By Alex Scott
I’m not even sure it was the celebration that I’m remembering. I think it may have been winning a corner actually. After the ball spun away behind the dead ball line not long after half time, City’s captain bellowed a rallying call to his crowd behind the Bramall Lane goal. In that one moment completely changing the atmosphere, the momentum of the game, like a light switch.
He was a man in control. A man who would not be denied.
My favourite line from the manager over the past 18 months has been how he noted that he needed to build a team which the fans could believe in. Build it and they will come. That is Gary Jones.
That entire game was a vintage Jones moment. Everything from start to finish was just text book. The award of a “Man of the Match” felt like it was created for performances just like that.
Amidst the nadir of this demoralising run, Gary Jones dragged his City team kicking and screaming toward a point they had absolutely no business in earning. They didn’t come easily, some of the defending on show was beyond the last ditch, but Jones flatly refused to let them lose. Not on his watch.
It was almost Gerrardian in its single-mindedness. One man holding back the tide, Gary Jones harked back to the performances last year which endeared him so greatly to this City fan base, the likes of which have been less frequent this term.
A little over 18 months into his City career, Jones has achieved as much as anyone before him. Saturday’s performance illustrated that he isn’t finished just yet.
As the story goes, he was noticed by Parkinson whilst scouting Stephen Darby, and on the recommendation of his assistant Steve Parkin, Jones was recruited. Not to be a spearhead as such, more like the spear itself. Jones was the man they needed for the short term, despite just turning 35. To clear space for him, Parkinson let go of budding young midfielder David Syers, who went up a league to recently-relegated Doncaster, for no fee. The irony that Syers is now plying away (successfully) in the division below City offers an apt vindication for the manager on that one. Especially because most of that fact is down to the work of Gary Jones.
Without Jones last season couldn’t have happened. After a long career as a cult hero at Rochdale, most looked at his signature at Valley Parade as something of a pension. Rochdale likely wouldn’t have offered a two year extension on those terms, and Jones could now secure his future a little longer. It should be noted that I was definitively of that mind at the time.
But, as with most things, and people really should never lose sight of this: I am a moron. I am not in the room; I cannot witness the intangibles he brings. Not that anyone can, being intangible and all, but you know what I mean. At that time when I would read words like “leadership” and “responsibility”, I would think immediately of Guy Branston’s inglorious tenure. And that’s on me, and I’ve learned that lesson. Branston didn’t fail because he was painted as a leader; he failed because he wasn’t up to it. Everything else was a sideshow.
However, when it comes to Jones, he has succeeded because he is a leader. His personality is woven in this team, and has carried them through some tough times and some great ones over the past 18 months. Which why anyone questioning his role in a time like this is just infuriating. Ritchie Jones being our starting central midfielder is really not that long ago.
Alongside Nathan Doyle in the middle of the park, Gary Jones made up the beating heart of a City side which was defined by its spine. A rock solid central defensive partnership led by Andrew Davies and the best strike partnership in the division book ended the midfield pairing which had the remit of setting the tone.
The rest of the team were relative stars at that level, but even in spite of that it looked often like they needed a spark, a thrust. And that definitively came from the tone set by Gary Jones. Involved in every set piece, he took responsibility from day one, single-handedly at times making them perform. From the first day of the season to the last he was pivotal.
Without him, the identity of the team would be… I don’t even know what it would be. The personality of Bradford City is as much Gary Jones as it is Phil Parkinson. The composed determination of the squad is actually often at odds with their manager’s frenetic demeanour.
Moving into this season, Jones and his charges managed to keep the engine ticking over until the loss of Andrew Davies, when the increased quality of the league proved a little too much to muddle through. But they still aren’t getting beaten. Despite a talent deficit, they are grinding out results, keeping their head above water unlike any City team in the modern era, which would already be at the bottom of the sea by now.
After one win in fifteen, and facing a two-nil deficit at half time, that second half performance at Bramall Lane could have been a turning point, for the first time in a long time, they looked like they were drowning. Enter Gary Jones.
