The striker and radio pundit knows what it takes to win promotion to the Premier League and has played a major role in the Royals' remarkable run
It has been quite a season for Jason Roberts. On the field, the striker has swapped a relegation struggle with Blackburn Rovers for a promotion push with Reading while off the pitch the 34-year-old has gone from being a sounding board for irate supporters, in his role as a presenter on a radio phone-in show, to a guest at 10 Downing Street at a summit with the prime minister.
Roberts looks a little embarrassed when it is put to him that he is regarded as one of the most respected and articulate footballers of his generation. He has the same bashful expression when it is suggested that it must be more than a coincidence that Reading's remarkable run, in which they have won 13 of their last 15 Championship matches, started with his first appearance for the club when he scored the only goal against Bristol City in January.
With another four goals and five assists since, it is not surprising that his team-mates have talked about him being the catalyst for their surge up the table. "Our main strength has come from defending and keeping clean sheets," says Roberts, "so I can't really take too much credit for that [run]. But I'd like to think that I've added something to it; my experience of being there before and trying to give something not only on the pitch but around the place. When you've won promotion before [with Wigan and West Bromwich Albion], I guess it's easier to remain calm and composed when you're [trying to get] there again. And from my point of view, in my career, these are the moments I live for."
Friday night's visit to St Mary's feels hugely significant. Southampton and Reading are joint top, with only goal difference separating them and four games remaining. West Ham are six points behind in third place but Roberts insists he is looking in only one direction. "We've got here by chasing the people ahead of us and there's someone ahead of us at the moment – we need to catch them," he says. "We've been consistent with that thought and I don't think we should change it now."
Reading's form has been nothing short of relentless. "I can't remember a run like it," says Roberts, whose playing career spans 17 years, dating back to the days when he was turning out for non-league Hayes. "This squad and this team and the way we're going about it really reminds me of my time at Wigan. It was very simple, it was 4-4-2, it was a very British brand of football and it's something that we brought on with great success in the Premier League and had a fantastic first season [in 2006], coming 10th and getting to the League Cup final."
Roberts joined Blackburn at the end of that campaign and spent the next five and a half years playing Premier League football at Ewood Park, until a contractual dispute led to his departure in January. It looks like he got out at the right time, with Reading and Blackburn increasingly likely to swap places next season. "It would be a huge shame and I hope that's not the case," Roberts says. "I hope next season I'll be playing in the Premier League against Blackburn and Wigan, two clubs that are really close to my heart. Things are tough at Blackburn. But they can still do it."
Blackburn's travails at the start of the season when Steve Kean, the manager, came under constant attack from his own supporters, meant that Roberts was an easy target for fans that rang up BBC Radio 5 Live hoping to get the newly appointed member of the 606 phone-in show to condemn what was going on at Ewood Park. "It's been an education," says Roberts. "I've really enjoyed it, although there were a couple of times that I went on there as low as I've ever felt with some of the results we were getting at Blackburn. But in a way it became therapeutic."
The big talking point for Roberts this season, however, has been racism in football. He says that he welcomed the chance to "articulate the views of a lot of the players I know who are concerned with the issue" at the meeting with David Cameron in February, when he joined other leading figures in the game to discuss discrimination in football. "This season has been a reality check because when things have happened and it's polarised opinions, you're seeing that the same old underlying attitudes are still there with a lot of people. And it's something that we need to stand up to," he says.
Listening to Roberts talk about a range of subjects with such passion for more than an hour, it is easy to imagine a career opening up for him in football governance in the future as well as the media, although Reading fans will be relieved to learn that they can look forward to a few more seasons of decent service before that happens. "It's a little bit like I said about chasing Southampton, the team ahead of us, because I'm still chasing the next challenge," Roberts adds. "There's a lot of football left in me yet. And some more really good times ahead."