Wolves’ Tony Roberts: ‘The WhatsApp group we have comes alive at 1am’ | Wolverhampton Wanderers

30 April 2022 - 5:48 am

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It promises to be an exciting couple of months for Tony Roberts, a key part of the Wolves and Wales staff, as his club chase a European place and his country a spot at a first World Cup since 1958.

The goalkeeping coach can often be seen orchestrating from the edge of the technical area and Roberts, a colourful character who also counts set pieces as his responsibility, is held in high regard by players and staff. “I’ve always been lively,” Roberts says from Wolves’ training base. “I’m not one to sit still. If I go on holiday I can’t stand the sun, I’d rather go on the bike, so it’s Center Parcs for me instead shooting off wherever.”

Roberts is a bubbly personality with a ton of tales from more than three decades in the game. He played until the age of 42, combining turning out for Dagenham & Redbridge, for whom he made more than 450 appearances, with coaching Arsenal’s youth goalkeepers after taking a call from the then academy director Liam Brady while at Queens Park Rangers. He worked with a 17-year-old Wojciech Szczesny as well as with Lukasz Fabianski, with whom he was later reunited at Swansea, and Emiliano Martínez, before being appointed assistant first-team goalkeeping coach, which meant working with Jens Lehmann and under Arsène Wenger. “The most intelligent man in the world,” he says.

Tony Roberts and the Wolves goalkeeper José Sá enjoy February’s win at home to Leicester.
Tony Roberts and the Wolves goalkeeper José Sá enjoy February’s win at home to Leicester. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Roberts’s energy is infectious. Last year a prank which centred on Adama Traoré, when he accused the winger of lacking physicality in a team meeting, went viral. Roberts is the only non-Portuguese member of Bruno Lage’s coaching staff but the pair previously worked together at Swansea, where Lage was assistant to Carlos Carvalhal. Reuniting last summer was a no-brainer. “I had just met up with the Wales squad for the Euros and he FaceTimed me at about 11.30pm. I was in bed, hair all over the place, and he said: ‘Tony, Tony, we’re going into Wolves.’ I was like: ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever.’ This is the thing about the Portuguese, the WhatsApp group we have, it comes alive at about one o’clock in the morning. They’re crazy. I have to put my phone on silent because I wake up to about 15 messages.”

Conversation flows with Roberts, be it discussing his homework on José Sá, eating pastéis de nata in the office, dreaming of representing Wales at a World Cup as a kid in Holyhead, or ribbing the Wolves captain, Conor Coady, about the prospect of facing England in Qatar, a reality if Wales secure qualification in June. “Oh, the last game … to win the group? Unbelievable,” he says, deadpan. “If we get there, I’m going to switch my phone off to stop the temptation of battering Coady because I know he’ll be battering me. We met up for the [Aston] Villa game [the day after the draw] and Coady was giving me stick on the bus. We’ve got to get there first. Touch wood.”

The day before a game Roberts holds a goalkeeper meeting to pinpoint opposition threats. Sá, a £7m signing from Olympiacos, has been a major success – one of the Premier League signings of the season – and a key part of a sturdy backline; only the division’s top three teams have conceded fewer goals than Wolves and only Manchester City fewer from set pieces. Roberts analysed about 20 of Sá’s games in full before editing clips, split into sections from coping with crosses to shot-stopping, to share with staff. “I liked what I saw. He is quick, athletic and agile, and that’s what the role needs. All the credit goes to him because he has taken everything on board.”

Tony Roberts embraces the Wales manager, Rob Page, after the team beat Austria to reach a World Cup play-off final against Scotland or Ukraine.
Tony Roberts embraces the Wales manager, Rob Page, after the team beat Austria to reach a World Cup play-off final against Scotland or Ukraine. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

This month the former Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, who retired in 2018 a year after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia, returned to the club’s Compton base for his first training session in almost five years. “He slotted right in and, give me a couple of weeks with him, I think he would be back in the squad,” Roberts says, laughing. “It was brilliant. Brenda upstairs [in the canteen], who has worked here for 20 years, her eyes lit up and they had a little hug.”

Roberts, who left home at 16 to join QPR, sees parallels between Wales and Wolves. “The spirit they’ve got in the [Wales] team, and we’ve got with the staff, it’s just like being here, like being at a club. We can’t wait to go away because you know, [it’s] like somebody [David Edwards] said about [Euro] 2016 being like going on holiday with all of your mates, but you’re playing football matches. I keep saying it: this environment is top and it reminds me of that.”

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Lage said Wolves were “waiting on Tony” after players including the Mexico striker Raúl Jiménez, the Morocco captain, Romain Saïss, and the Portuguese trio Sá, Rúben Neves and João Moutinho sealed qualification for Qatar 2022 last month. “At one point I thought Wales were going to get into a group with Portugal and I thought: ‘Oh, here we go,’” he smiles. “I was involved in the Wales team when we nearly got there, USA 94. We missed out when [Paul] Bodin hit the crossbar against Romania. I bawled my eyes out that night and to get there now, I think I’d be crying at 52 years old.”

Roberts will join up with Wales on the evening Wolves’ campaign ends at Liverpool to prepare for a Nations League opener in Poland and a World Cup play-off final against Scotland or Ukraine. For now, the focus is on Saturday, when Wolves host Brighton hoping to reignite their European push after six defeats in nine matches. Roberts smiles at the suggestion his passport is filling up after trips to Amsterdam, Baku and Rome with Wales at Euro 2020. “Well, I could do with a few more,” he says. “We want to get into Europe.”

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