It’s curious that the rising tides of discontent which submerged our struggling central midfield last week have yet to reach Gary Jones. Not that I’m an advocate of it as such. It’s just weird, from the outside. You read the odd catcall of fans on the internet complaining about Jones, normally following a defeat, but it’s rare in comparison to what Jason Kennedy has had to deal with.
The likely explanation is that any argument over Jones’ worth can be debunked by pointing to games like the one last Saturday. Performances like that render any discussion asinine. And anyone who could have watched that performance and concluded that Jones was the key problem wasn’t paying attention. I’m not here to talk about his worth really. There isn’t really an argument to frame, and in all likelihood, the anti-Jones argument is a bit of a straw man anyway.
For where the team is, they need someone like Gary Jones far more than a nebulous quote creative midfielder end quote, whatever one of those is. And for fans who’ve sat through the last ten years not to appreciate that is insane. Paul McLaren was a quote creative midfielder end quote.
The team need people willing to take responsibility, at a time like this more than any other. They need people who won’t accept anything less than what is required. Gary Jones flatly refused to let City lose that game. After a disappointing performance first half where Jones spent the majority of his time screaming at his back four – not one ever pointing in the same direction as another – he came out for the second half and led.
That was it. He didn’t perform particularly well, but even with that caveat was still our most impressive performer. He dragged a team in the midst of a truly terrible performance (really don’t let anyone undersell how bad they were first half) kicking and screaming into a point. They didn’t even play well second half! They just willed their way to a point in a game where they should have lost by two or three.
He scored a deflected goal, willing to take a chance, and then set up the equaliser with the only bit of skill from an amber shirt all day long. He ran around the pitch screaming, lifting, dragging everyone. And he did it in a manner which openly took responsibility. The opposite of hiding. The anti-Yeates.
He played like the man Guy Branston wanted to think of himself as. But Jones actually had the wherewithal to back up the bravado. Gary Jones would not let them lose on Saturday. Anyone else in there, even a more gifted player, and City would have been comfortably beaten.
Jones’ running, and credit where it’s due, Aaron McLean’s running, gave everyone else a lift, raising the standard of what was acceptable. And those standards have been one of the running themes of this team. Jones is a big part of that. This side very seldom crumble and get beaten. They’ve been beaten by more than one goal only once all season: Notts County away, where the hosts scored two goals in injury time. For all the fatalistic talk swirling, that’s not a bad record. When James Hanson has started alongside either Nahki Wells or Aaron McLean, City have only lost one game also: Port Vale away at the start of the year.
Despite an apparent talent deficit and a team descending further and further out of form, they are rarely being beaten. They are hanging in. They are determined beyond anyone’s expectations. They will not be denied.
It is curious that the talk around Jones hasn’t started in earnest though. Looking from the outside, one could rightly assume that a contingency plan for the 36-year-old captain out of contract in the summer should now be in place. In fact they look more reliant on Jones than ever. The future without him less imaginable.
And this is the conversation people should be having. Not that City should replace Jones now. This would be obviously insane. But shouldn’t there be some semblance of a plan? What if Jones wants to retire in the summer?
The mischievous soul in me would posit that perhaps Phil Parkinson is doing that with Jason Kennedy. Jones’ former teammate, nine years his junior, was signed on a two-year deal last summer, without a clear role in the team. Unless it would be as a back-up to Jones this year, with an assumption that by the beginning of next season Kennedy would be able to take up the mantle of his mentor.
Now I don’t know if that was the plan, but if it was, I’d argue that so far that such a plan may require revision. For all the will in the world Kennedy has seldom looked up to the task. This, of course, isn’t to say that he won’t ever be. It also isn’t like Jones has torn up trees in his play this year. The argument that Kennedy for a lot of the time looks like Gary Jones, but without the inspiration and leadership, is strong.
Beyond Kennedy, the reason there hasn’t been any new players blooded this year to spell Jones is that there aren’t any. Scott Brown was let go so that he could join Scottish Premiership outfit St Johnstone, and last week signed a new two-year deal, after making his league debut in October. Looking at the way the season has panned out, he’d probably have got some playing time actually. But with the acquisition of Kennedy in the summer, Scott had no choice but to leave.
