Will Norris’s penalty-saving feats earlier in the season inspired some of us old toots to indulge in a delightful memory-fest, recalling great U’s keepers of old. There have been so many, from the Galician virtuosity of Tony Gallego and the Gallic cool of Lionel Perez to the Huntingdonshire brilliance of Rodney Slack.
One custodian’s star shone all too briefly at the Abbey, but its radiance will never be forgotten. Immensely brave and dazzlingly athletic, Trevor Roberts enthralled thousands of admirers during the club’s first two seasons in the Football League, and many a tear was shed when he died at the absurdly young age of 30.
The Caernarfon-born Welsh amateur international came up through the youth ranks at Liverpool while studying for a geography degree: his other great love was teaching. After 171 League games for Southend, Bill Leivers signed him on a free in 1970, and he played in our first ever League game: a 1-1 home draw with Lincoln. Keeping his hand in as a teacher, he worked at a local school in the afternoons.
But he began to feel unwell, and after nine matches a medical uncovered a lung problem: cancer. Trevor underwent two operations but, amazingly, returned to training the day after being discharged from hospital. Insisting on no special treatment, he displayed an uncomplaining stoicism that astonished his teammates.
Trevor returned to action in January 1971, made his League comeback on April 3 at Oldham and, having played in seven of United’s last eight matches, began 1971/72 as first choice keeper. But at Southport in August Eric Redrobe’s robust attentions left him with stud marks along a thigh. Then his nose was broken when he raced out of his box to head clear from a Gillingham forward, who smashed him with a fist. In November, after United had snatched a 1-0 win at Workington, he was attacked by a bunch of yobs as he left the pitch. His reintroduction to football after quelling cancer was proving anything but an easy ride.
Trevor played his last game for United, a goalless home draw with Southport, on 8 January 1972. He had begun to feel unwell again and in February, the night before a short break in Portugal, he collapsed. Another operation confirmed that the lung cancer was back, and this time it was in a more aggressive form.
Trevor convalesced on the Norfolk coast, but the cancer spread to his brain and he became paralysed down his left side. Astoundingly, Leivers awarded him a new contract; it’s unlikely either party thought he could fulfil it. Sure enough, in April a specialist advised him to quit.
The last match of the season, probably the Abbey’s most emotionally charged ever, came when a combined United/Southend side played West Ham in a benefit. More than 6,000 spectators paid tribute.
Trevor’s heroic battle ended on June 2 in the Evelyn Nursing Home. Over a mere 50 U’s games, he had attained a legendary status that will endure for ever.