What should have been a month of jubilation following an historic FA Cup victory was marred by uncertainty.January 2012 was dominated by talk of a possible approach by Preston North End FC for then Stevenage manager Graham Westley. Speculation was rife about whether there was any truth in the rumours that were posted across various message boards and football websites.
January 7th saw the Boro knock Championship high flyers Reading out of the FA Cup, with a hard earned win courtesy of Darius Charles’ 21st minute winner.
Two days later, Stevenage FC formally confirmed what everyone had been expecting – that an official approach had been made for Westley, who was formally installed as the new Preston North End manager on January 13th 2012, taking with him the Stevenage FC coaching staff of Dino Maamria and John Dreyer (later coming back for goalkeeping coach Ali Uzunhasanoglu).
The search for a new Boro manager begun, with a number of different candidates being touted as likely replacements, including Martin Keown, Paul Ince, Paul Buckle amongst others.
However, the focus turned sharply onto the forthcoming league match away to Rochdale. With Boro fighting to retain the 6th place in the league, the fans were naturally worried about how the team would perform without Westley, and who indeed would take charge for the impending fixtures. How would a ‘Westley team’ perform without Westley?
Club skipper Mark Roberts, long regarded by the Boro faithful as our own ‘Captain Marvel’, took temporary charge of the team as player/manager – supported by injured midfielder John Mousinho from the sidelines, whilst the process of appointing a permanent replacement for Graham was in progress.
Roberts’ first test as player/manager came just one day after Graham’s departure, on January 14th, 2012 away to Rochdale. In a strong display of unity, the Stevenage team steamrollered Rochdale with goals from recent permanent signing Luke Freeman (2), Lawrie Wilson (2) and Joel Byrom. Rochdale could only manage one goal in reply from Blackpool loanee Brett Ormerod.The win placed Stevenage in 6th position on 41 points, level with fellow play-off contenders Carlisle United – who proved to be Boro’s main competition for the coveted play-off positions all the way until the end of the season.
Speaking after the match to the Comet newspaper, Roberts praised how his side had responded, adding that “It’s never about the individuals at this football club, it’s always about the team and they’ve been first class in the way they’ve responded this week.”
Scunthorpe’s attempts to rotate formations and player positions didn’t fool the makeshift Boro bench, and the visitors pushed on and grabbed an 84th minute equaliser, courtesy of substitute Darius Charles. The point kept Boro in 6th position, level on points with rivals Carlisle United, but with a superior 14 goal advantage.
MK Dons (Home)
Just three days later, in what would prove to be Mark Roberts’ last match as player/manager, the Lamex stadium hosted fellow play-off contenders MK Dons. The visitors had been in a decent run of form and had picked up some notable wins in the league – and with their strong attacking line, they were expected to be a real test.The match itself started well, with Boro attacking the away goal early on, only to find themselves behind in the second minute – the goal coming from former Boro loanee Jay O’Shea after a speculative shot was spilled by Chris Day, affording the MK Dons winger an easy finish. Despite going a goal down, the team continued to push on, levelling matters in the 25th minute courtesy of a trademark long range strike from Michael Bostwick.
The second half went the way of the home side, with MK Dons being reduced to 10 men after Mathias Doumbe was sent off for a second bookable offense after lunging at Boro striker Chris Beardsley. The resulting free-kick was nodded in by Scott Laird in the 65th minute – putting Boro in the driving seat.
As the tension of the game started to rise, John Mousinho - acting as a sideline assistant – was frequently seen hobbling up and down the technical area with his foot still in plaster – trying to shout instructions to the team. Darius Charles added to the scoreline 3 minutes later with another header, as Boro took the ascendency. The Dons pulled one back late on as Tom Flanaghan lost his marker to give the away team a late rally, but this was quelled just 2 minutes later as Boro scored again, courtesy of a Gary MacKenzie own goal – under heavy pressure from the Boro front line.
One of the memorable moments of the match came as Mark Roberts had possession in his own half, and was chased down by on of the Dons forwards. Roberts shaped himself to launch the ball upfield, but instead shifted his balance and cut inside the striker – leading to raptuous applause from the home crowd – and the birth of a new “skinned by the gaffer” chant from the East Terrace – although it’s unlikely this ditty will get used much again in the near future!
