Iwan Roberts not only needs no introduction, he doesn’t need his surname. Just saying ‘Iwan’ is enough. Here is his chapter in the first volume of the Tales From The City trilogy, reproduced here with the kind permission of Adam Leventhal for the publishers and editor Mick Dennis. It was first published in October 2015
My last game at Carrow Road ended with me fighting back the tears as the crowd chanted, ‘Iwan! Iwan! Iwan!’. But my Norwich career didn’t start like that.
At the very beginning, the chant was, ‘What a waste of money’. And in the letters page of the Eastern Daily Press, one person said I was the worst player the club had ever signed. Another went further, saying I was the worst ever to wear a Norwich shirt. It was the bleakest period of all my years as a pro.
I hadn’t even wanted to join Norwich – or rather, I hadn’t wanted to leave Wolves. I’d only been there for a season and I had another two years left on my contract.
It was late June 1997. Mark McGhee, the Wolves manager, called me into his office on the first day of pre-season. I had literally arrived back from Australia the day before, having spent the whole of my time off there. Mark didn’t mess about in telling me that he had accepted an offer from another club for my services. I told him I didn’t really want to leave, but he’d been told that before he could bring in any new faces he had to sell players first – and I was the only player that an offer had been made for!
He told me to go and talk to Mike Walker, the Norwich boss, and look around at Carrow Road and the training ground at Colney, and if I then didn’t fancy the move to come back and fight for my place.
But I was not stupid. I had been in the game long enough to realise that if the club had accepted an offer for me, and the manager was OK about that, then he was basically telling me I wasn’t in his plans. I had no future at Wolves.
So the very next morning I set off to Norwich with my then-agent David Speedie (who I’d played alongside with at Leicester) to have a look around the place and discuss terms.
The first thing that hits you when travelling to Norwich is how far from everywhere the place is! After you’ve lived in Norfolk for a while you realise that that’s a positive and not a negative. But that journey, with so much going through my mind, seemed to last for ever. The negotiations didn’t take long, however. Mike showed us around, and David did the deal about personal terms while I was having my medical with Tim Sheppard.
Everything was agreed and obviously, I was impressed with the facilities at both the ground and the training ground, which was nearly brand new, but I still wanted to think things over. I had to be 100 per cent sure about the move.
However, after a weekend of thinking about things long and hard, I decided that my future lay in Norfolk. Mind you I still pulled into a lay-by near Snetterton to ask myself if I was doing the right thing.
Yet once the season kicked off, just about everyone else had doubts about whether signing me was right. Mike had described me as ‘the final piece of the jigsaw’ – but I fell apart in the box. Boom, tish.
Off the pitch, I just couldn’t settle. I honestly don’t know why but I found it so hard. I had to stay at the Holiday Inn on the Ipswich Road. I wanted my son Ben to start school in the area in September and so he stayed with me while his mum and his twin sister stayed in Shropshire. That wasn’t ideal.
Don’t get me wrong: staying in a nice hotel for a couple of weeks is lovely, but when you are there for nearly five months you hanker for a home. There was a nice lad who used to serve me breakfast, though – the one and only Jake Humphrey, who had a part-time job there.
On the pitch, I couldn’t get going. Breakfasts might have been part of my problem. I was slightly heavier than I should have been, because I had not done much training while away in Australia.
The club had forked out a hefty £850,000 for me, so supporters were expecting big things, but perhaps not quite that big. It was a tough time for me and I took some stick, which is never nice, but I could totally understand the fans’ frustrations with my lack of good performances and even more importantly lack of goals.
I scored home and away in the two-legged League Cup tie against Barnet in August and I remember my first League goal against Middlesbrough – a header from a peach of a cross from Danny Mills – but that wasn’t until November, and we lost that Middlesbrough game, at home.
Goals that season were few and far between. I heard the shouts. They were things like, ‘Why don’t you go back to Wolves, Roberts you donkey?’ There were plenty more, but you have to keep your head down work hard, not let the doubters win and try and prove people wrong.
