The unique beauty of the football pyramid is revered as much now as it has ever been. A flurry of former non-league England internationals capped during the Roy Hodgson and Gareth Southgate reigns goes to show that progression up the leagues is a genuine possibility for the very best in non-league. But however rare these fairy tales are today, career progression of this sort was commonplace in the 20th century, before top academies grew more efficient at producing their own talent, as well as rich enough to hoover up everyone else’s emerging stars.
“I think it’s a lot harder now,” says Graham Roberts, who went from non-league obscurity with Dorchester Town and Weymouth to become a Tottenham Hotspur legend in the 1980s, earning six England caps along the way.
“In our day, coaches and scouts used to go round all the non-league grounds and watch lower-league football to find decent players,” he tells EnglandFootball.org. “You have Stuart Pearce, Andy Townsend — I know he was the Republic of Ireland. Because the way the Premier League has gone now, you don’t get so many players coming through — it’s harder. Jamie Vardy’s been exceptional, absolutely amazing. You get a handful now, instead of having maybe ten or 20 coming through.Embed from Getty Images
“I did my apprenticeships at Portsmouth, Bournemouth, got released by Southampton. I went to Dorchester and enjoyed it. Then I went to [Weymouth], where I met up with Stuart Morgan, who was the coach at Bournemouth in my youth days. The day I joined, I’ll never forget, Stuart said to me: ‘Look, you won’t be here very long because I think you can go and play at the highest level’. I played really well for the six months I was there. Ron Atkinson wanted me at West Brom and Bill Nicholson saw me for Tottenham. I chose Tottenham, which in the end was the best result for me. But when you’re down at that level, it’s very hard. You’re only training twice a week.”
Midway through his successful six-year spell at Spurs, Roberts was called up to the England team for the first time. “I never expected it,” he admits. “I was in Trinidad at the time on tour at the end of the season. Peter Shreeves came to me and said, ‘You’ve been picked to meet up with England’. Because we’d all been out playing golf and having a drink, I thought he was taking the Mickey. He came to me that night and said, ‘No, it’s true!’.
“I was very excitable; we had a few glasses of beer. I came back [to England], and I was lucky enough to make my debut against Northern Ireland. I thought it might have been the first and the last game, because I nearly scored an own goal. But Peter Shilton pulled off a wonder-save, and I got to play against Scotland in the second game… we won 2-0.”Embed from Getty Images
Roberts earned six caps for England in total, all under the stewardship of the much-loved and -missed Sir Bobby Robson. “He was honest,” Roberts says about his former manager. “All you ever want from managers is [for them] to be honest to you. After that first game, we trained on the Monday. He put his arm round me and said, ‘You did OK. You can do better, but I’m going to play you on the Wednesday’. That’s what you want from managers. I always had a good relationship with him. He gave me my debut, so I’ll always thank him for that. I play in all his charity golf days in Portugal. Even though he passed away, we still go to it. He was a top, top man.”
Last capped in June 1984, Roberts can count himself unlucky that he never got a taste of tournament football. England failed to reach Euro ´84, missing out to Denmark by a single point in the qualification group. But his final international break as an England player could scarcely have been more eventful.
“We played [the Soviet Union], and then we went to Brazil. In the [first] game, I felt a little twinge in my groin. Nothing major — I didn’t think it was, anyway. All of a sudden, I need[ed] to go to the toilet. I went in there and collapsed. I was gone for about five or six minutes. My appendix ruptured and I got rushed to hospital. They said I had an hour to live. I’ve got a scar which is about that high.” He holds his hands what feels like miles apart from each other.Embed from Getty Images
“So, it wasn’t the best operation. I’ve suffered ever since from it. I woke up the next day. Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins came to see me. They couldn’t believe what a state I was in. I was covered, still, in the nightgown that I had on. But it was covered in blood — they hadn’t even cleaned me up.
“After that, England beat Brazil 2-0 — John Barnes — and I stayed in Brazil when they went to Uruguay and [Chile]. I rested the rest of the summer and then joined up with Tottenham for preseason training. It was scary. I never played [for England again]. I captained the B team against New Zealand — I got to captain my country. But I was just happy to be alive.”
“I was covered in blood — they hadn’t even cleaned me up.”Graham Roberts on suffering a ruptured appendix while on England duty in South America
But Roberts’ first true England moment came well before the debut, the caps, and the ruptured appendix. “I remember Peter Shilton in 1973 playing against Poland.” Roberts refers to the famous 1-1 draw in which Jan ‘The Clown’ Tomaszewski almost singlehandedly denied England a place at the 1974 World Cup. “I got picked to be ballboy. I was actually behind the goal when they scored. People don’t know that, but that was my first time. When you go there, you think: ‘I want to come back here’.” Return to Wembley he most certainly did.
It’s clear that Roberts has a special place in his heart for his country. “I won trophies at Tottenham, Rangers and Chelsea. Because I worked hard, our team won trophies. Nothing can ever beat that,” he says proudly. “But when you get picked for your first game for England ever, don’t forget: you’re representing the whole of England. It’s massive. 11 players and five subs, you’re thinking: ‘Wow, that is something special’.”Embed from Getty Images
Roberts is nearly a decade retired from a journeyman managerial career which saw him manage, amongst others, Yeovil Town, Clyde in Scotland, and the national teams of Pakistan and Nepal. Having shuttled up and down the side-lines for 20 years, he is well-placed to assess the work of the current England boss, Gareth Southgate.
“He’s given the youngsters a chance. It’s OK playing all your experienced players, but do the experienced players give as much? Youngsters want to run around, they’ve got enthusiasm and energy. I think most teams you see Gareth put out, there’s a lot of energy. The youngsters think, ‘If I don’t play well, I’m not going to be in the next squad’, where an experienced player thinks, ‘Well, I’m in the squad’.
“I think he’s done a brilliant job and we have a good future. Hopefully Gareth will stay and be a part of that because he’s a lovely man, a real gentleman. I wish him all the best.”Embed from Getty Images
Ahead of the Euros, the former England international is unabashedly brazen about where the Three Lions’ current crop are at, and how much confidence they should go into the tournament with. “I think this will be the best chance because we’re playing at home. Playing at home must give you confidence.
“Yes, there are good teams in it, but we’ve got players that are playing in the best league in the world. Why are we not backing ourselves to win this? I think the youngsters will definitely grow from playing in these games. Why are we not backing ourselves to win this? I’m that patriotic, I want us to win it.”