It has been eight months since Jay Rodriguez was accused of using racist language towards Gaetan Bong, and five months since he was cleared.
Only now does the West Brom striker feel ready to open up about the nightmare of clearing his name.
The 29-year-old makes no attempt to hide that it was a ‘very difficult’ and ‘tough’ time in his life, that he struggled to focus on football and that the support of people like Mauricio Pochettino were crucial in helping him cope.
It all centred on a match on January 13 against Brighton – one that should have been cause for celebration for Rodriguez, with West Brom’s 2-0 win marking an end to a 20-match losing streak.
Instead, at around the hour mark in the game, he clashed with Cameroon international Bong and was accused of racially abusing him. Bong said at the time — and has maintained since — that Rodriguez told him ‘You’re black and you stink’ while making a wafting gesture with his hand. Rodriguez says he told the Brighton defender ‘Your breath f***ing stinks’.
The allegations by Bong resulted in Rodriguez being charged by the FA with using racist language. He faced a four-month investigation by an independent regulatory commission.
In the end, after two lip-reading experts could not decipher exactly what was said, the commission ruled there was inconclusive evidence to prove Bong’s case and Rodriguez’s name was cleared.
‘The hanging over bit was difficult, very difficult for myself and my family,’ he says now, instantly losing the smile he had worn to this point. ‘I had to just keep myself focused on what I can affect, like I do with everything. The truth came out.
‘I’ve got a great network, my wife, my family, my friends, my team-mates. And team-mates from everywhere else who I’ve played with, and people in football.’
At no point in the discussion of what happened does he make any mention of Bong or display any of the fury he vented on social media when the allegations were first laid against him.
That is despite Bong appearing to suggest Rodriguez lied in his account of what happened, responding to the panel’s finding by saying ‘I know what I heard’.
Rodriguez instead sticks to conveying the impact it had on him and his continued gratitude to those who stood by him.
A number of people, including Spurs manager Pochettino, Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe and Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana — all of whom he played under or with — provided character references to support his defence. ‘That meant a lot to me,’ says Rodriguez. ‘It was a case of getting on with the job, helping the team. Obviously we were struggling at the time, so that didn’t help. It’s just one of those things, and something I will probably look back on and be like, ‘That was a tough time’, but I’ve come through it.’
While the process has caused considerable upset to both himself and Bong, Rodriguez says he is fully supportive of players coming forward if they believe they have been the victim of racism. ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘If it was something I did then obviously you need to be fully punished. It’s a serious thing, it (racism) shouldn’t be… anywhere in life.’
Rodriguez was strongly linked with a move to Burnley in the summer and is honest when he admits that any player would want to play in the Premier League.
Yet he is understood to have made no fuss when West Brom rejected two bids — including one for £16million — for him. ‘The club have been great with me, throughout,’ he says. ‘It was a difficult time. I think they believed in me, and that’s it. I have really settled in.
‘They’ve made me welcome, and I feel that they’ve given me respect so I owe them respect.’ A positive start to the season, both personally — he has scored four goals in seven games — and for West Brom, who sit ninth in the Championship, has helped Rodriguez try to move on from what happened.
‘It’s a very good start. I’m pleased,’ he says. ‘I’m still a bit annoyed with a few chances I’ve missed, it always could be more, but I’m happy with that. As long as it helps the team. We know how tough it is in the Championship. Every team can beat every team and everyone is striving for that top place.’
On Friday night, West Brom face a Birmingham side who have not won a game this season.
Rodriguez’s priority is helping West Brom return to the Premier League. Yet there is another lingering ambition in his mind — an England recall.
Rodriguez has one England cap, in 2013 against Chile, when he was at Southampton, — and he adds: ‘I think every player wants to go and play for their country, so to rule it out would be pretty stupid.’