In today’s tiki-taka-obsessed football world, the traditional ‘target man’ seems to have died a death. But was the perception of the ‘target man’ always a myth? In our exclusive interview with ex Leicester, Wolves and Norwich striker Iwan Roberts, we discover there was so much more to a ‘target man’ than meets the eye.

“When people think of me, they say, he was the fella with no teeth who was strong in the air!”

If you haven’t read the blurb and don’t know who Headers and Volleys exclusive interview is with, you probably do now. Iwan Roberts had a hugely successful career between 1986 and 2005, playing over 600 league games and scoring over 200 goals for the likes of Huddersfield, Leicester City, Wolves and Norwich City. Famed for his no-nonsense approach, strength and THAT enthusiastic gap-toothed grin, Roberts was what was termed the ‘traditional target man.’ In the modern-day, this view of a centre forward is dying a death. But why? And is branding a striker a ‘target man’ doing them a disservice? Having played the professional game for 20 years, and now an analyst and commentator for BBC Wales, Roberts is well versed to offer his forthright opinion.

I didn’t know he had feet?

He laughs when we suggest the old-age view of playing effective football with a target man is to “lump it to that big fucker up top!” It is a laugh of genuine humour at the suggestion but is followed with a firm defence of the ‘target man’ stereotype.  

“There is more to that type of centre forward. You need many attributes and skills – you must compete in the air, have decent movement and pace. You need to be strong if the ball is played up to you, be good with your back to goal. You need support, especially if you’re on your own,” he says, and then offers that he and others like him could be moulded into the more patient modern-day approach, characterised by Daniel Farke’s current Norwich City team. “I played up front for 20 years. Could I play that lone striker role in a team that builds from the back, plays through midfield? I think I could. If I couldn’t have used my feet, I wouldn’t have had the longevity I did.” 

Is the very term ‘target man’ offensive?  “I wouldn’t say it’s an insult, I would say it’s more hurtful to say we could only do one thing.  I don’t find the term ‘target man’ offensive, if I wasn’t the size I was when I was 17, I don’t think Graham Taylor’s Watford would have signed me, as I fitted their style of play,” Roberts reflects.

Iwan and his beard enjoying our interview

Indeed, Roberts’ own qualities as a striker weren’t just defined by the far-post nod in or the regular bloody head-clashes with opposing centre backs. We remember two of Iwan’s goals fondly, which epitomise his adaptability and class. One was against Gillingham which won me £50 on a club coach sweepstake, not bad for a 14 year old fan. Roberts describes the goal in typical self-depreciating style: “it was the only time I outsprinted a centre-half, but it was Guy Butters, so…” The other was a goal at Portman Road in a 2-0 derby day victory against Ipswich, which many have likened to Dennis Bergkamp’s goal for Holland against Argentina in the World Cup, “I did it before Bergkamp, so his was the ‘Roberts goal,” he laughs. 

Fast-forward to 1min 35secs for the ‘Roberts Goal’

Studying the successful teams of the modern era, many of them play with the one up front. The kind of striker who has a bit of everything. If we look at Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane and even the current Norwich City incumbent Teemu Pukki, they play up front on their own, ably supported by those in and around them. They’re not what we could call a ‘target man,’ but is the term itself actually irrelevant? Roberts firmly believes that a good striker comes in all shapes and sizes, and can be moulded into any style of play.

“I’m not too sure why some of these traditional ‘targetmen’ don’t play anymore. But look around you. What category would you put Zlatan in? How about Peter Crouch? Yes, he was 6 ft 7, but had great feet!” You sense a passion in Roberts to defend the ‘big man’ – height itself isn’t a means to an end. Each and every striker has a range of tools in their proverbial bag to make a successful career for themselves.

We look at modern-day strikers and the skills they possess and agree that physicality isn’t everything. At one end, Roberts cites Wolves’ hitman Raul Jiminez as well as Burnley’s Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes as modern-day bastions of the big, physical centre forward, “they are two big, physical lads and Burnley play to their strengths. When either one or both of those are missing, Burnley are nowhere near as effective.” At the other end of the scale, Roberts picks out Newcastle United’s £40million signing/flop Joelinton, “He’s a big lad too, but he doesn’t even put himself about. You know, even if you have a bad game and don’t score, you put yourself about, work your bollocks off, he doesn’t even do that.” You sense that, the further we delve with Iwan, the more he believes being a top quality striker is about being the all round package and we shouldn’t pigeon hole them as one thing or the other. Physicality and height mean nothing if you don’t put in the yards.

