Ben Roberts, Brighton’s highly-respected goalkeeping coach, is not one who covets the limelight. In his case there is no need to. His work is speaking for him.
‘Well done Robert Sanchez on your full call up,’ Wycombe keeper David Stockdale tweeted last week. ‘Another reminder why Ben Roberts is the best in the business.’
Seagulls keeper Sanchez’s emergence this season and first Spain call-up is a big feather in the cap for Roberts as well as Brighton and the player himself.
Brighton goalkeeping coach Ben Roberts is highly respected by the players he has worked with
Roberts has been at Brighton since 2015 having spent five years at Charlton Athletic
It is getting harder to find space on that cap such is the sheer number of stoppers former Middlesbrough and Brighton keeper Roberts, 45, is credited with helping.
Nick Pope, Sanchez, Mat Ryan, Tim Krul and Alex McCarthy are some of the headline names who have been indebted to Roberts along the way.
But his influence can be seen right across English football with Roberts the common link between a long list of keepers who have all carved out successful careers for themselves.
At Yeovil, along with a young McCarthy there was Stephen Henderson.
At Charlton, Pope, Ben Hamer, Neil Etheridge, Ben Hamer, David Button and Dillon Phillips are just some who benefitted from Roberts’ expertise.
Now at Brighton, before Sanchez there was Stockdale, Chris Walton, Jason Steele and Ryan.
Roberts’ latest success is Robert Sanchez, who has earned his first call-up to the Spain squad
Roberts has also been instrumental in the career of Burnley and England stopper Nick Pope
‘He has an eye for a goalkeeper,’ now Cardiff No 1 Phillips said. ‘I worked with a lot of keepers under Ben [at Charlton] but they all went away better goalkeepers. It is no coincidence that they have all worked under Ben.’
When looking for the secret to Roberts’ success, there are recurring themes.
The strong relationships he builds with his goalkeepers is one mentioned with Roberts’ human touch to his coaching style highlighted.
He remains ‘unbelievably protective’ of his charges and ‘fights for them,’ one source said of Roberts who was forced to retire at the age of just 29 due to a back injury.
And now Pope has reached the highest level the backing he received from Roberts at the start of his senior journey seems especially relevant.
Roberts recalled to Sportsmail just this week the time when he was prepared to risk his own job if then Charlton manager Bob Peeters hooked Pope at half-time after a shaky first 45 minutes at Blackburn.
As a player, Roberts reached the FA Cup final with Middlesbrough in 1997 (above) before being forced to retire with injury at the age of just 29
Roberts said: ‘I was sitting in the stand and radioed down to say, ‘What’s going on?’
‘They were like, ‘Er, Ben, the manager’s going to bring Popey off’. I said, ‘Come on, you’re killing the kid, tell him if he does that I’m walking out of the stadium’.
‘I was checking the Trainline app to see how I was going to get back to London. It was heated at half-time but afterwards the manager was fine about it. He kept him on and Popey went on and made five or six big saves.’
Also speaking to Sportsmail last month Sanchez explained in detail the key role Roberts played in his rise, describing the tough love he received and which he now realises was vital.
‘If he’s giving you that tough love I think he sees something in you,’ Phillips said.
Of his own experiences, Phillips added: ‘Ben having that faith in me at 17, 18 years-old, to pick me when the manager asked ‘who’s going to sit on the bench today?’ …
While at Charlton, Roberts (left) worked with Pope (centre) and Dillon Philllips
‘People who didn’t know goalkeeping at the club might have thought ‘we need a more experienced one’ but he will back you all the way.’
Holland keeper Krul will always remember the role Roberts played in helping ‘rebuild’ him physically and mentally at Brighton after the ‘dark time’ he went through following the knee injury he suffered while on international duty in October 2015 that effectively brought an end to his Newcastle career.
Due to the levels Roberts helped Ryan reach – ‘he was literally man-of-the-match every single game’ Krul said – the Dutchman remained a back-up keeper during 2017-18 season which he spent on loan at the Amex but added: ‘That was the moment he [Roberts] also said ‘you’re not a No 2. You’re young enough to show the world what you’re capable of’ and I had to take a gamble and go to Norwich but he was, well, pushing me to do it because he knew that I still had so many years in me. I’m pleased he gave me that belief, totally.’
