The post Joe Lumley cleanse begins today with confirmation that Liam Roberts is joining Boro on a free transfer after his contract expired at Northampton.
The 27-year-old comes highly recommended from Cobblers fans with a number of them proclaiming him to be “the best keeper we’ve ever had” on social media when news broke earlier in the week that Roberts was scheduled to undergo a medical at Boro.
He certainly made an impact at Sixfields last season, claiming Northampton’s Player of the Season and Player’s Player of the Season awards, as he kept a league best 21 clean sheets. Conceding just 38 goals, Northampton possessed the best defence in League 2 for goals conceded.
Roberts featured in every second of Northampton’s League 2 campaign until stoppage time against Barrow on the final day when he was sent off for handling the ball outside of his area, forcing him to miss the first leg of the play-off semi-finals against Mansfield, after the Cobblers had finished fourth.
Though Swindon’s Jojo Wollacott was named as the ‘keeper in the official League 2 Team of the Season, Roberts was arguably a more consistent performer. Funnily enough, Wollacott may find himself forced out of the team at Swindon by Boro’s Sol Brynn, who is expected to join the Robins on loan later this week.
With a penchant for acrobatic saves, Roberts can often be seen clawing the ball out of the top corner and ranked second amongst his peers in League 2 in terms of save percentage (76.3%). He was only beaten by Tranmere’s Joe Murphy (82.4) though the 39-year-old only played 17 times.
In general Liam Roberts’ shot-stopping ability is way above League 2 standard especially in close-range situations where he’s able to extend beyond his 6ft frame and uses his reflexes to push shots away.
He’s also brave when coming to collect crosses or smother loose balls, flinging himself into danger and possessing a huge standing leap to make up for his relatively small stature for a goalkeeper. That lack of consideration for his personal wellbeing will immediately endear him to Boro fans as will his passion for the game.
Roberts hasn’t always been a fan favourite though despite last season’s heroics. Born and bred in Walsall, Roberts made 149 appearances for his hometown team after several non-league loans to the likes of Romulus, Rainworth Miners Welfare and Gresley.
He endured a rocky start as the #1 at Walsall after taking over the gloves from Mark Gillespie and Saddlers fans were unconvinced by a young ‘keeper who conceded 69 goals in his first full season which ended in relegation to League 2.
However, it has to be said that at that time Roberts was in his early 20s playing in League One behind a porous Walsall defence and he certainly improved in confidence and output after relegation.
His final season at Bescot Stadium was far and away his finest on a personal level, recording a career best save percentage of 77.2% that was only bettered by Salford City’s Vaclav Hladky and preventing 10 goals according to that particular metric.
Capitalising on that momentum, Roberts moved to Northampton on a 1-year deal and has certainly benefited from that decision compared to his former team as his replacements Jack Rose and Carl Rushworth have flattered to deceive at Walsall.
It was at Walsall where the holes in Roberts game were more apparent, when he was behind a worse defence than he enjoyed at Northampton, showing a vulnerability to long-range shots.
There was a calamitous spill from a 35 yard Scott Twine shot against Newport and a bizarre Port Vale free-kick that Roberts could have blocked standing still yet decided to wave his leg at in what can only be described as something you’d see out of a reluctant “one goal and change” 7-aside goalie.
Roberts was able to clean that up over the past 12 months and that should only improve under the guidance of new goalkeeper coach Alan Fettis who joins Boro from Manchester United, where he helped to develop Dean Henderson and Sam Johnstone.
Fettis will also want to tweak the way that Roberts dives for shots. At the moment, it’s quite obvious where and when he’s going to move – something that may be exploited by Championship strikers.
Roberts himself has addressed the need to improve his distribution telling The Express and Star in October that “I can be more consistent with my distribution and that’s part of my game that can be improved. I work tirelessly day in, day out to improve that”.
Another oddity about Roberts’ game, specifically given the team that he is joining, is that he rarely comes out of his box for loose balls. He doesn’t really venture outside of his six-yard area for one-on-ones either.
Given that Chris Wilder wants his goalkeepers to act as auxiliary defenders on occasion, the 27-year-old may need some time to become accustomed to the demands placed on him by his new gaffer.
The elephant in the room with Liam Roberts is that he faces a massive jump up in standards from League Two to the Championship. Vaclav Hladky, who was even better than Roberts in his sole season in League Two, has failed to establish himself at Ipswich in League One. Christy Pym couldn’t make the cut at Championship level either after some great performances in League 1 + 2.
Though he will initially be the back-up to an as of yet unknown #1, Roberts will be expected to compete for the job and fill in if called upon for any reason.
Without being disrespectful to Roberts, the best outcome in the Boro goalkeeping department this season is one where he doesn’t play a single game as the new #1 puts together a fantastic campaign and Roberts remains out of sight and out of mind. That’s the ideal scenario.
Andy Lonergan, Tomas Mejias and Michael Agazzi rarely had to do anything besides warm up because they were playing behind Darren Randolph and Dimi. That’s the situation Chris Wiler will hope to find himself in rather than having heart palpitations over his keepers every week..
Roberts’ two-year deal on what is likely to be much lower wages compared to what was being paid to Joe Lumley and Luke Daniels represents a low risk signing for Middlesbrough who’ll be getting a goalkeeper better suited to the demands of the first-team especially when they’ll be aiming to add an undoubted, top tier number one between the sticks.
Acquiring a second choice goalkeeper shouldn’t be this big of a deal and they don’t really deserve any credit for this but he isn’t Joe Lumley. On that basis alone, the recruitment team can have a gold sticker for this one.
Photo Credits: Northampton Town FC, Northampton Chronicle, Middlesbrough FC