By Jason McKeown
As Phil Parkinson drove into work last Friday, he would have been mentally preparing for one of the most difficult meetings of his managerial career. Telling any footballer you are effectively making them unemployed is never easy, but it’s part of the job and the accepted reality. This one is a bit different. This one is going to really, really hurt the player.
Parkinson would not have known that Friday 9 May 2014 also happened to be the 15th anniversary of Bradford City’s promotion to the Premier League, and the finest hour of the club’s greatest midfielder, Stuart McCall. But the unhappy coincidence would not be lost on others. It was some anniversary upon which to tell the club’s second-greatest modern day midfielder that his contract was not going to be renewed.
As he rolled up at Valley Parade ahead of the summit meeting with his captain, perhaps Phil Parkinson allowed himself a few moments to reflect back on the circumstances and reasons for originally signing Gary Jones, two years prior. It was the close season, and the manager was tasked with revamping a playing squad that had endured back-to-back 18th-place finishes in the basement division. He was working through a list of targets that included Liverpool right back Stephen Darby, who had spent the previous season on loan at Rochdale.
Parkinson was watching DVDs of Darby’s performances at Spotland, when someone else increasingly caught his eye. A distinctive, bald midfielder, known to everyone in the lower leagues: Gary Jones. He was everywhere on the park, dominating the games that Parkinson was carefully studying. And, in a misguided development that summed up John Coleman’s doomed spell at Rochdale, Gary Jones had fallen out with his manager. He was available on a free transfer.
Parkinson picked up the phone and called his assistant Steve Parkin, a man who happened to know Gary Jones very, very well. “What are your thoughts on Gary Jones?” asked Parkinson. After a pause, Parkin replied, “The best thing I can tell you about Gary Jones is that the only time he is ever happy is at 5pm on Saturday when his team has won.”
As Gary Jones drove to Valley Parade on Friday to meet with Phil Parkinson, he was evidently hoping that it would be to thrash out another contract to stay for another year. He was happy at City, that much was obvious to everyone. And though realistic about his age, he was nevertheless confident in his ability to continue playing a part in the club’s rise.
The workmanlike, all-action style of Gary Jones, which Phil Parkinson was so impressed by when watching those Rochdale DVDs two years ago, was simply who Gary Jones was. Born on the out-skirts of Liverpool, Jones was a youth trainee at Anfield but never came close to making it, instead finding a route into football through Caernarfon Town of the Welsh league. 18 at the time, he quickly impressed enough to earn a professional deal at Swansea City, who were then lumbering in the basement division.
Still only young, Jones was loaned out for experience at what must have then seemed an inconsequential destination – Rochdale. And so began the love affair that would result in him becoming the club’s record appearance holder. After making the deal permanent, a first spell at Spotland saw him play 138 times in three seasons. Firmly on his way to legendary status.
Phil Parkinson himself was something of a one-club man, after spending 11 years at Reading in the centre of the Royals midfield. They say that a manager should know his own position best. Now in 2014 and faced with the decision over Jones’ future, he must have called upon his own playing experience to help him make such a difficult call.
It wasn’t that we supporters assumed Gary Jones would stay, but the smart money suggested he would remain a Bantam for another 12 months at least. He wouldn’t start another 46 games, but could still play an important role. Perhaps even becoming a member of the coaching staff.
After all, Gary Jones had ended the 2013/14 strongly. Most of his team mates did. The season had been a struggle at times, and March had seen some of its worst performances, but a promising ending had banished relegation fears and ensured a top half finish. Jones was excellent during the final few games, none more so than at Tranmere in what would prove to be his last game for City. By some distance the man of the match, he had dragged his team over the line to victory in typical influential fashion.
Just another day at the office for Gary Jones. You thought it could last forever, or at the very least that it wasn’t about to end.
From the very first moment I saw Jones in a claret and amber shirt it was obvious that he possessed star quality. Guiseley, pre-season, and he ran the show. Gary Jones was the leader even though Ricky Ravenhill beside him was wearing the armband. Jones struck the opening goal of a 4-0 romp and ran past me as he celebrated. I had been unsure what to make of his summer arrival, but was immediately won over. A special player, who offered everything we needed.
He made a strong first impression on everyone connected with the club. So many new signings have needed time to ease their way into life at Valley Parade, but straight away Jones looked like he owned the place. Linking up with Nathan Doyle (Ravenhill on the sidelines injured), Jones was full of drive and energy, getting up and down the park. Every City fan you talked to in the opening weeks of the season steered the conversation towards Jones. He was our type of player, and we instantly took him to our hearts.
