Have Yeovil ever had a manager before who has aroused such contradictory feelings amongst the fans? Doubtful. You either loved him or hated him, the one thing you were not was indifferent to him. He was regarded as an embarrasment and as a source of pride, as a thug and as an inspiration in equal measure. He was unique. He was Graham Roberts.
GR took over a sick club in 1995. Yeovil were at the bottom of the Conference and heavily in debt. The team consisted in the main of older players coming to the end of their careers and were playing a long-ball style that was as unattractive as it was unsuccesful. Morale everywhere was low and relegation was inevitable. That summer GR instigated a clear-out and I'll never forget my surprise when the team came out onto the pitch for the first pre-season friendly the following season. Gone were all the old-stagers and in their place was a completely new team (with the solitary exception of centre-half Chris White). Gone also was the sterile long-ball tactics
of the previous season, instead we watched a Yeovil side who passed the ball and moved, passed and moved again - it didn't always work, but after the rubbish we had endured previously it was literally like watching a whole new ball game, and very welcome it was too.
It was perhaps expecting too much for Yeovil to bounce straight back into the Conference at the first attempt but we came close, eventually finishing 4th and still with a mathematical chance of promotion on the last day of the season if not a realistic one. The following season was to be the charm. Enfield were our only serious rivals and we eventually won the title with 6 points to spare and a massive 101 points from the season. The crowds came flocking back to Huish Park, with an incredible 8,000 turning up for the home game v Enfield, with an estimated 2,000 locked out. 5,000 attended the final game of the season v Chertsey with promotion already assured.
On the face of it then Roberts' had done well. On a shoestring budget he had transformed the team and taken us back into the Conference. Off the field the debt had been reduced significantly and optimism was high - a stark contrast to the mood around the club when he first took over. However, not everything in the garden was rosy. In cup competitions - the FA Cup and FA Trophy in particular - Yeovil's record under Roberts' was dismal. He was being paid a full-time manager's wage, but more and more complaints were being heard about his non-attendance at Huish Park during the week. The club wanted him to move house nearer to Somerset from his London home but he refused, causing friction with the board.
His personality was larger-than-life. He had his favourites amongst the players, but other players fell out of favour and were ostracised. He fell out with a section of the fans after a particularly poor display against Yeading, yet other fans wouldn't hear a word said against him. He was charged with a public order offence after crowd violence in the FA Cup match v Taunton and was eventually found not guilty. He wore his heart on his sleeve at all times. He was loyal to his friends in the club but unforgiving to those who crossed him, or disagreed with him. As a player he was slowing down but he could still read the game brilliantly and he proved to be a more than adequate stand-in goalkeeper on one occasion.
The end for GR at Huish Park came about in the club's first season back in the Conference. On the field the club was performing adequately. We were comfortably mid-table without ever threatening to set the world on fire and - as usual - had performed poorly in cup competitions. Despite that I think it's fair to say that most fans were happy enough with the job GR was doing considering that this was our first season back in the top flight of non-league football.. Behind the scenes though events were coming to a head. As previously mentioned the board wanted Roberts' to be more visible around the club. Personality clashes with certain board members became apparent. GR was linked with the vacant manager's job at Portsmouth and annoyed fans by being quoted as saying that he 'would walk to Portsmouth' to get the job. He would walk to Portsmouth but he wouldn't move nearer to Yeovil.
Then came the straw that broke the camel's back - the infamous fax message to Newcasle United on the eve of their FA Cup match with Stevenage, expressing the hope that the Magpies would win and assuring them that 'we aren't all arseholes in the Conference'. The message somehow found it's way to Stevenage's dressing-room and the rest was history. Roberts' was suspended by Yeovil for a fortnight before being released from the club 'by mutual consent', and that was that.
Opinion about GR's reign at Huish Park is still widely divided. Some people would point out that our 4th place in the ICIS League during his first full season at the club was our worst ever finish in modern times. Others point to what was admittedly an awful record in major cup competitions. For all those who admired and respected him there were an equal number who disliked him. Yet he accomplished what he was paid to do - he took us back into the Conference, and he did it with very few resources. He brought players to the club of the
calibre of Warren Patmore, Jerry Gill, Howard Forinton, Rob Cousins, Al-James Hannigan, Guiliano Grazioli, Steve Stott, Matt Hayfield, Owen Pickard...the list goes on. He introduced Colin Lippiatt as first-team coach and never wavered from his belief in attractive, passing football. We'll never know now if he could have gone on and taken Yeovil into Division 3. He made a lot of mistakes and got a lot of other things right. He made a lot of enemies and a lot of friends. One thing's for sure: Life with Graham Roberts in charge was never boring.