I don’t know why, but I read the letters pages in the Eastern Daily Press and the Evening News to see what people were writing about me, and believe you me, none of it was good.
The incident that really hurt me though came when I walked out of the players’ entrance with my son Ben after we had lost another home game. I had performed shockingly.
The players’ entrance was at the Barclay End. As we turned to walk down Carrow Road we were met by around 50 fans who had been protesting at the main entrance of the City Stand. As soon as they saw me they vented their anger. They swore, they booed, they called me all sorts of things, but instead of turning round and heading straight back into the safety of the players’ bar I headed straight for them.
It wasn’t pleasant and boy was I relieved to reach my car. As soon as we got into the car Ben turned to me and asked, ‘Dad why don’t those men like you?’ For him to have to go through that at four years of age was wrong, but it made me so determined from that moment on to show everyone that I was not a waste of money or the worst signing the club had ever made.
That season finished better for me with three goals in the final two home games. That won some fans over but I knew that I would have to come back fitter, leaner and hungrier the following season if I was to convince the majority of supporters.
Those goals were not enough to save my good friend Mike Walker from being sacked, and to this day I still hold myself massively responsible for his departure. He had put so much faith in signing me and I let him down badly.
My second season at Norwich was by far my best for the club and I have Bruce Rioch to thank for that. Oh, and a certain Welshman. Well, he was more of a boy at the time: Craig Bellamy.
As a player, when a new man takes charge, you’re always a bit in limbo. You don’t know whether you’re going to be his type of player or not. You don’t know if you still have a future at the club or will you be moved on. But Bruce had tried to sign me a couple of times when he had been in charge at Bolton, so when he got the Norwich job that summer, I was quietly confident and looking forward to working with him.
It didn’t take too long before the doubts started to creep in, though.
In fact, a simple sentence from Bruce was all it took for me to realise that I had to sort myself out or I would be on the footballing scrapheap at the grand old age of 30. It was in Bruce’s first meeting with everyone up in the dining room at Colney, when he was being introduced to us all, that the bombshell was dropped.
All the players had been in early for all their fitness tests and to be weighed. We had been off for over two months but, unlike the summer before, I had worked reasonably hard through the break. Yet I still found myself a bit overweight. Well, nearly a stone to be exact. Bruce was a no-nonsense, old-school type of a manager and I liked that, but he was far from impressed with my results, especially how heavy I’d come back.
In front of everyone, he pulled his glasses down to the tip of his nose looked at the piece of paper in his hand with my results on it, then looked up at me and, in a quiet voice, said, ‘Iwan, Tom Walley would be very proud of you!’
Those simple words gave me the biggest kick up the backside ever and I instantly realised that I was drinking in the last chance saloon. Why was I so shocked at what Bruce had said? It’s not as if he’d ranted and raved at me. To be fair, I wish he had. It would have been easier to take.
Bruce was being sarcastic with his comment about Tom Walley, who was my youth team coach at Watford and probably the biggest influence in my career. He’d worked with Bruce at both Millwall and Arsenal, so they knew each other very well. Tom was a fitness fanatic and wanted his players to be the same. He hated any player who was overweight and not looking after himself properly. Bruce knew that Tom would have been appalled by my condition. I knew it too.
There and then I knew I had to get to grips with myself, lose the excess weight I was carrying and get myself into the best shape of my life.
Fortunately, the right manager was in place for that. Bruce’s pre-seasons were well known in the game for being absolute killers. So the Norwich players were expecting a tough time and their expectations were fulfilled. I’ve completed 21 pre-seasons and that one was by far the toughest I’ve ever encountered. It was exactly what I needed because it did the trick. Three sessions a day and the weight dropped off. I lost a stone and a half and was the fittest I’d ever been.
I was on the bench when the season started, though. The manager opted for the youth of Bellamy and Keith O’Neil up front for the opening fixture, a League Cup match at Swansea, and they played very well, causing defences problems with their pace and movement. I just had to be patient.
