The rise of Rob Sanchez proves Brighton coach Ben Roberts is a master of his craft
Robert Sanchez making his full international debut for Spain in this most recent international break was the latest chapter of a rags-to-riches fairy tale that is the footballing equivalent of Cinderella.
Three years ago, Sanchez was on loan in League Two with Forest Green Rovers. Two years ago, he was on loan in League One at Rochdale. One year ago, he was fifth choice at Brighton behind Maty Ryan, David Button, Jason Steele and Christian Walton.
For Sanchez to now be established as one of the best young goalkeepers in the Premier League and be competing alongside Unai Simon and David De Gea for the Spain number one jersey – having usurped Chelsea’s £72 million man Kepa Arrizbalaga in the pecking order – is nothing short of extraordinary.
Where the Sanchez story differs from the Cinderella story though is that the Fairy Godmother is getting a lot of credit. In Cinderella, it is all about the young lady who ends up marrying Prince Charming. How many people actually stop to thank the Fairy Godmother, without whom none of it would have been possible? Not many is the answer to that.
In this case, Sanchez’s fairy godmother is Ben Roberts. And posting on social media after making his Spain debut, Sanchez went out of his way to thank his goalkeeping coach for turning him from a player who did not exactly set League Two alight in his season at Forest Green into one now representing one of the biggest footballing nations on the planet.
That Roberts has had such an impact is no surprise. If he is not the best goalkeeper coach in the country, then he is certainly the most underrated. For evidence, you just have to look at the record of players who have worked under him since he returned to the Albion as part of Chris Hughton’s coaching staff in the summer of 2015, 10 years after retiring as a Brighton player.
First, there is David Stockdale. In the 2014-15 season, Stockdale struggled for form and match fitness. Once he started working with Roberts, he was transformed into the best goalkeeper in the Championship between 2015 and 2017.
When Harry Redknapp waved a lot of money at Stockdale and offered him the chance to live next to Spaghetti Junction, he jumped at the chance and signed for Birmingham City.
Since parting with Roberts, Stockdale has rattled through spells with Southend United, Coventry City, Stevenage and Wycombe Wanderers.
From a man who did so much to help Brighton into the Premier League to a League Two relegation battle at Stevenage in the space of four years. It is the polar opposite of Sanchez’s rise. Without Roberts, Stockdale has declined.
Then there is Maty Ryan. When Ryan first arrived in England, he looked like a rabbit in the headlights. Hughton was so concerned that he brought in Tim Krul on a free transfer on the final day of that summer’s transfer window.
Within a month of the 2017-18 Premier League season kicking off, Roberts had ironed out the problems in Ryan’s game. Over the next three seasons, the Australian was one of the major reasons why the Albion remained in the Premier League. He is still the only Brighton player ever to win a PFA Player of the Month Award in the top flight.
Roberts has also nurtured Carl Rushworth, currently earning rave reviews on loan at Walsall. Whisper it quietly, but Rushworth has the potential to be even better than Sanchez.
There cannot be many players in history who have attracted the attentions of Barcelona scouts whilst on loan at Worthing, as Rushworth was rumoured to have done during a season with the Mackerel Men in 2019-20.
It is not just Brighton goalkeepers who Roberts has had an impact on, either. Before taking the job, he worked at Charlton Athletic, spotting and signing Nick Pope for the Addicks from non-league Bury Town in 2011.
Within nine years, Pope had finished second in the Premier League Golden Glove with 15 clean sheets and now has seven England caps to his name. His journey from the eighth tier of English football to the highest level was started by Roberts.
The most pleasing thing about Roberts becoming such a success as a coach is that it makes up for a playing career ruined by injury. Had he not suffered with a troublesome back, he could have played at the sort of level that so many of his proteges have managed.
After a brief loan spell in the 2002-03 season was cut short by his back, Steve Coppell took a sizable risk in bringing Roberts in on a free in the summer of 2003.
It played off handsomely though as the Albion won promotion through the playoffs come the end of the 2003-04 campaign. Roberts set a club-record of six consecutive clean sheets during the run-in, saved a Tommy Mooney penalty in the semi final shoot out win over Swindon Town and then recorded another shutout at the Millennium Stadium against Bristol City.
It says much then that Roberts’ contribution as the Albion’s goalkeeper coach has far outstripped his work as a promotion winning player.
He is Brighton’s best-kept secret and one we have to hope can keep sprinkling his magic over the Albion’s current and future number ones for as long as possible.
As long as Roberts is at the Amex, the Seagulls are in safe hands.