Roberts has the flexibility in his approach and happy knack of finding the right methods to help each goalkeeper thrive, not an easy task when they all have their own individual strengths, likes and dislikes.
‘He could work with any style,’ Phillips said. ‘Hames [Hamer], for example, was unbelievable with his feet at the time. The sessions we used to do when he was playing would enhance that and show that off so that he was feeling good going into games.’
Krul said: ‘I’m different to Maty Ryan and Niki Maenpaa. For example with me, you don’t train me 120 per cent every day. Sometimes you just have to go, ‘alright, I need 60 per cent, a bit more chilled, a bit more quality in the handling’ and to come off the boil a little bit.
Current Norwich stopper Tim Krul has lavished praise on Roberts’ approach to coaching
‘We are three different style of goalkeepers but in his sessions he managed – him with Casper Ankergren as back-up – and the level we were reaching in those sessions, it was like match training. I found the joy back again.’
As well as intense, Roberts’ sessions are inclusive too.
‘The group was always a happy one,’ Phillips said. ‘Quite a lot of the coaches are good at it now. Back in the day they probably weren’t. It was their way or no way.
‘But there was always a positive atmosphere in training, whether you’re playing or not.
‘When you’re not obviously it’s difficult but under Ben you knew you were going to have a good, fun training session and also going to learn and improve if you put it all in.
‘Nothing was given to you easy but it was made enjoyable just being around him.’
Innovation has always been central to Roberts’ approach. Phillips, now 25, remembers an occasion when he was a second-year scholar – ’18, 19 years-old’ – and Roberts surprised him by using techniques from another sport to help improve his reactions.
He said: ‘He was always looking at ways of improving training. He [Roberts] was the first team goalie coach but took the time out to take me for the afternoon because he saw ways he could improve me. I think he thrives off that.
Throughout his coaching career, Roberts has been praised for his work with goalkeepers (pictured with Neil Etheridge at Charlton Athletic)
‘We were using a tennis racket and tennis ball to make reaction saves. It was the first time I’d ever seen that. I don’t know where he got the idea from but I brought right into it.
‘We started with close range stuff with the tennis ball and hand eye coordination and by the end of the session I was making saves from 18, 20 yards out where he was literally forearm smashing them in like Roger Federer.
‘It might sound silly or a bit of fun but it’s all little ways of improving hand eye coordination and the attention to detail to think of something like that is something different from what I’ve had.
‘He was the first coach I worked under who brought deflection in to play.
‘Now there are loads of different methods and loads of bits of equipment. We used to lay two mannequins down and still a ball down under each of the mannequins to raise them up and use that on a wet day as a way of deflecting the ball and working on sharp reaction saves.’
Roberts’ attention to detail is another key pillar of his approach. ‘He is so thorough in trying to find the smallest margins,’ another source said.
One of Roberts’ innovative training methods has been to fire tennis forehand smashes like Roger Federer (above) to improve hand-to-eye co-ordination
‘Ben will spend hours scrolling through games and finding clips of things like how strikers finish more often than not to give to his keepers before a game. Those small things that can make that one difference in a game.
‘That one save in the game where everyone goes ‘wow’ but when you look back at it the keeper will say ‘Ben told me he goes that way so I half took a chance and went that way early.’
Krul said: ‘You were always prepared for whoever you played on the Saturday. He will put sessions on towards that. So, you played Arsenal, it would be more one against ones, through the lines situations [in training] but if you had another team like, say Everton, who liked to shoot from distance with Gylfi Sigurdsson then he will be having 25, 30 yarders more. It was really detailed.’
Looking back on Roberts’ decision to back Pope as emphatically as he did, as an endorsement of his ability to identify talent, Phillips said: ‘The proof is in the pudding.’
The same can be said of Roberts’ methods’ too.
Phillips added: ‘I’d go as far as saying he is one of the best in the country. I’ve not worked with every coach one but I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really good goalkeeper coaches – don’t think I’ve had a bad one yet – but Ben deserves all the praise he gets because he is that good.’