What would you say was the best goal you ever scored, or that you’re most proud of?
(Pause) A header for Reading against Southampton. (Clocks quizzical reaction) Exactly - a header, you think ‘really?’. If I scored more than five headers in my career that was a lot – it wasn’t the kind of goal I scored traditionally, and this one was purely on instinct. There was just something about the ball hitting you in the head or face that I never felt comfortable with.
There’s not that many of your goals on YouTube that aren’t jerky footage from the stands. Have you never thought of uploading some yourself or getting someone to?
I never have but now that you mention it! There are a couple on my official website. But I’m proud of my goalscoring record, to have scored at every level. And when you’re the lone striker in a 4-5-1 for a Premier League side who’s relatively, you know - survival is the priority? If you score double figures you’ve done incredibly well. Many times I sacrificed my goalscoring record for the team.
Rio Ferdinand, by a stretch. I’ve played against some great defenders – Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, John Terry – but there was something about Rio in that Man Utd team, where the full-backs and centre midfield would push up and you’d be one-on-one on the halfway line, and he would not only mark you comfortably with pace and agility but would present you a problem when you’re on the ball. Other defenders like Terry and Campbell were great organisers and communicators, but Rio was able to defend one against one for long periods of the game.
Hopefully he can play like that again for QPR. Incidentally, did you ever consider signing for or have an opportunity to play for the Superhoops?
A couple of times I came close, when Neil Warnock was manager. It would’ve been nice as they’re my local club, but it’s just one of those things that never ended up happening. Would’ve loved to play for Celtic too!
What would you say has been your career highlight?
That’s a hard question, for someone who’s come up through the leagues, because at 18 I never thought I’d play a non-league game, then when I was playing non-league I never thought I’d play professionally, and I’m very lucky to have ended up playing in League 2, League 1, the Championship and then the Premier League in succession. But my best highlight on balance was that Wigan Athletic team – going to Highbury in the last season Arsenal were there and scoring the winner... actually there were a lot of firsts for Wigan: I scored their first Premier League goal, and was obviously heavily involved in that first season and first cup final. So all of that together was just like a fairytale.
You obviously had a strong partnership with Nathan Ellington at Wigan...
Absolutely, and he went to my first school – Christ’s School – along with Jody Morris. But we had a special relationship, and it was a disappointment that he never made the Premier League. When we brought in Henry Kamara, although we played well together and scored goals, we didn’t have the same camaraderie I had with Nathan.
Why do you think his playing career stalled?
Listen, his ability was as good as anyone I’ve played with, and it’s still there, but people forget footballers are people too, and sometimes things happen in life. I’m sure there’s many reasons why things have happened as they’ve done
Without a doubt. And the frustration was that I felt as good as I’d ever felt physically. I’d always looked after my body - my health and my fitness. And going to Reading at the time, after Blackburn sold me, then winning promotion with an unfancied side, again it just seemed too good to be true. I was performing as well as I had in a long time. But the injury hurt because you want to make the retirement decision yourself, wave goodbye to the fans, do it that way. And it muddied my time at Reading, as people started looking negatively at my time out injured, overlooking what I and we achieved with that promotion. I was injured playing football for the club, not kite-surfing. So for it to end that way, with all that negativity, still irks me.
One could argue you were lucky to have such a successful injury-free career, which could’ve ended much sooner?
Absolutely. And once you start talking to other players who retired through injury you realise nothing’s promised. I had a 17-year career, while some people are forced to retire at 21 or after 10 games. So I’m not pleading poverty - I’ve been blessed and am very lucky. Just disappointed it ended that way.
How much longer do you think you could’ve continued otherwise?
I’d like to think I would’ve finished at the top, but probably I’d have gone right back down to non-league as I can’t imagine ever waking up and not wanting to play football any more. I mean, I saw my uncle Cyrille (Regis) finish right down the leagues as well. But inevitably your body isn’t what it was as a young man and you’re not able to perform at the same level, so I’m not sure how long I could do that.
What advice would you give today's youngsters looking to make it as a footballer?
I would say that having talent is a responsibility. It can only take you so far – it might take you to Sunday football or to the Champions League. It’s your responsibility to push it as far as it can go. I took on that viewpoint while playing for Hayes youth – to work as hard as I can and see where it takes me. It’s served me well.
I take it you must have seen a fair few cases of squandered talent in your time?
I’m being absolutely honest when I say I’ve played with better footballers than me in non-league. I genuinely mean that. But I had that extra bit of desire and motivation, to get out of my comfort zone, to get to where I am. But a lot of others didn’t.
In 2010 you were awarded an MBE, something many have declined for its associations with empire. Did you not have any concerns on that front?
My family moved from Grenada to England in the early 70s. My uncle Ken who worked at the Royal Albert Hall was awarded an MBE; uncle Cyrille was also for his services to football. I took mine as a token for hard work and dedication, for my services to charity and Grenada, which will allow me to continue making an impact. I understand people’s reservations but felt it was right to accept it.
Finally, have you ever thought about going into management?
I did my coaching level 2 at Blackburn with David Dunn. It’s not for me though as I didn’t love it. And with the huge expectations of fans and owners it’s a different job these days. You could put six years into working for your qualification and then get only a year – the average shelf-life for a manager. Hire and fire needs to end. Unless there’s more stability and managers don’t get changed so quickly, the brain-drain will continue as fewer people want to step into that lions’ den.
More info on the Foundation at www.jasonrobertsfoundation.com. Official site at www.jasonroberts30.com
This interview was also published in edited form at The Huffington Post