Time for Roberts to play Pompey's piano and not carry it

With back positioned towards goal, Gary Roberts flicked the ball on the inside of the defender, while a second touch nudged it outside.

Saturday, 24th December 2016, 9:30 am
Updated Thursday, 29th December 2016, 2:58 pm
Gary Roberts. Picture: Joe Pepler

Giddy Michael Nelson corkscrewed himself into the floor as the midfielder proceeded to gloriously stroke a shot with the outside of his left foot high into the Milton End net.

A moment of quality, a genius creation, a goal-of-the-season contender was born.

Roberts at his finest amid a stunning start to the campaign from a player capable of conjuring breathtaking footballing magic.

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Almost three months on from that 5-1 demolition of Barnet, the artist left his Fratton Park canvas to sporadic cheers – a substitution audibly backed by many.

Yet Roberts’ disappointing Hartlepool showing was sadly not a mere flutter, the 32-year-old has been doggedly scrambling around for form over a number of weeks.

As a result, he will not start the Boxing Day visit to Newport County, thereby ending a stretch of 27 successive league appearances.

Paul Cook has come to the conclusion a break is required, the necessity of crucial time out for the flagging ex-Chesterfield man to rediscover the sparkle which has faded.

Many supporters’ patience had already snapped, understandable considering the evaporation of that occasionally wondrous sleight of foot.

Dips occur, they represent a standard weak point in the armoury of players blessed with the capability to delight.

It is a fact of footballing life which can strike without rationality upon unsuspecting victims.

Halcyon days of Paul Merson conducting Pompey’s midfield whitewash the post-Christmas lull which saw some demand his removal from Harry Redknapp’s side.

Similarly, Robert Prosinecki’s celebrated eight-month spell was not without its criticism, generally involving work-rate, irrespective of his immense presence.

Not that Roberts could possibly occupy the same pitch as two modern-day Pompey greats.

Nonetheless, it is a trait shared by creative players at all levels.

This current slump rightly sees the leading scorer jettisoned from first-team duty at Rodney Parade. Bluntly, there could be no other outcome.

A number 11 of considerable invention has been replaced by a hard-working, ever-toiling figure willing to run himself into the turf.

Roberts’ natural flamboyance has metamorphosed into an uncomfortable sight – much to everyone’s concern.

Pushed further forward against Hartlepool to operate as a second striker alongside Michael Smith, he was reduced to regularly closing down the goalkeeper.

Admirable determination and effort to be applauded, certainly nobody could ever dare question Roberts’ commitment to the Pompey cause.

Yet he is there to spark the team into life, to devise methods of breaking down stubborn opposition defences.

Roberts’ strength lies on the ball. Without his muse, he represents a train without a track.

The lower divisions are awash with industrious, whole-hearted midfielders. What many sides lack is ingenuity and a touch of class.

For that is what Roberts unquestionably possesses, irrespective of this temporary decline in his talents.

A return of 17 goals in 60 Pompey appearances represents good value, admittedly seven of which have arrived from the penalty spot.

In terms of assists, no player has registered more in the league this season. He is tied for first spot with Enda Stevens and Gareth Evans.

Earlier this season he was among four players shortlisted for Sky Bet’s League Two September player-of-the-month award.

His inclusion was a nod towards three goals and two assists during a month which yielded the prized occurrence of three consecutive Fratton Park triumphs.

The accolade, however, was instead presented to Notts County’s Jon Stead, who hasn’t scored since.

Incidentally, readers of The News named Roberts as their September player of the month – narrowly ahead of Conor Chaplin – as he registered 42 per cent of the vote.

Proof, if needed, what an on-song Roberts is deliciously capable of – and how a Pompey side with promotion ambitions desire him back.

It was injury which impeded his effectiveness last term, an ankle problem to trouble even through determined attempts to play on.

By his own admission, Roberts declared the Fratton faithful hadn’t seen the best of him, despite particularly notable inputs against Yeovil away, Morecambe at home, Stevenage away and Plymouth Argyle away.

This term, injury has not been a factor, Roberts starting every League Two fixture ahead of their Boxing Day encounter in Wales.

During his opening nine appearances, he scored six times, as he thrived on the back of an encouraging pre-season.

However, since September 24, he has scored just once in 13 matches, that arriving via a penalty in the 4-0 victory over Mansfield.

Performances have also tapered off, whether asked to serve in the hole behind the lone striker or pushed further forward.

In recent weeks, Roberts has carried the piano rather than playing it. How he needs retuning.

He’ll be back, though. The passion, desire and, crucially, creativity remains within one of the dressing room’s most popular players.

Cook has worked with the midfielder at Accrington Stanley and Chesterfield previously.

He is aware of the high and lows associated with such talent.

And he knows how to reinvigorate Gary Roberts.