At Tales From Sport, we believe in giving athletes the platform to tell their stories first-hand. Of course, fans of any sports will always have their own opinion on what a players greatest moment was, but does that player feel the same? Or is there another, more personal moment that stands above all others?
In this series, we will be asking professional athletes from various sports one simple question, What do you consider the greatest moment of your career?
In the tenth edition of this series, Professional Footballer Mark Roberts joins us to share his answer.
‘My Greatest Moment in Sport’ by Mark Roberts
In a career spanning over 20 years, it’s virtually impossible to pick one day or moment that stands above the rest. When I think about my journey through sport, I will always feel eternally blessed to have so many wonderful memories to reflect upon.
Being able to say that I’ve captained different clubs to promotion at both Wembley Stadium and Old Trafford makes me incredibly proud, and, if I’m being completely honest, I still feel a little bit overwhelmed that I made that my reality. The dreams I forged as a boy are now forever part of me. Yes, I defeated the odds to achieve those extraordinary highs, but they also came at a significant cost and have been counter-balanced with some heart-breaking lows. I’ve been pushed to the edge in pursuit of my goals yet find myself looking back on the most testing periods of my career with a strange and familiar kind of fondness too.
I’ve sweat blood and tears for glory, so perhaps without that suffering, the success would not have tasted as sweet. Nevertheless, I have always tried my best to learn more about myself when living through adversity, and I’ve long held the belief that when we are able to reframe our situation, there is always the opportunity to discover personal growth and fulfilment.
Rejection and disappointment have forced me to look deeper within and reach greater heights. I’ve fought my way back from a career-threatening injury, played for my local club in administration and been isolated from my teammates on more than one occasion. There’s no point in me denying that these weren’t some of the most challenging opponents I’ve come up against during the last two decades of competing, but it’s also led me to redefine what I understand myself to be capable of. Sharing that gift with other people to realise their true potential will motivate me way beyond the day that I decide to hang my boots up for the final time.
So, this is the story I’ve chosen to share with you because it’s not just about me.
It’s about the team that I played for.
The power of sport.
The beautiful game.
It’s Monday morning at the training ground in mid-January; uncertainty is in the air and sweeping through the corridors. The Stevenage side that I captain is flying high in League One, and we’ve just defeated Reading at the Madejski Stadium in the third round of the FA Cup. As a squad, our focus has already switched to beating Rochdale the following Saturday because that’s what we’ve been drilled to do. We’ve come a long way in such a short space of time, but we know how football works – if we want to keep moving the goalposts of possibility, we must continue to build our momentum and not get complacent.
Success in any walk of life inevitably attracts attention, and rumours have been circulating that an approach for our management team is imminent. Little did I know then, when I changed into my training kit at the beginning of the week, I would finish it as caretaker player-manager of our club.
Here’s how it unfolded…
To describe those tumultuous few days as an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. It’s no exaggeration to say that squad was more like a family than a football team, and we shared a bond that I’d never quite experienced in such an unforgiving industry before. Watching Graham, Dino and John depart, whom I’d worked with and grown so close to, was undeniably difficult. I wanted the best for them and us. Sometimes in sport, you have to accept that you can’t have it all. I don’t mind admitting I shed my fair share of tears that week.
Life at Stevenage would never quite be the same again.
Although my preparation for the Rochdale game was anything but normal, I felt it was my duty to keep the ship running as smoothly as I could. After speaking with the Chairman on the Thursday afternoon to confirm my temporary position, I remember walking into the local Costa to see the ‘cards school.’
The five of us were inseparable, and I was fully aware that I couldn’t do this on my own.
“Lads, I need your help.”
No questions asked. I knew they had my back.
That’s how we were then, now, and always will be.
Brothers in arms. Teammates for life.
We travelled by train up to Manchester on Friday, but it wasn’t until we walked into the hotel we were staying that it suddenly dawned on me that I had some extra responsibilities to contend with on this away trip.
“Who’s in charge?” asked the receptionist.
I glanced over my shoulder like a world-class midfielder, but all eyes were on me.
It was time to step up to the plate in more ways than one.
I allowed myself to smile.
Despite having no coaching badges or previous experience to call upon, I was absolutely convinced that I was the right person to lead the lads through this transition and help them to deliver their very best come kick-off the next day. Some might think that was naïve, but I believe that inner confidence was part of the legacy that Graham unlocked in every one of us.
I believed in them and trusted that they believed in me.