In the first League game, away to Stockport, Keith picked up an injury and I replaced him with six minutes left. Keith was back in the team for the next match: the second leg against Swansea in the League Cup. He came off at the stroke of 90 minutes. I went on – and scored after 91! But there wasn’t a sniff of a place in the starting line-up for me.
Then, in the sixth game of the season, we lost 2-0 at West Brom. This time it was Darren Eadie I replaced as sub 18 minutes from time, and I think the fact that I was so determined and focused every time I got off the bench, that persuaded Bruce to give me a proper go. Or, more accurately, it was the fact that Keith was having real injury problems that meant I was in the starting line-up for the game at Barnsley on a Tuesday night in early September.
It’s not the ideal way to get into the team when a teammate gets injured, but it’s part of the game. I felt bad for Keith, as he was a great lad who I’d got on with from Day One.
But that Tuesday night at Barnsley we won. I scored and so did Bellars. A partnership had begun. We hit it off on the pitch straight away and I can’t really explain to you why. Yes, we are both passionate Welshmen but that’s all we really had in common, because he was closer to my son’s age than to mine. So when I invited him round to the house for tea he’d spend more time on the PlayStation with Ben than he would talking to me.
On the pitch, though, it was as if the understanding between us was telepathic. I knew exactly what he was going to do and where he wanted the ball and vice-versa.
I loved playing up front with him, even if he could be a mouthy git at times! He was scary quick and was so confident for such a young lad. He knew he was going to reach the very top. Some people thought Craig was arrogant and, well, he probably was, but it didn’t really bother me because he could back it up with his performances and I’ve always thought that all the top players have that little bit of arrogance about them. That’s what makes them the players they are.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve fallen out with Bellars more than once. I remember on one night out in Ireland, where we were on pre-season tour, having a proper argument with him. I’d overheard him saying something about me to one of the other players. I responded with, ‘Shut up, you one season wonder’.
Boy, did those words come back to haunt me! But to this day we laugh about it and if we had our fallings out, it never affected how we were with each other on the field. That’s how it should be.
It wasn’t all rows though. I was quite protective of Craig, as he mentions in his autobiography. He was a fantastic player too and I firmly believe that if he had not received a horrendous injury at the hands – or rather the feet – of a certain Kevin Muscat at Wolves, we wouldn’t have been far off winning promotion that season.
I heard the crack of Craig’s kneecap as Muscat clattered Craig and I knew that he would be out for a long period. Bruce came storming onto the pitch in a fury about the challenge. Norwich fans never forgave Muscat or his club, Wolves. And the injury caused Craig problems for the rest of his career.
The injury happened in early December. Craig and I had scored more goals than any other strike partnership at the club, and without the injury, I think we could have scored enough goals to fire us towards the top of the division. But Craig didn’t play again until the end of January – after very nearly two months. It was a long, disruptive absence.
I ended up that season with 23 goals, 19 of which came in the League. I was gutted that I didn’t reach the magical 20 League goals mark which all forwards set themselves at the start of the season, but I won the Barry Butler Player Of The Season trophy. And fans had started chanting my name, instead of, ‘What a waste of money!’
Bellars was one of the two best trainers at the club in my seven years there. The other was another extremely talented player: Darren Huckerby. Bellars and Hucks would both go out every morning and train as if it were their last ever session. They both prepared meticulously before training, to make sure they were warmed up properly and ensure they could commit to whatever session that was planned for us.
They had other similarities too. They were both were electrifyingly quick and ultra-competitive. Hucks still is. We’re both over 35 and play vets football.
When Hucks and I played in the first Jamie’s Game, for the Norwich City Community Sports Foundation, at Carrow Road, I played at centre-back and had a bit of fun, as befitted the occasion. Hucks wanted to win, believe me. He was very upset about being asked to swap sides because he had scored so many for the first side they’d stuck him in!
I haven’t played with Craig for years, but I can’t imagine that Craig has lost any of his competitive edge either, because he had so much of it.