Gary Jones was never about scoring goals, yet his first for the club stuck in the mind. Morecambe, a Tuesday night in September, City are 2-1 up in the closing stages and trying to further strengthen their promotion push. A free kick on the edge of the box, Jones lifted it over the wall and into the corner. Cue massive celebrations for a massive three points. Jones raced to the front of the Kop, leapt up and punched the air in celebration. That goal meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us.
Phil Parkinson’s office overlooks the Valley Parade pitch that Jones had dominated for two years. As Gary Jones arrived for the Friday meeting, a rich tapestry of personal memories of this stadium might have been at the forefront of his mind. He was desperate for the opportunity to collect another 12 months’ worth.
Just six months out of Gary Jones’ 17-year professional career were spent playing above the bottom two divisions. A month after jumping ship from Rochdale to Barnsley, Parkin raided his old club to bolster the midfield by bringing Jones to Oakwell. The pair couldn’t stop the slide, however, as Barnsley were relegated from Division One (now the Championship).
That, from a divisional point of view, was as good as it got for Jones. You wonder why he didn’t play more at a higher level. How could such a reliable lower league footballer not have been considered someone who could do a job in the Championship? There just aren’t that many Gary Jones’ around.
Perhaps the Barnsley move dented his reputation. Now in the third tier, the Tykes were saddled down by debts and would go into administration, resulting in Parkin being sacked to save money. Without his mentor, Jones increasingly struggled for game time. He was loaned back to Rochdale, where Parkin would shortly afterwards return as manager. There were no surprises when the move was made permanent, but it left Gary Jones back in the bottom tier, where he looked destined to spend the rest of his days.
A lifetime in the bottom division. As Jones sat down to hear the news from Phil Parkinson last Friday, he might have reflected on how hard he had worked to get to the position of captaining a club like Bradford City to 11th in League One.
If Phil Parkinson had bad news for him, it was back to square one. Looking for employment, and most likely a return to the basement.
“His legs have gone” became a familiar and tedious criticism during the early months of 2014. Everyone is an expert, but when such bland and meaningless statements are uttered, you roll your eyes and politely try to change the subject. Football is more complex than this.
Gary Jones’ legs had not gone. Week in week out, the 36-year-old was still a key part of the midfield. If he couldn’t run around the park, as was suggested, Phil Parkinson wouldn’t be picking him every game. It wasn’t as though there weren’t other options. Jones was in the team on merit. He was wrongly blamed by some for wider team failings.
Post-Christmas, City’s style of play suffered from a range of injuries. From Nahki Wells’ head being turned. From opposition being more wise to the gameplan. After being an attack-minded team early doors, City were no longer creating enough opportunities. Blame the centre of midfield if you want, but as the January transfer window opened and players came in and out, no attempt was made to replace Gary Jones.
And why would Phil Parkinson have even considered it? Jones enjoyed some of his more famous games for City during this period, chiefly the Sheffield United and Crewe matches, where his leadership and drive were so important. I remember the Preston home game with everyone around muttering pre-match about how Jones would no doubt undeservedly get the man of the match award again. Yet Jones was outstanding that evening, and when it was announced that he was indeed man of the match, even his growing critics applauded.
Gary Jones’ performances weren’t flawless around that time, but nobody could claim that theirs were either. When the chips were down and character and courage were needed, Jones demonstrated it in spades. When the team was rebuilt in January, Jones remained a key figurehead and looked a better player for the fine tuning taking place around him.
He wasn’t going to let the season go down the toilet, not on his watch.
The League Cup miracle produced so many heroic stories, but behind the headlines devoted to the exploits of Garry Thompson, Rory McArdle, Carl McHugh and James Hanson, there was one constant supporting act that featured in the stand out moments.
Jones helped to set up every goal that City scored against Premier League opposition. His set pieces were outstanding, as he planted superb balls over to team mates, who will go down in history for turning those crosses into goals. Jones was also a cool customer in the shoot out victories over Wigan and Arsenal.
As City lit up national TV, Jones’ striking appearance was a topic of conversation. “I love your captain” people would say to me, as he looked every inch the working class hero that personified the narrative of a Division Four team’s incredible adventure. Particularly, when in the midst of the Villa Park celebrations, he spotted first leg mascot and nine-year-old cancer survivor, Jake Turton in the away end and planted a kiss on his head. His father, Andy, was a survivor of the Valley Parade fire. The photographers caught the head kiss, and the most iconic moment of the League Cup adventure was assured.
