for a new life in Melbourne, where both they and their now grown-up children Jemma and Alex, and grandchildren Aariyah, Aiyla, Zayn and Charlie are now happily settled.
“We came over here to try and make a better life and have no regrets,” he explains.
“Obviously we miss family and I miss a lot of mates back in the UK and I miss going down the Villa, although I did get over to Perth to see them play this pre-season.
“But we do enjoy the lifestyle in sunny Melbourne, my wife works at the local hospital and I’m working in construction and playing plenty of golf when I get the chance, just making sure I keep out of the way of the snakes!
“I actually carried on playing for a few years after coming over, for a local team Seaford United.
“At the end of the one season, my son Alex, then only 16, came on and scored the goal that won us the league title, which was a brilliant moment.
“Being on the pitch and winning the league with my boy made it the perfect time to bow out and finally retire.
“By that stage the old injuries were coming back to haunt me, and, having had to have several knee and ankle operations down the years, I was certainly hobbling around by the end!”
A great memory to round off the Roberts career, off the back of a great memory which effectively started it off, three decades ago at St Andrew’s.
He no longer has the matchball – he decided to pass that on to Wolves fan Carl Falconer who would “enjoy it more”, but he will always have the memories.
“I’ve still got the goals on video, and I’ve still got the memories, and that’s all I need,” says Roberts.
“Those memories will never leave me, I will take them to my grave.
“There were probably a lot of ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ from my career but that’s in the past now and I can’t change it.
“But I will always remember that day, even all the interviews and the lads taking the piss the next day in training, it still feels like yesterday.
“I had friends who are Blues fans who came over and hugged me because they were proud of what a lad from Kingstanding had done even though they knew I was a Villa fan.
“I can close my eyes and still picture it all, and it’s a day that will stick with me forever.”
It will indeed, and also for the Wolves fans who were there at St Andrew’s to enjoy the show. Sunday, September 27th, 1992. Darren’s Day. One never to be forgotten.