A conversation with Jason Roberts is a magical mystery tour. One minute he is recalling the madness of solo training at a non-League club, the next it is cocktails on a Caribbean beach and U-turns on the M6. A semblance of normality returns as the talk leads on to tomorrow's Carling Cup final, but the 28-year-old Wigan Athletic striker knows that victory over Manchester United would be the most unexpected detour of all.
The word "opportunity" peppers Roberts' entertaining tales. There is the one Chelsea did not offer him, which almost killed his love of the game as a teenager. The one he grasped when the former England forward Cyrille Regis, the most famous of several sporting uncles, helped revive the affair. The one he spurned when Wigan first came calling. And the one - or more, preferably prefaced by the adjective "scoring" - he hopes will come his way against United in the Millennium Stadium.
Roberts, who lives in Manchester, was suspended for three matches before the final. But as the 13-goal leading scorer in Wigan's pundit-defying debut season in the Premiership, as well as the man whose last-gasp goal at Arsenal sent the underdogs through to Cardiff, he will be among the first names on manager Paul Jewell's team sheet.
Feeling valued has been a constant quest for Roberts. He has found it at Wigan, though his candid response to the suggestion that he may not have wanted them to do too well in his absence shows he is not complacent. "That reaction is only human. There is a conflict," he admits. "But we're very much a team, and when Andreas Johansson scored twice at Tottenham, I was as happy for him as anyone."
Provided Henri Camara is fit, Johansson may have to settle for a substitute's role. Rejection is never easy for a player to handle, least of all when he is just 17, as Roberts was when Chelsea decided against taking him on. "I thought I was a decent player, but I never got the opportunity so I went to work as an export clerk," he says. "I loved the job and became second in command, but then there were only two of us!"
"Uncle Cyrille" had cut his centre-forward's teeth with Hayes, to the west of London, and fixed a trial for Roberts there. Soon Roberts was on £15 a week, the goals were flowing and the scouts watching. The management made him their only full-timer. "Imagine it," he says, his expression between a grin and a grimace. "A one-man training session every day. Just me and a coach called Terry Brown. He used to run me crazy."
These "intense" work-outs paid off when Wolves bought him for the first £250,000 of the £4m-plus he has commanded in transfer fees. Molineux, like Stamford Bridge, proved another false start, yet no sooner did he become a prolific marksman with Bristol Rovers than he was an international to boot.
Grenada, his father Reg's birthplace, invited the Londoner to commit to them. "I've never regretted it. The facilities aren't up to the standards here, but it was about more than playing football. I was trying to give something back.
"It's a 12-hour trip, though it's well worth it when you get on that beach and get a few rum punches down you. Grenada's a tiny place and has always been a cricketing island. But football is taking over. The thought of us getting to the 2010 World Cup isn't so ridiculous. We beat Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, and they've both made it into the finals."
Making it into the Premiership was Roberts' main ambition and one achieved with West Bromwich. In the first three months after promotion, he felt he played the best football of his career, only for Albion's failure to create sufficient chances and his inability to get on with Gary Megson ("I'm in a long line there") to lead him back to the crossroads.
Or rather the motorway. "I was going up to talk to Wigan with Uncle Cyrille, my agent, when Harry Redknapp called. He did a great job on me. We ended up turning round at Stafford and heading to Portsmouth. I had to take the opportunity to play in the Premiership."
Fortunately for Roberts, Jewell tried again when the loan spell at Pompey did not work out. His partnership with Nathan Ellington played a major part in Wigan's completing a 27-year ascent from the Northern Premier League to the Premier League. Despite Ellington's departure, to West Bromwich, coincidentally, he has maintained an impressive scoring rate as the Latics have confounded the critics.
Roberts is "honestly not surprised" that Wigan have prospered. "Everyone goes on about our team spirit, the new Crazy Gang and so on, but we're also a bunch of talented, underrated players. It's good when people say nice things about you, but I take it with a pinch of salt. It's not long since they were saying we'd get relegated with 10 points."
In fact, Wigan hit the putative safety mark of 40 last weekend. A 4-0 rout at Old Trafford has been their worst blip, a reminder of the folly of assuming that United enter the final as a fading force. On a personal level, Roberts' lowest point was the recent red card against Everton.
"Sometimes it's tough playing up front because you don't know what's going on behind you. I got sent off for accidentally elbowing someone [David Weir]. So I've had a word with Uncle Cyrille and he talked me through it. He was very even-tempered as a player. Unlike myself. That must be the other side of the family! But seriously, aggression is very much part of my game. I walk a tightrope whenever I play."
Roberts underlined the importance of staying on the pitch by firing the historic goal that swept Wigan into the final and shattered Arsenal, sweet in itself for a Spurs fan. Captain for the night - "It showed the manager has forgiven me for Stafford Services" - he believes he was one of the few players who realised his strike meant no shoot-out. "I didn't want to say it too loudly in case Arsenal heard and pushed for another goal.
"To knock out a team as good as that over two legs was brilliant. Even better was the way we did it, scoring so late. It's humbling. A club like West Brom have their history and tradition; the fans can remember being in finals. At Wigan, we're blazing a trail, actually creating history. United are a squad of winners, but I feel we can beat anyone on our day."
Cyrille Regis' finest hour and a half came against United, West Bromwich winning 5-3 in an Old Trafford snowstorm during what was also Wigan's inaugural Fourth Division campaign. Has his nephew seen the video? "He won't stop showing me the tape when I go to his house," Roberts chuckles. "He keeps stopping it and saying: 'That's me'.
"Growing up, it was great to be able to turn on the TV and say: 'That's my uncle'. It gave me the belief that I could become a footballer, too." Now, for Jason Roberts, opportunity is knocking like never before.Reuse content