So, when Stacy Long jumped out of the curtains and scared me half to death right before I was about to deliver my pre-match pep talk, the roars of approval that met my comical reaction meant I knew we were ready to take care of business. Laughter was often our remedy to release any internal tension, and it served as a timely reminder for me that these were my mates and football is supposed to be fun.
It was time to get to work and leave it all out on the field.
And that’s exactly what we did.
The 5-1 victory personified that remarkable group I was privileged to belong to. We played with courage, but most importantly, we played for each other. You only have to watch the togetherness shown in each celebrated goal to understand the team spirit spilling out of every collective pore.
Even when we conceded, we did not panic, and if anything, that setback spurred us on, determined to find another level.
The joy, and relief, I experienced at the final whistle was a new sensation for me. As we made our way over to share that glorious moment with our supporters, I think everybody who had travelled to be there knew that they were part of something very special that day.
A quiet sense of satisfaction washed over me whilst I walked back to the dressing room. No team talk was necessary, just Beardo turning the music right up and everybody, to a man, standing on the benches and singing at the top of their lungs.
It’s been said that management is like living on a volcano. Well, my first taste of it, I saw a dressing room erupt in a manner I’ll never forget.
That really was the beautiful game.
It’s an away day I’ll hold close to my heart for the rest of my life.
Mark Roberts Biography:
Mark Roberts grew up in North West England’s football melting pot, typified by the clubs he represented. Clubs like Leek Town, Southport, Chester City, Halifax Town, Vauxhall Motors are a who’s who of northern non-league football powerhouses, and when you consider Roberts grew up and also played for Northwich Victoria, he is essentially non-league royalty. Except he isn’t – because Mark Roberts was able to fly the nest of the Conference and indeed Northern football life, spreading his wings over a career that saw him trade Wincham for Wembley and all that came in between.
Spending his formative years on the pitch at Crewe Alexandra and off of it in the Stretford End, cheering on boyhood club Manchester United, Roberts was forging a path to try and emulate his heroes one day. When he was 19, Roberts signed his first professional contract at Gresty Road; however, he only made five appearances in four years for Crewe and saw himself out on loan on no fewer than six occasions. The seventh loan saw him return to local club Northwich Victoria where he signed permanently, interspersed with a stint at Accrington Stanley.
November 2008 saw Roberts make a watershed journey to Broadhall Way to face Stevenage. The Stevenage manager Graham Westley was clearly a fan of what he saw, so much so that Roberts was initially loaned and then signed permanently by the Hertfordshire club. It was a timely move for Roberts, who grabbed his opportunity with both hands. Stevenage won the FA Trophy at Wembley that season, with Roberts playing an integral part.
Roberts was a leader on the pitch and was rewarded with the Stevenage captaincy the following season. Back-to-back promotions followed under his leadership, with Stevenage reaching the Football League for the first time in their history. The following season they backed that up with a League Two playoff final victory at Old Trafford – of all places; The Theatre of Mark Roberts’ Dreams! This once perennial non-league groundhopper was now lifting trophies at Wembley, Old Trafford, and playing in the English third tier. When Roberts finally left the Boro in 2013, he had amassed 169 appearances, 18 goals, two spells as caretaker manager and a hero’s reputation.
Roberts then journeyed back north to join League Two’s Fleetwood Town and, as captain, led them to promotion via the playoffs just as he had at Stevenage. Another trophy at Wembley!
As a testament to Roberts’s longevity, he continued in the twilight of his career playing for Cambridge Utd, Forest Green Rovers and Warrington Town, where he still plays today at the age of 37.
Mark Roberts has had a career any football fan would dream of, from winning promotion at Old Trafford to lifting trophies at Wembley. Still, nothing beats the camaraderie and togetherness of a 400 mile away day at Spotland Stadium, Rochdale. It is this sentiment that illustrates why Roberts has had so much success. As a player, captain, leader and manager, his first thought is the team – 14 of them and counting – and his selfless attitude, willing work rate, and love for the game are cornerstones in his sustained success in English football and in his endeavours off the pitch as an associate at the Switch The Play Foundation, a Personal Development Mentor with the League Football Education and the founder of his own company, Lead Grow Pro.
An enormous thank you to Mark Roberts for contributing to this article. He has been highly accommodating and supportive of our site and has been genuinely a great guy. We really appreciate how much effort he put into this and how wonderfully descriptive his story was.
Please go follow him on Twitter & Instagram.
Also, check out Roberts’ wonderful business Lead Grow Pro, who supports individuals and teams in Sports, Business & Education.