Looking further back, Roberts’ idol as he grew up was fellow Welshman John Toshack, and his partnership with Kevin Keegan was a big influence on the young Liverpool fan who was trying to make his way in the game. Initially, he forced his way into the Watford team before he moved to Huddersfield and met Frank Stapleton, by this time nearly twice Roberts age, “He took me to one side, I got on really well with him and still do. He told me how to steal goals, and I got 34 goals that season, and that tip gave me 6 or 7 more.”

Roberts’ idol Toshack and his post-lockdown hair

But it was the dream duo of Toshack and Keegan that represent that extra ingredient required to be a successful ‘target man.’ The little-un. The one who can nip in behind, make darting runs and gamble on the flick-ons or knock-downs. Usually the one who is reputationally the ‘better’ footballer. Equally reliant on one another, the ‘big’un and little’un’ partnership has been replicated many times over the years – in the relatively modern era we all remember the success of Quinn-Phillips at Sunderland. 

During his days with Norwich City, a certain Craig Bellamy emerged through the youth system as a gobby but talented 17-year-old, and Roberts tells us that there was a strange telepathy between them. “People ask me about Craig, but we didn’t work at it in training. I can’t put my finger on it, but we just clicked. Bellamy had pace and intelligence. We were both passionate Welshmen, that probably helped.”  

Of course, Bellamy went on to have a hugely successful career, one where he scored plenty of goals but often fell foul of referees and wound up opposition players. Something that seemingly was grounded in him at a young age, when he had the temerity to wind-up Roberts, both twice his size and age. “We used to fall out,” says Roberts as an aside, as he recalls a story from a pre-season trip to Dublin when Bellamy was only 19. “It was pre-season, before my second season at Norwich. I had a stinker in my first year there. We were allowed one night out, and I overheard him talking to Drewe Broughton and he said about me: ‘he better pull his finger out this season, he was shit last year.’ I remember thinking, ‘who the fuck do you think you are, you cocky little piece of shit? You’re a one season wonder.’ How those words have come back to haunt me!”

Iwan showing Bellamy what it’s like to be a target man

In today’s game, Roberts says he would love to link up with Aguero, “he’s absolutely lethal, a workaholic, he’s not the biggest but his upper body strength is ridiculous.” Carefully considering all the different types of striker, Roberts also gives Roberto Firmino a mention, perhaps he is the closest thing we have to a modern-day, adapted target man. “He works so hard. Without what he offers, it doesn’t give Mane and Salah the freedom they have to do what they do.”

In the space of our 45-minute interview, Iwan Roberts has managed to change my perception of the target man. They were, and still are, so much more. It only goes to prove that those big, strong beasts contain that bit of beauty too. With or without teeth.

Headers and Volleys would like to thank Iwan Roberts for his time for this interview. He must be one of the nicest blokes in football. To say thank you, our designer Scott created a ‘fanatar’ for Iwan.

You can follow Iwan Roberts on Twitter: @iwanwroberts 

Iwan on… the Rest of the season?

They have a reasonable run-in and some decent games at home. The goals have dried up, I looked at the start of the season and they were playing free flowing attacking game and thought they would be ok. They have also conceded too many sloppy goals. It is a 9-game season now, everybody starts afresh.

Any 3 of the 6 can go down. West Ham have some tough fixtures coming up. Brighton have a ridiculous run of games coming up. Bournemouth could be in big trouble if they go down. It’s not over that, I tell you.  Who can handle the pressure? Who has got the quality?

Football fans live and breathe it, it is why they go to work. They live and breathe it. Things will get better, hopefully we will come to the end of this terrible pandemic, and football fans will be able to go stadiums again. We have had more important things to worry about, but we know what we are up against, but we have to make the most of it and enjoy it as much as you can!

5 irrelevant questions…

Who is your best mate in football and why?
We are ships in the night, you move from club to club and make friends. I have to say Hucks (Darren Huckerby). Hit it off on the pitch like I did with Bellers. We kept in contact when I moved away, and our wives are friends. We will be having a barbie this weekend, we will have a few beers. He likes that Modelo, that Mexican lager, but I tell you when he sees a fridge full of Moretti, there’s only one thing he is going for!

Name us a random 90’s footballer…
Terry Hurlock.

Who was the best and worst dressed player at Norwich?
The worst has to be Craig Fleming, by a country mile! Flem hated spending money on clothes, he hated spending money full stop. His favourite saying was “every pound is a prisoner” and he wasn’t joking!  The best dressed? Apart from me – Peter Grant. He was immaculate. He spent a few quid on his clothes did Granty.

Finally, will you join us for one of our Football in Isolation quizzes sometime?
I’ll join in one Friday! 

Are teeth overrated?
Not for me they’re not no!

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