You have to stay up – it's so hard to get back in it
Jason Roberts has now been promoted with Reading and he helped to keep Blackburn and Wigan in the topflight. Steve Tongue hears his guide to survival
Two tribes go to war at Ewood Park tomorrow night while other clans look on anxiously. Meanwhile Jason Roberts, a veteran of both Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic, will have the luxury of watching the attempted throat-cutting from a vantage point at the top of the Championship, feeling for former colleagues but keen to know which – if any – of them he will encounter as a Premier League player next season.
When Blackburn became the bookmakers' banker for relegation last Sunday with an incomprehensibly timid performance in defeat at Tottenham, Roberts was otherwise engaged. The Reading squad he joined in January after failing to win anything like a regular place in Steve Kean's side were undertaking an open-top bus ride round the town before holding up the Championship trophy at the Madejski Stadium and enjoying an evening of deserved celebration.
At the same venue the following morning, his head was just about clear enough to offer the only consolation available to Rovers, whose final fixture after meeting Wigan is an unpromising one at Chelsea next Sunday. "To help Blackburn stay in the League last season was one of the proudest moments of my career," Roberts said. "People were very negative about our chances going into the last three games against West Ham (1-1), Man United (1-1) and Wolves (3-2) but we did it. We had to show a lot of bottle to do that. We all pulled together."
On that extraordinary last day, only one relegation place was already filled (by West Ham) and five other teams were in danger of going down, just like now.
Roberts scored the opening goal at Molineux, where Blackburn were 3-0 up at half-time before holding on to win 3-2, Wolves just surviving with them as Birmingham and Blackpool went through the trap door. A year on, Wolves are already doomed to relegation, while Lancashire's unfashionable trio of Blackburn, Wigan and Bolton are all involved again, this time in the company of Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa.
In forging a second career as a presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live's6-0-6 phone-in, the 34-year-old Roberts has had his ear bent by supporters of all those sides over recent weeks, some of them optimistic but a majority probably of the opposite inclination. The one accusation often raised by fans that he is always keen to dispute is that some of the players involved either don't try or don't care.
"Fans say that when you lose," he said. "But I've played games where you win and actually put in less effort because you're confident and doing well. You always have players upset at not playing, or various personal issues which don't change whether you're doing good, bad or indifferent.
"It's not just a question of playing for the manager or not, players are playing for the club, for their own careers. So in effect you're playing for yourself."
Of Blackburn, he adds: "Having been in that dressing-room I can tell you there's nobody there who doesn't want to do well. The manager, the players as well. Obviously the atmosphere around the club doesn't help with everything that's happening but, as players, what can you do other than go out on the pitch and do the best you can?
"Whether they're good enough or not, time will tell. If they are relegated, they're not good enough and Blackburn have been relegated before.If it happened they'd have to pick themselves up and go again. Because Norwich and Swansea have done so well this season, there were going to be a couple of established teams going down. Wolves have been relegated with some expensive players. It shows how hard the Premier League is."
He does admit that Blackburn's specific problem of supporters' disenchantment with the manager and owners may have had an effect: "When the atmosphere inside the ground during the 90 minutes is a negative one, that does become an issue for the players and the management. And it's been that way for a long time now at Blackburn.
"Among the guys [players] the team spirit can still be good and, of course, that's always helped by winning matches."
Of all the strugglers, Wigan were the only ones to do that in the past week, their 4-0 romp against Newcastle a huge tonic to take into tomorrow's game. "As a club it seems to suit Wigan to be the underdogs who nobody fancies," said Roberts, who scored 21 goals the season they first won promotion to the Premier League under Paul Jewell.
"Some people still say it's a rugby town but the Premier League is so huge that any team that stays in it for that long becomes a football town.
"This derby is a huge game, I've played in a few of those and there's a lot of feeling in it. From Blackburn's point of view it's a must-win and I don't think Wigan will just sit back so I think there'll be goals in it.
"A few weeks ago, people were saying Blackburn were out of it and Wigan were down. Now Wigan have had a run of form at the right time. It's momentum and performing at the correct time. This is the business end for them and they seem to have this knack at the end of the season.
"I'd like to think the home crowd will be behind Blackburn," Roberts added. "I've taken calls on the radio where the mentality is 'maybe it's best if we go down and rebuild' but I don't see any point in that.
"The Championship is so competitive, it really surprised me when I came back to it. So while it's mathematically possible, you have to believe you can do it."
Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 8pm
Staying up, going down: Villa need to start scoring, Bolton must stop conceding
Points 37. Goal Difference: -14
To play Tottenham (h); Norwich (a).
Bright side Best goal difference, worth an extra point.
Dark side Terrible form, one win in 13 games and no goals in over five hours.
Key man Gabriel Agbonlahor – high time for a goal or two.
Points 37. Goal Difference: -22
To play Blackburn (a); Wolves (h).
Bright side On the up, playing fine football.
Dark side Blackburn tomorrow will be no place for finesse.
Key man Ali Al-Habsi – keeper needs to stand firm.
Queens Park Rangers
Points 34. Goal Difference: -23
To play Stoke (h); Manchester City (a).
Bright side Home form very good – have won four in a row.
Dark side Away form very bad – have lost five in a row.
Key man Adel Taarabt – hard work as well as inspiration required.
Points 34. Goal Difference: -31
To play West Bromwich (h); Stoke (a).
Bright side Two winnable games.
Dark side Worst goal difference after losing to Tottenham.
Key man Kevin Davies – leads from the front.
Points 31. Goal Difference: -28
To play Wigan (h); Chelsea (a).
Bright side A home game against relegation rivals.
Dark side Have probably left themselves with too much to do.
Key man Paul Robinson – last-day heroics in goal at Chelsea?
Odds to go down (William Hill): 1-66 Blackburn, 5-6 Bolton, 5-6 QPR, 20-1 Wigan, 20-1 Aston Villa.
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