Cambridge United’s Mark Roberts can be an inspiration for the next generation
U’s centre-back is the ideal role model
The value of positive role models cannot be underestimated and when it comes to modern society, footballers often find themselves at the vanguard of expectations.
The ever-increasing profile of the sport means that the spotlight on players is greater than it has ever been before, with so many people having a view of conduct both on and off the pitch.
So if you are looking for someone to set the perfect example for not just aspiring footballers but anyone pursuing dreams of reaching the top of professional sport, then Cambridge United's Mark Roberts would be the leading candidate.
The 33-year-old centre-back has excelled since returning to the team after an early-season wilderness ' during which manager Shaun Derry hailed Roberts' professionalism ' but it is no surprise given his grounded outlook.
Having seen so many facets of the game ' serious injury, non-League football, favouring fortunes ' Roberts comes across as having a level-headed approach to both his football career and his life thereafter.
Football can be all-consuming, but the U's defender has throughout his career made sure that it is not all about the here and now ' and it is this approach that should be held up as a benchmark to all youngsters.
'Education is something that is really important to me,' said Roberts. 'I did my A levels as part of my scholarship at Crewe Alexandra, and then carried on further studies.
'I did a HND in garden design, of all things.
'At 19, once I had done my A levels I would have gone to university. I was planning on studying landscape architecture so although I couldn't go to university when I signed my first professional contract, I was looking at other options to continue my education so I went to evening college and did the next best thing.
'I'm a big believer that footballers should make their spare time as productive as possible.
'I did that and then realised that a lot of the drawing aspect of it was done on computers nowadays so I went and did a couple of computer-aided design courses in Manchester to try to enhance what I'd already learned.
'Combining the inside and the outside, with landscape architecture and urban design seemed to be the best fit for me. Things change and obviously, thankfully, I've stayed in football and managed to enjoy a long career and explored other options.'
But after signing for Stevenage when he was 26, with the help of the Professional Footballers' Association Roberts started studying for a degree in sports journalism, graduating from Staffordshire University when he was 28.
'I always think that footballers should try to pursue as many things as they can away from the pitch because I think it does help you on it,' said Roberts.
'It's because of suffering a serious injury at 20 and not knowing if that was going to be the end of me, and it could quite easily have been.
'As a person I had to dig deep and fight my way, and sometimes injury will curtail a career.
'It's then what you're going to replace football with, and you see the high rates of depression and bankruptcy even at the top of the game and it's partly because people are so obsessed in football.
'It's the thing that you've wanted to do since you were a little boy, you've lived the dream and then you haven't got anything to replace that with.
'I think you should pursue other options and try something that you are equally as excited and passionate about.'
In the two seasons while he was studying journalism, Roberts captained Stevenage to two promotions.
And that helped the defender return to the Football League.
He had been a fringe player at Crewe, making a number of appearances for the Championship club before damaging his cruciate in a reserve team game when he was 20.
'You do have to look deep within inside yourself but it was the making of me as a person,' he said.
'I know in the time that I was recovering, once the first two or three weeks have gone by and you've had all the good wishes and people asking how you are, it is very much down to you as an individual.
'You find that mental strength and you find that inner belief in yourself that possibly you didn't know you had.
'You come back even hungrier. You know what you have gone through yourself more than anybody and it can help you become even more determined in the next phase of your career.
'There will be a lot of times when you're training on your own.
'You see the lads go out to train and they're smiling and laughing and you're still part of the banter and people do involve you as much as they can.
'But once they go out to train you are left in the gym or with the physio and it's you against you, and there are challenges along the way and you set yourself mini targets and the be-all is to get fit, but you have to break it down.
'It might be just the smallest things, but they can feel like the biggest achievements when you're injured.
'It's a time for self reflection and a time to learn a bit more about you as a person and I think that can really help you moving forwards in the rest of your career.'
It certainly helped Roberts as although he left Crewe to join Northwich Victoria in the Conference, he got another opportunity back in the League with Accrington in 2007.
Things did not work out though, so he went back to Northwich but when they went into administration, it left him with a decision to make about his future in football.
'I was thinking do I go part time, do I get a job and support my income with football?' he said. 'Or was football going to be the path that I would continue to walk?
'Thankfully, I signed for Stevenage and I never looked back. But I was 25 at the time so it was kind of make or break for me as a career path and thankfully I was part of a very successful team and my career has gone from strength to strength.
'But a lot of players will be facing that reality.
'Some will choose to stay in non-League because they get a good job and they know long term that football won't be able to sustain a lifestyle or support the family.'
It is perhaps those experiences that have helped Roberts understand the importance of a football club's wider role in the community.
He took on an active role in community work at Stevenage, and has seen the value in such schemes ever since.
'I think the more you throw yourself into a football club, the more you care about it and it helps you as a player and you're proud of who you represent,' he said.
'It's a bit of a clich', but you should be proud of the shirt you're pulling on, and the badge you've got on your chest.
'I've always thought a football club should be at the centre of its community, I don't think that should ever change. It means a lot to a lot of people.
'At Cambridge they do some fantastic work. Even at the dinner with the supporters and the people connected with the club, you see the players and they were interviewed on stage and how they conduct themselves ' I'm proud of the players that I play alongside.
'They are team-mates but they're also close friends.
'It is our duty and responsibility for the club and the city to be proud of who we are as people as well as players.
'So any work that we can carry out, whether that's hospital visits at this time of the year or school visits throughout the year, the club puts a real emphasis on giving something back.'