From Sunday League football to League One debut in three years...
Being one of 12 siblings, you’d imagine Kory Roberts is well accustomed to receiving the odd late Christmas gift.
Though the second youngest child in a family of six boys and six girls will remember 2016 as the year when his latest present was his greatest present.
In a conversation with Manager, Jon Whitney, four days after Christmas Day, the 19-year old heard the news he’d been waiting for. The news he’d been working for.
“He called me into his office and asked me whether I was ready to play?” smiled Roberts. “I didn’t know what to say to be honest. I was so nervous that he’d called me into his office!”
“It came completely out the blue so I didn’t know how to react at first.”
With Matt Preston ruled out through illness and Kevin Toner’s impending return to Aston Villa, Kory was handed his first senior start in our New Year's Eve trip to Oxford United.
The quietly spoken defender would keep a clean sheet on his first professional start and alongside James O’Connor, Scott Laird and Jason McCarthy, help nullify the threat of the home side.
“I remember waking up on the day of the game and feeling this mixture of nerves and excitement,” he added. “I was happy to be making my debut but I obviously didn’t know what to expect.
“I wanted to do well for myself and the team but I knew I had to keep it simple and not over-complicate things.
“It was a lot more physical than I expected but it was a great experience because it’s shown me what to expect now and the areas I need to work on.
“The tempo is the main challenge. It’s a lot quicker than youth team or development football but I think I got used to it as the game went on.
“I walked back in the changing rooms and Jim O’Connor said well done and the lads all started giving me a round of applause so that was nice.”
It completed a rapid rise through the system for Roberts who was only picked up from Birmingham’s Sunday football scene as a 16-year-old.
After a trial at Birmingham City ended in disappointment, Martin O’Connor, a former Blues and Saddlers skipper who coached for the Development College at Wast Hills, recommended Roberts to the Walsall hierarchy.
“I was taking football seriously before that but things seemed to move really quickly.
“Blues chose not to sign me on a scholar so Martin [O’Connor] spoke to Walsall and I had a trial here.
“I thought I did well over the six weeks and I really enjoyed it. Then Neil [Woods] called me into his office and offered me a scholarship so I was over the moon.”
His tall, slim physique had served Roberts well but his late inclusion into the Academy system meant he was still getting up to speed with the physical demands of Youth Team football.
“I joined in the October and missed pre-season so I was always playing catch up with the rest.
“I had to catch up on three months of work - my fitness and my understanding of the position in particular so it was challenging to start with.
“In my first year I wasn’t playing but I remember pre-season as a second year thinking I had to push myself on.
“Maz [Kouhyar] and Jordon [Sangha] got their Pro’s early so you automatically start thinking ‘well is that it or is someone else going to get offered as well?’
“You just have to believe in yourself and do everything you can to convince the coaches you’re good enough.
“You never know what they’re looking for so you’ve always got a chance if you work hard.”
The hard work paid off. Kory Roberts and Rory Oliver joined Maz Kouhyar and Jordon Sangha by signing professional terms at the end of the 2015/16 campaign.
Roberts has now settled into life in the senior ranks and is the current captain of John Ward’s development side, a responsibility that he feels has benefited his game.
“It’s definitely helped. I’ve had to work on my communication and it’s definitely brought me out of my shell.
“I talk a lot more now on the pitch and it can only be good for me.
“I’ve just got to keep pushing on, working hard, play well for the development squad and try and get a couple more first team appearances under my belt.”