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Roberts was born in West Bromwich as one of five children to James Roberts in April 1859. After leaving Christ Church school Bob became a plasterer by trade, while his interest in sport led him to join the George Salter’s Spring Works football team, the West Bromwich Strollers. On 23 November 1878 Roberts played in the first recorded Strollers game, a 12-a-side friendly against Hudson’s soap factory that finished 0–0. Roberts continued to play for the club after they changed their name to West Bromwich Albion in 1880. He played in various positions, including full-back, half-back and forward, and there is record of him scoring against Smethwick Holy Trinity in February 1880 in a 3–0 victory. However, he was generally not a success as an outfield player, one observer describing him thus:

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