Despite only racking up 10 caps for Grenada at international level, Reading forward Jason Roberts has become one of the Caribbean’s most successful Europe-based footballers in a 17-year career spent solely in England.
Born in London in January 1978 to a Grenadian father and a French Guianese mother, Roberts’ eventual success in football will have come as little surprise to his family – Jason has three uncles who all played at international level: Cyrille Regis won 5 caps for England, David Regis earned 25 for the USA, and Otis Roberts represented Grenada on two occasions, while yet another uncle, John Regis, won silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a sprinter.
However, Jason’s path to footballing stardom was not as straightforward as some may imagine. Despite trials with the academies of London clubs Chelsea, Tottenham and Watford, at the age of 16 – when many other future stars were comfortably bedded in with big-name teams – Roberts was working as an export clerk and considering quitting football altogether.
Thankfully for Roberts, and the forward’s future clubs, uncle Cyrille eventually arranged a trial at Isthmian League side Hayes FC in 1995. Jason may well have finally taken his first steps towards the Football League by earning the contract that came as a result of his trial, but the terms were certainly not glamourous – Roberts was paid just £15 per week, a wage comparable to that of 1930s footballers.
Making his debut at the tender age of 17, in a league more physical than divisions higher up the footballing pyramid, Roberts showed remarkable talent and maturity to net 16 times in 50 league appearances. Five goals in Hayes’ opening three games of the 1997-98 season led, unsurprisingly, to Midlands giants Wolverhampton Wanderers, then of the second division, offering £250,000 – a then-record fee for a non-league player.
Still a teenager with no previous Football League experience, Roberts predictably found himself farmed out on loan to Southern sides Torquay United and Bristol City soon after joining Wolves. Arriving at Plainmoor in December 1997, Roberts transformed Torquay from fourth division cannon-fodder to promotion candidates, scoring 6 times in 14 games and forming a great partnership with fellow Caribbean forward Rodney Jack as the club embarked on an 8-game winning streak.
Ultimately, the end of Roberts’ loan spell ended United’s chance of automatic promotion, and the side had to settle for the play-offs, eventually losing in the final to Colchester in what would prove to be Jack’s final game for the club. Roberts, meanwhile, scored once in his three games at Rovers, but it was the Robins’ city rivals Bristol Rovers who stumped up £250,000 for the frontman’s services.
Typically, Roberts didn’t disappoint, reaching 16 and 22 goals respectively in his two seasons at Rovers. Unsurprisingly, his prolific strike rate in the lower leagues had caught the attention of bigger clubs, and following Rovers’ failure to win promotion in 2000, Roberts handed in a transfer request. If he was looking to move, it worked – West Bromwich Albion, then of the Championship, paid a club record £2 million (since eclipsed) to bring Roberts to The Hawthorns.
Settling into the higher division like a duck to water, Roberts netted 15 times in his first season to fire the Baggies to the play-offs, leaving the club three games away from reaching the Premier League. Though Albion were beaten by Bolton in the semi-finals, the club secured promotion the following season, finishing second only to Manchester City. Cruelly, Roberts was injured for much of the campaign, and it would be the beginning of the end of his Albion career.
Just three goals in 31 games in his first Premier League season caused West Brom to loan Roberts to fellow top-flight side Portsmouth in 2003-04. Unfortunately, one goal in ten appearances at Fratton Park seemed to suggest the Premier League was one step to high, and in January 2004, Roberts moved to Wigan Athletic of the second division.
Thankfully, a return to the Championship helped Roberts find his shooting boots: a goal 35 seconds into his debut, and eight goals in 14 appearances, fired Wigan to seventh place, agonisingly missing out on the play-offs by two points. However, even better was to come – Roberts scored 21 league goals in 2004-05 as Wigan were promoted to the Premier League, with Jason finishing as the Championship’s second-top scorer.
This time, Roberts took advantage of the promotion and established himself as a Premier League goalscorer, making Wigan history in the process: his penalty against Sunderland in August 2005 was Wigan’s first-ever top-flight goal, and helped the club to its first Premier League victory. In January, Roberts’ last-minute goal at Highbury sent Wigan to the League Cup final at the expense of Arsenal. At Wembley, they were convincingly beaten 4-0 by Manchester United, but Roberts played the full 90 minutes and had firmly established himself as a top-flight footballer.
Although Wigan had done remarkably well to finish ninth in their first season in the Premier League, Roberts’ ambition caused him to join sixth-placed Blackburn Rovers, who boasted the carrot of UEFA Cup football. A period of relative calm – unusual in Roberts’ career – followed, with the striker’s six-year stay at Ewood Park by far his longest spell at any one club.
Having said that, Roberts arguably enjoyed more success off the pitch than on it while at Blackburn: in 2007 he founded the Jason Roberts Foundation, aiming to “provide a range of sporting opportunities for children and young people in the UK and Grenada”, and three years later he was awarded an MBE for his services to sport in both Grenada and London. On the pitch, he failed to reach double figures in any of his six seasons at Ewood Park, and in 2011-12, with the club facing relegation from the Premier League, Roberts joined Championship side Reading on a one-and-a-half year deal.
At 34, Roberts’ experience of numerous promotion campaigns and top-flight credentials proved invaluable to Reading as the side cruised to the Premier League, winning the Championship and securing the title in late April. Six league goals in 17 games represented a return to form for Roberts, and tellingly, equalled his tally for Blackburn in the previous two seasons combined.
Although his international career ended in 2008, Roberts’ ten caps for Grenada, accumulated over a nine-year spell, provide cherished memories for the veteran – he described making his Spice Boys bow in 1999, aged 19 as “the proudest moment of my career”. Despite admitting that he would have rather represented England given the chance, Roberts has expressed his delight at making his debut alongside uncle Otis, and saw his international career as “a chance to put something back into the country”.
7 goals for Grenada, including strikes against Costa Rica and the United States, as well as a brace in a 10-0 demolition of the US Virgin Islands, made Roberts by far the island’s best and most famous player, but his club career in England limited the number of appearances he could make. Roberts acknowledged his celebrity status in the country in 2005, saying “I do get recognised all the time when I go over [to Grenada].” He travels to the island every summer to track the progress of his eponymous Foundation’s work.
Rather than dreaming of Premier League glory or FA Cup silverware, Roberts has said “It is my dream before I retire, maybe it is just pie in the sky I don’t know, but it is my dream to take Grenada to the World Cup finals.” While that looks unlikely, Roberts’ role in putting Grenada on the map, and promoting sports on the island, means that he will go down in the country’s history regardless of whether or not he achieves his dream.