MANAGERS want everything from their players in derbies. They want the talent to be fiery, but the temperament to be icy. Phil Roberts can certainly provide Paul Hartley with the former in their back-to-back encounters with neighbours. The abilities of the 20-year-old, honed in the Arsenal youth academy, the Dens Park manager describes as “unbelievable”. No such reference can be provided for the pacey player’s attitude, however.
Not after he was unceremoniously dumped by Falkirk in March. His contract was then cancelled after red cards in consecutive games. The second of these dismissals provoked Gary Holt to rage about how he wouldn’t accept “cowards” and players that didn’t care about their team-mates. Roberts’ propensity for remonstrating with himself and anyone else in his vicinity in the event of things not going his way, and so completely losing focus on the game raging around him, was considered an unforgiveable character trait for Holt.
Yet, Hartley doesn’t see Roberts as a player in need of rehabilitation. For various reasons, the Dundee manager has appeared to favour these sorts in forging a new team from 12 senior signings this summer. As the result of his assault charge, Paul McGowan could be placed in this bracket, with concerns over Gary Harkins centring around his attitude, while James McPake is a player whose body seems to rebel against him. Roberts is another player with question marks over him, but Hartley considers the Londoner as a youngster who merely “needs an arm around him”. That contrasts with how the wide man believes he requires to be managed.
“I don’t ever think you can treat a whole team the same because everyone is a different character,” he says. “So much of the collective is about individuals. As much as we’re a team, it’s also a group of individuals who have different abilities, different qualities and different personalities. You’ve got to take every individual as they are. Some need a pat on the back, some need to be screamed at – and I need to be screamed at.”
Yet, Roberts accepts he did suffer from a lack of composure that would see him all-too-often cranking up the decibels under Holt. It was an emotional outpouring he feels was misunderstood, though. “It’s just about growing up,” he says. “People think that I’m annoyed with other players on the park and that I’ve got an attitude problem, but it’s because I’m hard on myself. I’m harder on myself than anyone is and that was my biggest downfall – I’m my own best friend and worst enemy at the same time. I have a lot of belief in myself but when things start going wrong I’d let them get on top of me.
“[When I reacted badly a couple of times] I was beating myself up, but coming into the Premiership there’s no time for that. In this league teams will punish you if you’re out of position. The gaffer has really got it into me that as soon as anything goes wrong, forget about it and get back to help the team. I’ve matured as a player to be able to do that.”
Not that Roberts, who showed up well on loan with Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the 2012-13 season, believes his career, or his stint with Falkirk, deserved to be derailed by any apparent petulance when his performances were entered into the equation.
“Maybe I did develop a reputation, but I think that what I did in games overrode that reputation,” he says. “It did all end badly at Falkirk, but I think that over the course of the season I was one of the top performers in that squad. I’m not tooting my own horn but I think I gave a lot to Falkirk and I want to give as much as I can to Dundee. The gaffer here knew that I was hungry and he thought that he could maybe tame the attitude I’d been labelled with and get the best out of me. I think we’re seeing that now.”
Roberts wants to see today’s visit of United as “just another game of football”. He accepts it will be different for those that will fill the stands today, and will do so at Tannadice when the teams go toe-to-toe again in the League Cup on Tuesday.
“I’ve never played in two derbies so close together but I think it’s good for the club that we’re going into it positively looking for two wins,” he says. “We won’t be holding anything back in the first game thinking that there’s a second game. We wouldn’t do that if it was any other team, so why should it be like that just because it’s United? It’s nice having it back-to-back, they’ll be big occasions in front of sell-out crowds, but in terms of the way we approach the games I don’t think it changes anything.” The only changes that concern Roberts right now appear to be those guided by self awareness.