Cup meeting with Tranmere brings back memories for Rams full-back
TODAY'S opponents in the FA Cup, Tranmere Rovers, have played a significant part in the career of Derby County defender Gareth Roberts.
Roberts made almost 350 appearances for Rovers during a seven-year spell and enjoyed some memorable moments, so much so that he admits leaving them in 2006 to join Doncaster Rovers was probably the toughest decision he has had to make.
Roberts was playing in Greece with Panianios when he signed for Tranmere, initially on a three-month loan and then permanently.
"I thoroughly enjoyed it at Tranmere and I was playing regularly alongside a great bunch of lads," said Roberts, who is hoping to shake off a calf injury to play against his old club in this afternoon's third round tie at Pride Park.
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"The Tranmere team were a mixture of young players and experienced players like David Kelly, Andy Thompson, and Nick Henry – players that have played in the Premier League," said 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 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.
Steve Harkness and Stig Inge Bjørnebye were the two left-backs ahead of Roberts and so he tried his luck playing in Greece after he received a call from former Liverpool midfielder Ronnie Whelan.
But it was at Tranmere where his career took off and he remembers the day he decided to leave the Prenton Park club.
"It was probably the most difficult decision I have ever had to make," he said.
"My head said I had to go. I had been there seven years and we had only just stayed up 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 round."
Roberts had a successful time at Doncaster where he played 165 games and helped the club to win promotion to the Championship in 2008. They beat Leeds United in the League One play-off final at Wembley.
He joined Derby in 2010 and has made 93 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.
And Roberts is enjoying his football.
"The team are playing some great, attacking football, especially at home where we do not fear anybody," he said.
"The future is certainly bright at Derby. There is a very young squad of players here eager to learn.
"A lot of credit needs to go to the manager, the staff and the groundwork they put in.
"The gaffer has signed some very good players who have slotted in as though they have been here for years."