As the final minutes of the game played out, the entire Boro bench, consisting of the coaches, physios and support staff were all on their feet encouraging and willing the team on. This was an amazing display of club unity, with the entire dugout united behind the team and doing what little they could to try and help the players on the pitch.
As the final whistle blew, Boro took all three points and retained their 6th position in the league, moving ahead of Carlisle who had a game in hand.
Speaking after the match to BBC Three Counties radio, Mark said that “the lads never cease to surprise me. It was a terrific response to going 0-1 down and to score four goals again was different class.”
“We came out all guns blazing and then got done on the counter attack and it took us a while to get going. But we know what our strengths are and we’re very good at (playing to) them.”
The match was watched by Gary Smith in the stands, who was announced as the new Boro manager the following day.
Roberts’ run as the first ever Boro player/manager ended unbeaten after three games, picking up 7 points out of a possible 9, with 10 goals scored, conceding 4 in reply…all the while maintaining Boro’s run for the coveted 6th play-off position.
Perhaps more importantly, the team showed that there was life after Graham – and that when the team, the fans and the club unite – anything is possible.
After completing this article, Mark Roberts spoke to the history website and offered his own views and reflections on his brief but successful period as Stevenage FC player/Manager.
“My time as Stevenage player/manager was surreal to say the least but the experience was one of my most enjoyable in football and something I will be proud of for the rest of my career. It came about completely out of the blue, but on reflection I am so glad that I answered the Chairman’s call and agreed to do it.The week leading upto that Rochdale game was without question the most testing that I have had to deal with in football thus far, but the lads responded as I knew they would, in magnificent fashion.
Because we were a group of men that had been through so much together, my job was relatively simple and I will be eternally grateful to every single player and member of staff who made my time in charge such a success. Whether it was Beardo watching video footage or Moose helping with decisions from the touch line, everyone rallied around and did it for one another.
I suppose the moment when the job in hand truly dawned on me was when we arrived at the team hotel up in Manchester before the Rochdale game and the hotel manager asked who was in charge. I have always taken for granted the various things that occur in the build up to a game but suddenly I was the one calling the shots!
Understandably, I was slightly apprehensive travelling to Spotland on the day of the game but once we were there and I delivered my team talk those worries quickly evaporated. It is quite difficult to sum up in words but the determination and focus I could see from the faces looking back at me was incredible. I was inspired and I knew that everyone in that room was ready to deliver a very special kind of performance.
Everything did not of course go according to plan but even when Rochdale equalised the lads came back fighting stronger than ever and it would be no exaggeration to say that the final 1-5 score line could have been even greater. There were some terrific goals and we celebrated each one together (the bench included) with the kind of excitement and enjoyment you do as a child. Those moments are what remind you why football is such a special sport to be part of.
When the final whistle went, we went over to thank the fans and I know the supporters that made the trip that day felt exactly what we did out on the pitch. I don’t mind admitting I was emotional afterwards, after all it was a momentous and exhausting afternoon but the atmosphere in the dressing room was something I will never ever forget. I have been fortunate to win a Championship, promotion and even enjoy the odd giant killing or two as a Stevenage player but that dressing room was a very different experience. Not much was said, it didn’t need to be, but we all knew the magnitude of what we had achieved. As the music blared out of the speakers we all soaked up that winning feeling and deservedly so.
The remainder of my stint in charge was of course tremendous to be part of but nothing will quite compare to the high I felt that January afternoon at Rochdale. The win at home to MK Dons was of course very special in its own way because it was wonderful to be able to thank the fans for all their support with a massively important three points.
The most embarrassing incident was of course when I announced the name of our new manager to the Sky interviewer following our victory over MK Dons. Definitely not my finest moment but thankfully the Chairman and the Gaffer saw the funny side. Maybe seven points out of nine softened the blow!Handing over to the Gaffer was a weight off my shoulders and heralded the beginning of a new and exciting era for everyone connected with the football club. I think I was player manager for just 12 days in total but I have memories to last me a lifetime. I guess the essence of my time in charge was to keep things as normal as possible with the focus on togetherness. It is never about the individual at Stevenage, the team always comes first.
My message to the lads was quite simple, I told them to do it for one another because we had the opportunity to go out and achieve something that we would remember for the rest of our lives. I’m sure everyone involved will definitely think that. I know I most certainly will!”
The Stevenage FC History Website would like to thank Mark for his help in compiling this article, and of course for the seven hard earned points under his stewardship!