Braced for farewell to Pompey’s team player and heartbeat

Gary Roberts celebrates his goal against Barnet. Picture: Joe Pepler
Gary Roberts celebrates his goal against Barnet. Picture: Joe Pepler
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Royal Birkdale’s swarming galleries attracted a late entrant.

The diary had been lightened, a prior Saturday engagement scrubbed out. Instead Gary Roberts booked a date with The Open.

While Pompey’s 21-man squad congregated for the visit of Bournemouth, the midfielder spent the weekend exiled in Southport savouring golf.

Roberts served two seasons as a pivotal figure in a side craving a League One presence – now he won’t play there.

Time has moved on at Fratton Park, progress inevitably claiming its casualties. Thank you and goodbye.

Aged 33, the former Chesterfield man will not be part of the Blues’ future – yet he has been assured of a glittering presence in Pompey’s past.

Irrespective of Roberts’ impending departure for a destination yet to be decreed, he deserves a lasting place in the hearts of the Fratton faithful.

This was a club languishing at the lowest point of its Football League existence, a proud name gathering dust and attracting pitying glances from its peers.

Then a group of players were assembled – and subsequently promotion along with the League Two crown was secured during a magnificent season.

Roberts’ powers may have waned during the campaign’s progression, Kal Naismith may have overpowered him as the team’s creative inspiration, yet his contribution remained immense.

In the midst of a close-knit squad, the bubbly Scouser was a powerful presence, an experienced figure brandishing rapier wit and an often brutal turn of phrase.

Even during spells confined outside the starting line-up, Roberts represented a friendly face at the training ground and a willing participant in associating with supporters.

Yet his Pompey career will rightly be judged on his input on the field of play.

During the 2016-17 promotion season, he provided 10 assists, while only Naismith surpassed a return of 10 goals.

Such facts provide a compelling argument towards the importance of Roberts in the club’s sixth post-war promotion.

The last-day visit of Cheltenham conjured up one of the great Blues occasions, a day full of emotion as the League Two title was captured at the death.

Having replaced Conor Chaplin in the 61st minute, Roberts weighed in with two assists during that memorable 6-1 triumph.

In the build up to the fourth goal, it was his clever reverse pass which released Jamal Lowe down the right-hand side of the penalty area. Lowe took advantage with an angled finish.

For the fifth goal, Liam Davis’ challenge from behind sent Roberts sprawling inside the box as he moved to receive Kyle Bennett’s pass. Gareth Evans stepped up to net.

Roberts was also present for the Meadow Lane promotion-clincher, albeit having earlier been substituted for Chaplin.

Still, once that 3-1 scoreline had been confirmed, he led the charge from the bench, arm-in-arm with Bennett along the path to celebrate with his jubilant team-mates.

Of course, much was anticipated of the talismanic midfielder upon his June 2015 arrival from Chesterfield for an undisclosed fee.

His legacy has been 80 appearances, 20 goals, 15 assists and a league title.

In truth, Roberts didn’t quite scale the dizzying heights expected of him upon his south-coast arrival. In fairness, perhaps the grand build-up was a little unrealistic.

His maiden campaign was hampered by an ankle injury, nonetheless the midfielder insisted on playing through persistent pain.

The sum result was 10 goals in 38 appearances, establishing him as joint-third top-scorer. There was also that wonderfully-crafted goal against Bournemouth in the FA Cup, as he finished a move spanning 48 passes.

He began his second Fratton Park season with six goals in his opening nine appearances – and hoisted aloft the Sky Bet player-of-the-month award for September.

That golden period included a sublime strike against Barnet, corkscrewing a giddy defender into the ground in the process. Roberts also registered two assists in that 5-1 victory.

Yet his form dipped, while tellingly the February 1-1 home draw with Morecambe represented his last 90 minutes for Pompey.

Regardless, through Paul Cook’s unwavering backing, Roberts demonstrated a commitment and desire to the cause which was nothing short of outstanding.

Even while scrambling for form, the veteran left nothing on the pitch, his refusal to buckle and throw in the towel during a frustrating period personally was to be admired.

Perhaps it was fitting that when Pompey needed him most in the push for glory, he rose to the challenge.

There was the delightful opening strike at Carlisle, the game-clinching goal at Hartlepool, the Fratton Park equaliser against Plymouth – and, of course, those two Cheltenham assists.

In the Victory Lounge during the evening of promotion, the Gary Roberts song had never been broadcast with as much gusto – and embraced with such appreciation from its subject.

Come last orders, he ushered his playing colleagues towards extra-time in Southsea’s Drift Bar, also delivering the invitation to various journalists.

Upon arrival, it was Roberts at the bar buying drinks for all-comers, amid team celebrations which would last for several days before the focus readjusted to the title.

As ever, a team player and the squad’s heartbeat.

We’ve got Roberts – and I think we understand his significance to Portsmouth Football Club.