I would have loved to have played more games with Darren because I know he would have made sure he created enough chances for me to score over 100 goals for the club (instead of the 96 I finished on).
Hucks was such an unselfish player and that’s the only difference between him and Bellars. Hucks would get as much pleasure in creating a goal as he would in scoring a goal whereas Craig wouldn’t. Craig was more selfish. He would rather try and score himself than pass to a teammate who was in a better position to score … but I’ve done that myself on a few occasions.
Hucks and I have stayed good friends over the years and I’ve a massive amount of respect for him as a person and for what he did for Norwich City. If it wasn’t for him joining us on loan and then signing for us at Christmas 2003, we would never have won the Football League. It’s as simple as that.
We had a decent side that might have made the play-offs, but Darren gave us that something different, that X-factor that any side needs if they have ambitions of winning titles. I didn’t collect too many medals in my career. I got a couple of play-off winners’ medals with Leicester, but the one that takes pride of place in my son’s bedroom is my Championship Winners medal from the 2003-04 season. And I’ve Hucks to thank for that.
Perhaps my lucky pants played a part too. I’m quite a superstitious person and had so many things that I had to go through before a game on a Saturday, especially if I’d scored the week before. I had a routine at home and it rarely changed. In the morning, I’d take the dog for a walk at nine sit down relax and watch a bit of TV before having my pre-match meal at about eleven. I’d get changed into my club suit at noon and put on the same pants as the week before if I’d scored. That’s how superstitious I was.
I always liked to get to Carrow Road at about one o’clock to make sure I was in before the 1.30pm deadline so I wouldn’t get fined. No seriously, I was always early because I don’t like rushing around and leaving things until the last minute. Obviously, the routine was different for away games when we were staying in hotels, but the one thing that would never change, home or away, was the fact that I had to be third or fourth out of the changing room, and I always put my left boot on last. Don’t ask me why, as I’ve no idea!
I wasn’t keen on away games because of all the travelling, lots of time to kill, sleeping in a bed that’s alien to you and, worse of all, having to share a hotel room with a teammate!
To be fair, the lads who had the pleasure of my company in hotels during my time at Norwich were all very good to share with – apart from one. Craig Fleming was a shocking room partner. Flem and I signed in the same week back in 1997 and we’ve remained good friends ever since but, dear me, sharing a hotel room with him tested that friendship.
With Flem it was lights out at no later than nine at night. I kid you not! If I wanted the telly on after lights out, it couldn’t be louder than number two on the volume control, which Flem would set with the remote control before he went to sleep. Believe you me, he would wake up straight away if I dared turn the volume up to level three. And while I was being careful with the noise, Flem was snoring louder than any human I have ever encountered. That was the fault of all the elbows he’d taken to the face in all his years of playing. His nose had taken such a battering that he couldn’t breathe through it properly. So he snored. And snored. Loudly.
My award for the best roommate has to go to Darryl Sutch. He was a great lad and not only a very good roommate but a fantastic Hearts partner. Hearts is the card game we spent hours playing at the back of the coach while on long away journeys. Yes Sutchy and I lost a few but we won far more than we lost. It was a great way of passing the time on long coach trips on a Friday afternoon. And, as fans who go to away games know, the journeys can be really, really long.
I made more than 150 of those trips as a Norwich player – and this was long before the Elveden by-pass, don’t forget. Trips back were a lot more bearable if we’d won, and even more so if I had scored. City fans often ask me which was the best or favourite goal I scored for the club. They are often surprised I don’t pick the one against Birmingham in the Play-Off Final at Cardiff in 2002, although I suppose that wasn’t a bad one!
‘Small’ McVeigh swept a really good, cross-field ball to Alex Notman, who cut in from the right and sent over a fabulous ball to beyond the far post, where I was ready for it. Big Ron Atkinson was co-commentating on the game on TV and he described my contact as a textbook header. I’ll settle for that.
