AS Brentford’s PFA representative by the age of 22, Gary Roberts’ future vocation was always going to involve telling people what to do.
Now 53, the former Wales Under-21 forward has just celebrated his tenth anniversary as Cambridge City manager; a second job to go with his day-to-day role as a police constable with the Hertfordshire constabulary.
“I was a young shop steward – Fiery Roberts as they used to call me,” smiles Rhyl-born ‘Robbo’, recalling his 215-game, 78-goal Griffin Park career that at one point saw a move to Derby County agreed, until a medical showed he’d played an entire season with a fractured ankle.
After dropping into Non-League with Barnet, Maidstone, Welling, Stevenage, Hitchin and Baldock Town, Roberts took over as joint player-manager of the latter – his adopted hometown club – with Steve Cook in 1999.
After Baldock’s closure in 2001, the pair then took St Albans City to the top of the Ryman Premier before Roberts was sacked in December 2002 as ownership politics raged at Clarence Park.
He landed the Lilywhites’ job a fortnight later and remarkably, seeing as he’d been a joint gaffer until then, has never had an assistant at Milton Road.
“When I first started I was quite authoritarian,” says Roberts. “I had a certain way of doing things in terms of players. I used to give them a lot of leeway, but then I expected a hell of a lot in return for that.
“Sometimes if they didn’t quite come up to the levels I was expecting, I could be ruthless and they’d be gone, but I’ve found over the last couple of years that I’ve mellowed.
“I just thought, ‘I like this game, I enjoy all the aspects of it as well – even the negotiations, finding players and chatting to them – so why let anger take over?’
“Don’t get me wrong, there are times when it’s quite a lonely existence being a manager without a number two. Sometimes you want to talk to people and when you go scouting all over the shop, you’d like someone else in the car with you to have a chat, but it’s not happened.
“What I have had recently is a committee of four senior players – Dave Theobald, Ada Cambridge, Robbie Nightingale and Neil Midgley – and in the last year, I’ve delegated certain tasks to them which they’ve taken on board.
“Without being a control freak, everything we do is still down to me in terms of training, pre-season, how we set up and stuff like that, but they put little bits in now as well.”
Roberts admits he came close to not seeing out his decade after an FA Cup first qualifying round replay defeat to Ryman One North side Maldon & Tiptree last term.
“At the time I didn’t think I was getting the support of some of the players, but when I look back on it, the players I had weren’t good enough at the time,” he says.
“I was at a crossroads in terms of whether to pack it in or not, and I was seriously thinking about it because I want to watch my team play good football, I want to see them compete. Not a win-at-all-costs attitude, but I want to have good players and good people around the football club, and at that stage it wasn’t happening.
“I had three or four days to think about it, then I said ‘Right, sod this, I’ve been in this game too long’. I changed it around, we went on an unbeaten streak and got ourselves back towards the top of the league.
“That was about the watershed time for me, and I’ve just kept that same attitude since.”
Being in the upper reaches of a table is something City fans have grown used to under Roberts since he made a vow to them after ensuring Southern Premier survival on the final day of that 2002-03 season.
“I promised the 40 or 50 fans at Hinckley that day that it would never get to that point again under me,” says Roberts. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but it hasn’t.”
City had finished above 14th only once in the previous 11 seasons, so eighth – and qualification for the newly-formed Conference South in his first full campaign – was success.
The next season it got even better, runners-up spot in the new Step 2 league seeing them contest a play-off final with Eastbourne Borough, who won 3-0 to qualify for a North v South playoff against Altrincham for a place in Non-League’s top-flight.
They also reached the FA Cup second round and Trophy quarter-finals that year, before finishing seventh and then just below halfway for two seasons before they were kicked out of the Conference set-up in 2008, their Milton Road ground having been sold to developers three years earlier.
Ever since, they’ve been in and around the Southern Premier play-offs, which is impressive since Roberts has developed and sold on a number of future Football League and BSBP players in Robbie and Josh Simpson, Craig Dobson, Mark Molesley, Michael Gash, Danny Blanchett and Scott Neilson.
“It’s been very eventful,” says Roberts, who chairman Kevin Satchell revealed last week has not had a pay rise in five years.
“Every year we have the same chat. I say to Kevin ‘Look, I’m not in it for the money’. My main aim is personal fulfilment and for the club to benefit.
“I’ve enjoyed my time with the majority of managers I’ve come into contact with, too. I’d hope they say the same about me. I sit down, enjoy the game and get on with what we have to do; not try and rant, rave and intimidate the opposition and the referee.
“Managers have got to step back from that now. There are ways of motivating your team, and I don’t think mine have ever been under-motivated by me not standing up there with the veins bursting in my neck.”
That’s the mature, experienced manager speaking. Gary Roberts: PC in every way!