The cupboard is bare behind Jones. He has played every minute this season, something that at 36 cannot have been part of the design from the off-season. But needs must. The manager obviously didn’t foresee such a dearth of performers in midfield, otherwise he wouldn’t have signed who he did.
Gary Jones was the man the side needed coming from the bottom of League Two, and they undoubtedly overachieved. As we have seen over the past few weeks, with Saturday’s game as the exclamation point, he is still needed here. With his initial contract at the club winding down, and the aims over the next few years to establish and push on at this level, the question becomes inevitable: will he be the man they need?
Gun to my head, I’d say he will be. But it’s by no means a sure thing. Jones, along with Doyle, Ricky Ravenhill, Garry Thompson, and Kyel Reid are hitting the free agent market in the summer, and that moment marks a clear opportunity, and maybe a necessity, for Parkinson to recast his midfield.
The acquisition of Aaron McLean to partner James Hanson inevitably means that the tried and tested 4-4-2 will be retained, but the actual four in the middle of that are still up in the air. From that list, I’d think only Jones and Doyle were on the positive side of a 50-50 chance of returning. But if Parkinson was that way inclined, he could blow it up this summer. Kennedy and Mark Yeates are the only hold-overs from the midfield, so the manager does hold the freedom to re-draw the position group in any combination he likes.
The underlying theory of the midfield – two deep lying protectors and two attacking outlets wide – will not change next year. Hanson casts a shadow over the rest of the team in this regard, pun intended, and it has served us well enough thus far. You don’t have a team with James Hanson and not build around crosses into the box.
As this season has worn on, the questioning has been on the effectiveness of the team at this level, and whether one can win playing in the manner which we set out so often. A line of questioning which is really a moot point, as every time the side try anything else they look hopelessly out of their comfort zone. Again bringing me back to my last point, why have someone with such a powerful competitive advantage in Hanson’s height and not use it?
It shouldn’t be forgotten that at the start of the year it did actually work, very well. Now Hanson and McLean have been locked up for the foreseeable future, the method won’t change. They just need to get better at it.
The question for the manager with regard to Jones is whether that in the limited scope of a predominantly defensive midfielder the improvement over Jones he could gain from a free agent would outweigh the loss of his leadership?
Now I don’t know the market enough to come close to answering that, but from watching this team so often over the past couple of years, they’ve been defined by Jones. I’d, quite vehemently, argue that the impact of a central midfielder in this system is limited, and any improvement over Jones won’t cover the loss of his presence in the team.
This is obviously with the caveat over his level of play. Right now he is doing just about enough in his actual play to keep his place regardless, but if there was a regression over the next 12 months, not an unfair supposition, then the balance of that equation may shift. But for right now, that’s not yet a problem.
A conclusion that leads me to think that Jones probably will be back captaining us next season. He’s played every minute this season, and does as much running as anyone. The marginal cost of the next six months for him may not be as big as you’d expect for someone his age. He’s been playing this way 20 years. What’s another 60 games if you’ve already played 600?
And in the end, all of this is missing the point of Gary Jones. Do you want to watch him or not? Would you rather watch a City team with him in it or without? Isn’t thinking about Gary Jones and this Bradford City team a tautology at this point? He has to stay, because of course he does. He has to. They need him. We need him.
Objectively, I’m not sure Jones’ performances have necessarily improved or regressed from last year. The level of competition has obviously risen, and with that he has become less notable in his performances. Something which had to have been expected. But the question of his growth isn’t really the issue; he’s 36-years-old. The question is really about how much the side have grown around him?
The rest of the team are still reliant on Jones to carry them through the tough times. The vision of the team as currently constituted without him is a worrying thought. He isn’t as much a water carrier, as the water itself.
At this point the team, the club still need him. They haven’t proven themselves strong enough outgrow his shadow yet. Jones doesn’t need their protection; they need it from him, if anything. At this point they still need him, and even in the medium term, any team without him would be a fundamentally different outfit. They would be a fundamentally less inspiring outfit. For us and them.