For a split second it was the most important goal I’d ever scored, as I thought it had won us the game. It was in extra-time, and I thought we were playing to the ‘golden goal’ system, which meant the first goal in extra-time wins the game. But after getting off the floor after celebrating with the lads I turned around and realised Stern John and Geoff Horsfield were ready to restart the game. We obviously weren’t using the ‘golden goal’!
I was gutted. And, as we all know they equalised and then we lost on penalties. I scored my pen, though and it was just a shame I couldn’t take all five! No, I used to hate taking penalties, and I hated how that game in Cardiff was decided. I’d never cried on a football pitch, but I did that day. I was sat on the pitch, head between my knees, having to stay out there and watch Birmingham celebrate their victory.
It is still the biggest disappointment in my career. I thought at the time that there was no chance at my age that I would get another crack at the Premier League, and how right I was.
So what was my best goal for the club?
I remember a sweet strike at Oakwell when we wore that ‘lovely’ dark blue kit with fluorescent yellow patches on it. And, of course, there was that left-footed strike against Crewe in my final game for the club. That was a special one, but not my best.
My best goal for City came on the 19th of March, 2000, against Ipswich Town at Portman Road. I never lost an East Anglian derby in my time at the club but this game against the Old Enemy was by far my most enjoyable. We won 2-0 in Bryan Hamilton’s first game in charge as manager with what was probably our best performance of that season. To make things even better, I scored both goals. My first took a slight deflection but there was nothing lucky about the second.
It came from their corner kick. Andy Marshall (still playing for us then) caught the ball and threw it out to the right to Paul Dalglish – who hadn’t inherited his old man’s skills but boy was he quick. He must have got his pace from his mum!
Anyway, Paul tore down that right-hand side and crossed an inch-perfect cross to the far post. I took three touches. With the first I controlled the ball on my thigh and Fabian Willnis so misread what was happening that he kept going so far past me that I thought he’d gone for a pie. My second touch stopped the ball dead so I could steady myself, and my killer third touch planted the ball firmly to the left of Richard Wright.
Even if I say so myself, it was a quality goal. It has been likened to one Dennis Bergkamp scored against Leicester for Arsenal, which is high praise indeed. Personally, I think mine was better.
The only thing that spoilt that day was Bryan Hamilton in the dressing room afterwards telling us not to celebrate too loudly and to be gracious in victory. I’ve heard of being gracious in defeat but never in victory, especially against Ipswich Town.
Bryan was a former favourite at Portman Road as a player and was still very popular down there, so I could understand him telling us what he did. But we ignored the instruction. Believe you me, we made plenty of noise in the away dressing room. Folk who didn’t get to that game probably heard us all the way up the A140 in Norwich.
Even though I scored two goals that day I wasn’t man of the match, and rightly so. Our best player that day was the one and only Mike Milligan. He had by far his best game for the club. Mind you, that’s not setting the bar very high! No, seriously, Milly was immense that day, as he reminds me every time we see each other.
I didn’t really get on with Milly when I first signed because I didn’t know how to take him. He was the biggest mickey-taker in the dressing room and how I didn’t punch him during those first couple of years God only knows. He would slaughter you for anything and he wouldn’t let you get a word in edgeways. He’d just talk over you.
It took a while for me to realise that it was all meant in fun, but eventually we became very close friends. Mike will do anything for you and that hasn’t changed since we both stopped playing football.
Another Irishman I got on well with was Paul McVeigh. In this book, I gather he says he was bought to play alongside me, but didn’t know who I was when he joined. But I didn’t know anything about him either, because I hadn’t played much reserve team football! He signed on a free transfer from Spurs. I’d never heard of a free transfer before, so he had to explain to me what one was!
You could tell, when you saw him with the ball at his feet, that he’d had his footballing education at Tottenham and these days I understand he turns out for the Tottenham Legends team. He must have made some impact then in his one appearance for Spurs in the third round of the League Cup in 1998! Sorry, Macca. The truth is I loved playing alongside you because you were very good.
