Steamboat Springs There are those people who can hold a room. Then, there are those who can hold an entire soccer field of seventh-grade girls.
On a late September day that felt more like mid-July, Tony Roberts and all of his 40-plus years of soccer knowledge were on display at Emerald Field.
Roberts’ soccer pedigree is astounding. He played at a high level, once with the England U17 national team. He played semiprofessional soccer and has worked for the English Football Association for four decades, helping teach coaching clinics across England and the world.
But on this Wednesday, Roberts was running around with 20 or so girls from the U13 Steamboat Springs Youth Soccer Association team. It’s Roberts’ fourth year coming out in fall and working with the SSYSA.
In typical seventh-grade fashion, not all are attentive. Not all seemed totally interested.
That is, until the cackle of an Englishman with white hair burst out.
“Don’t start thinking,” Roberts told the girls. “It will spoil your game.”
The drill wasn’t anything groundbreaking. There were rectangles on the field serving as the boundaries, with six players in each rectangle. The idea was to work on building up and moving the ball, whether it’s from defense to midfield or midfield to attack.
“I want them to picture how to build it,” Roberts said.
After a water break, the girls’ conversation turned to school and boys. Roberts, quick with wit and in control, made an observation and demanded attention.
“Ugly,” he said, pointing a finger at himself, “but over here.”
Roberts is no stranger to Steamboat. In 1999, his wife sent him on a ski trip to Steamboat for his 50th birthday.
As soon as he got to town, in the middle of winter, he made several calls to find out who the soccer people in Steamboat were. Hours later, SSYSA Director Rob Bohlmann, soccer fanatic Dr. Jim Dudley and Roberts were in front of the television, polishing off a couple of pizzas and watching an Italy-England match.
“The soccer and friendship grew from there,” Bohlmann said. “He has such an astute understanding of the game. You learn to watch it not from just a fan perspective, but a student of the game perspective.”
Roberts taught physical education and French in England until 2006. He had an exchange program where his students would come to Steamboat to ski. After Roberts retired, Bohlmann invited him back out in fall to work with the SSYSA teams for three weeks.
“He has the innate ability to teach,” Bohlmann said. “He’s been able, over the time he’s come, he’s able to teach the whole gambit. He teaches our youngest players, then the players that travel and play in our leagues.
“Just as importantly, he’s able to teach the coaches. That’s something that can continue to go on. He’s able to give us perspective. We can take that when we work with our kids.”
Teaching and soccer always have been a part of Roberts’ life. With the English Football Association, he teaches coaching clinics across England and sometimes the world.
When he returns to England today, he’ll prepare to teach a Level 3 coaching course for those looking to get their UEFA A license, essentially preparing those who want to coach professional soccer.
“That’s the biggest thing with Tony,” said Hobey Early, SSYSA’s technical director. “He has so much experience as a high-level player and coach. Just talking with him and his experiences — he’s a student of the game. He takes the time and continues to learn.”
A love of the game
Roberts broke up the rectangle drill Wednesday and dished out jerseys to the U13 girls team for a scrimmage.
It was a mock Argentina-United States game. There wasn’t the bunching around the ball generally associated with youth soccer. The drill had started to prove its purpose of building up an attack.
Even as seventh-graders, the girls started to see the space.
That’s much of what Roberts, who has coached players as young as age 3 all the way up to the professional level, has done with his time in Steamboat. His first day, he had a coaching clinic for 16 coaches. He then spent a week with the developmental teams and then worked with the traveling teams.
He provides a perspective from experience unmatched in town. When he arrives back home, he’ll continue his work with the English Football Association, take his wife out and tend to his garden.
Roberts said he hopes to return to Steamboat. Bohlmann wants him back, as do the others he’s worked with.
Roberts said it depends on his health, but as he glanced toward the adjacent field, it became apparent that he’d return if he could. This is the age where soccer always will be fun.
“I’ve loved the game ever since I can remember,” Roberts said. “I had this innate quality of recognizing space. I had an innate awareness. I just picked it up, and I’m trying to pass it on.”