Gary Jones was vital in those games. His lead-by-example, determined style of play had seeped into his team-mates, who matched his never-say-die attitude and tireless work rate. If the old man of the team is going to cover every blade of grass, everyone else had better do the same, too. Gary Jones’ experience was invaluable in getting City to Wembley, in getting past all those illustrious teams.
A lifetime as a lower league player, you wondered if Jones might have been daunted to play against some of the most famous footballers in the land. Yet he took it all in his stride, even finding time to truly put Arsenal in their place by declaring Torquay United had given City a tougher game than the Gunners.
The day before Gary Jones and his team mates were dancing around Villa Park, Rochdale had sacked John Coleman. The Dale were stuttering in mid-table of League Two, and envious eyes were cast towards Bradford City and the incredible role that Gary Jones was playing. Coleman and his assistant Jimmy Bell were said to have had a bust up with Jones the season before, and they went into 2012/13 believing they no longer needed the veteran.
Yet Gary Jones was Mr. Rochdale. Over 530 appearances during two spells at Spotland that totalled 12 years. In 2010 he became only the second Rochdale captain in their history to lead the club to promotion, with a second place finish in League Two. Gary Jones excelled in League One the year after, netting 18 goals and finishing the club’s top scorer in 2010/11.
This was the first half of a golden period for the ageing Gary Jones. 2009-2014 were five years of amazing personal success – with that uncomfortable Coleman/Bell bump midway through. What a mistake it would prove for Coleman. Gary Jones was not some relic of the past, but the future hero of Valley Parade. How Dale – and Coleman – could have done with him in 2012/13. But he was elsewhere, performing heroics and having the time of his life.
The pinnacle moment of Gary Jones’ playing career was promotion for Bradford City at Wembley in May 2014. He described it as the happiest moment of his life, beyond the birth of his children. Mr. Rochdale was now Mr. Bradford. He had become the first Bantams captain in 15 years to lead the club to promotion. The first captain, in fact, since Stuart McCall.
We loved him, how we loved him. The Bradford public hero-worshipped Gary Jones. Everywhere we went during 2012/13, his name was sung. In pubs before and after games, on concourses, and on the terraces. “He’s magic, ya know”. And we truly believed that he was.
No one can ever touch Stuart McCall in the eyes of most Bradford City fans, but Gary Jones runs him close. His two seasons at Valley Parade saw unprecedented success and highly commendable progress. The club that he joined two years ago is transformed. We can, this summer, look forwards from a position of great strength, but we would never have got here without Gary Jones.
He has been such a joy to watch. Such an inspiration to everyone connected with the club.
Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best. Gary Jones was his representative on the pitch, playing the game in the same wholehearted manner that Reading fans once loved Phil Parkinson for. Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best – and he will also know just what will be going through Gary Jones’ mind as his career winds down.
Could Gary Jones have accepted the role of bit-part player at City next season? Would he have happily sat on the sidelines, playing 20 or so games, largely coming off the bench? If City were struggling for a result and he was not seen as the solution by Phil Parkinson, could Gary Jones have coped with that reality, or would his desperation to be more influential cause him to become a bad influence?
Which is not to suggest that Jones would ever be a disruptive character, but whole-hearted players of his ilk don’t cope too well at being handed half-hearted roles. Even Stuart McCall found it difficult and had clashes with managers such as Craig Brown, as he was phased out. Jim Jefferies was unbelievably stupid to once tell Stuart “your legs have gone”, but Stuart didn’t need to react so poorly to it.
Perhaps Jones deserves better than to spend his final couple of years on the sidelines; there is plenty of time for the coaching stuff, he still has a hell of a lot to offer on the field. If Parkinson doesn’t see Jones as a first team regular next season, maybe it is fairer on the player to offer him a clean break now. There will be a long queue of clubs willing to sign him this summer, clubs who will be able to provide the first team assurances that Parkinson clearly cannot.
Yet still, no one who has shared in the pride of watching Gary Jones play for Bradford City can feel anything but sadness to see him depart like this. The head might rule that it is for the best, but the heart feels the pain that Jones must now be experiencing. The numerous great memories we have of watching Jones reminds you what a huge loss he will be. The outpouring of devastation expressed by so many since Friday illustrates just how much he meant to people. Wherever he ends up, I’m rooting for him.
The heart of the 2012/13 team has just been ripped out. Clearly, Phil Parkinson is going to have to build a new side this summer. But whoever comes in and however they fare, Valley Parade won’t feel the same without the sight of magic man in the number 18 shirt.