There were lots of good players during my Norwich years, and lots of very good times. But my time at the club ended, of course, and not as I had hoped.
I remember the day when I was told that my City career was over as if it was yesterday. It was April 29th, 2004. I received a phone call from Val Lemon, Nigel Worthington’s secretary, early on that Thursday morning, asking if I could come to the training ground at 8.30 as Nigel and Dougie Livermore wanted a meeting with me.
Val didn’t say what it was about, but she didn’t have to. I knew there was only one thing that they wanted to talk to me about. My contract finished on June 30th and I always hoped that I would be given another year but there had been no discussions. So now it was time to see what the future had in store for me.
If I’m honest, as I drove to Colney that morning, deep down I knew what Nigel was going to say. If he and the club wanted me to stay for another year it would have been sorted out before now. I walked into Nigel’s office and both he and Dougie had very serious looks on their faces. That was another sign that there was going to be no eighth year at Norwich City for me.
I sat down. Dougie cracked a joke to ease the tension, which was something he was good at. Then, all of a sudden, Nigel just came out with it. ‘Robbo we’ve thought long and hard about this and it’s the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make but the club won’t be offering you another contract. So you will be given a free transfer at the end of June.’
I was 36 but I was a very fit 36 – ask Dave Carolan, our sports scientist and fitness coach at the time. I’d only started 13 games that season and I’d scored eight goals. I’d been involved in 41 of our 46 games, so I thought I’d earned another season and a crack at the Premier League.
I certainly didn’t want to be given a new contract for sentimental reasons. And I’m not stupid, I knew I wasn’t going to start every game, but I think I could have been a good option to come off the bench if we were chasing a game with say 20-25 minutes to go.
So I was gutted by the club’s decision, but I respected it, and at the end of the day that’s football. Nigel gave his reasons. To this day I don’t agree with any of them! But, just for the record, I don’t hold any grudges against him at all. He had a job to do and decisions to make and he made them for the good of Norwich City. I really enjoyed working and playing under him and would class him still as a very good friend.
I managed to say all the right things at the time. I didn’t want to spoil what was going to be a great last two weeks of the season for the club. But deep down I was hurting, of course.
My final game at Carrow Road came two days later, against Preston, and what an emotional day it was; one I’ll never forget. The news had broken that I was leaving the club after seven years and that this was going to be my farewell performance at Carrow Road.
The reception I had when I came on that day was unbelievable. I’d never heard my name shouted so loudly. I was desperate to score and Hucks was as desperate to create me one and he came within inches of doing just that but I just couldn’t quite reach his cross-come-shot before it crossed the line.
After the game we went into the dressing room but knew we would be going back out to do our traditional lap of honour and thank our fans for the fantastic support they’d given us all season. I was told to stay in the dressing room as all the rest of the lads and staff went out, and was left wondering what on earth was going on. But then I was told to head out.
As I left the dressing room, there waiting for me were my three children Ben, Eva and Chase. I could tell by their eyes that they had been crying which really upset me. As we walked down the tunnel I could see the lads had formed a guard of honour for me and I thought that was a great touch from a fantastic bunch of lads who were like brothers to me.
I had to fight back the tears as we made our way towards the River End but managed to contain myself as ‘Iwan! Iwan!’ was chanted from all four corners of Carrow Road. I’d bought my shirt that I’d worn that day out with me, and there was only one place it was going: straight into the middle of the Barclay End.
The players walked slowly around the stadium and, when we reached the Barclay, I untied the shirt from around my waist and threw it as far as I could into the crowd, I couldn’t think of a better place for my shirt to go in my final home appearance for the club.
I signed for Gillingham as player-coach but didn’t really enjoy my time down in Kent. I loved working with Andy Hessenthaler but my heart wasn’t really in it anymore. My desire had deserted me after I’d left Norwich and so I retired the following season and began working for BBC Wales as a football pundit and have been doing this now for the last nine years.
I love my media work but I have got to know the roads to Wales rather well because I still live in the Fine City of Norwich. Of course.