He’s back, and he’s still magic – Christmas preview

Image by Alex Dodd

Image by Alex Dodd

Fleetwood Town vs Bradford City and Bradford City vs Notts County preview

@Highbury Stadium on Friday 26 December and Valley Parade on Sunday 28 December

By Jason McKeown

Gary Jones’ return to Valley Parade is the headline act of Bradford City’s Christmas period. The former City captain visits with his new employers, Notts County, two days after the Bantams’ Boxing Day trip to Fleetwood Town.

Sunday will be an emotional moment for both Jones and the home crowd. He is guaranteed the warmest of receptions; his name will be sung loudly and proudly; and if he’s still on corner duty expect a standing ovation as he ambles over to take one in front of the Kop. It is six months since his departure, and we never got to say goodbye. Grown men admitted to me that they cried when they heard the news Jones had been released by City. His inspirational presence is greatly missed.

When I was a teenager, Stuart McCall was my hero. I idolised him, as he led his beloved Bantams to the unchartered territories of the Premier League. To a young lad making his way through life, watching McCall’s incredible work-rate and courage taught me so much.

But it wasn’t just us younger supporters who worshiped him. The fact McCall had returned for a second spell at Valley Parade, and put right the ghosts of a failed promotion attempt in 1988, aided his popularity amongst fans too old to get away with adding posters of City’s number four to their bedroom wall. McCall remains the most revered player in the club’s history.

Gary Jones’ impact at Valley Parade was similar to the new generation of fans. If you were too young to have seen McCall bow out in 2002, you’d have struggled to understand what the fuss was all about when he returned as manager five years later; nor would you have seen a City player who was so inspirational to everyone else. Jones changed that. He was not McCall, but my goodness he was not far off. There were so many vital players in the history-making 2012/13 campaign, but no one was as popular Jones.

And again, the impact of the player crossed age ranges. Prior to Jones and all the struggle City had endured post-McCall the player, I’d begun to gloomily believe that football heroes only exist when you’re too young to know any better. That no current or future City player would ever match the way I felt about McCall, Peter Beagrie, Robbie Blake, Jamie Lawrence, Lee Mills, Darren Moore, John Dreyer and Gary Walsh. So many poor players failed miserably to fill these boots.

But then Jones arrived and allowed us all to feel 10 years younger again. To recoil to a child-like wonderment about the world around us, and to have heroes that looked immortal. Jones could be everything you wanted him to be in your mind. He cared so much, he lifted everyone around him and he engineered near-impossible feats that will never be forgotten. The look on his face at Villa Park, January 2013, is something I will never forget.

We loved Gary Jones. We sang his name everywhere we went. He took us to new heights, wiped away years of cynicism and helped to build a feeling around the football club that we will probably spend the rest of our lives desperately trying to recreate.

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Gary Jones will enjoy his reception on Sunday, but part of him will have only limited time for this sentimentality, and instead he will be driven by the desire to prove a point.

When Manchester United won the treble in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that he had gone into that season with an extra sense of purpose. The year before Arsenal had won the league and cup double, and the recently appointed Gunners manager, Arsene Wenger, earned gushing praise from all quarters for his revolutionary approach to dietary and sports science. Ferguson was cast as a football dinosaur, in comparison.

This slight to his ability spurred Ferguson on to prove everyone wrong, as he would later reflect: “I know where to search for motivation. In most things, a cause is the best key.”

Gary Jones would probably appreciate this outlook, and his success at Meadow Lane this season is perhaps motivated by the challenge of demonstrating that people who wrote him off last season were wrong to do so.

“His legs have gone” was the criticism made of Jones this time a year ago. The team’s indifferent form, post-October, had seen Jones suffer like the rest of the team, but there became a growing element of the crowd who seemed determined to write him off. “His legs have gone” became a parrot-like utterance, which people repeated seemingly without bothering to consider whether it was true.

Slogan criticism is the worst. Just because something sounds good or insightful does not make it accurate. Some kind of loyalty that many City fans displayed to Jones last season.

There was a moment – a damning moment in many people’s eyes – that proved Jones’ legs had gone. It was almost a year to the day that he will make his return to Valley Parade, where Swindon’s Alex Pritchard left him in his wake to score a fine individual goal in a 1-1 draw. Forget the fact five or six of Jones’ team-mates should have stopped Pritchard’s jinxing run, Jones was somehow singled out for the blame. It’s easy to label a then 36-year-old as past it, but it was to do Jones a big disservice.

Yet Jones was far from finished. Witness his incredible leadership at Bramall Lane a month later, or his vital two-goal burst at home to Crewe in February. City eventually turned their season around, but they never turned away from Gary Jones. Still the idea his “legs have gone” continued to be aired and even Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn declared, on the eve of this season, that City’s summer player turnover was prompted by a need for “legs in midfield”.

For Jones, released during the summer to his obvious despair, motivation to prove people wrong will have been easy to find. At Notts County Jones has flourished, and he has missed just two league games all campaign. County and Jones go into the Christmas period above the Bantams in the league.

Those who claimed “his legs have gone” have been made to look foolish.

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And we shouldn’t be surprised, because Jones has done this before. In the summer of 2012, the record Rochdale appearance holder was discarded by his manager John Coleman, and rocked up at Valley Parade. Coleman seemed to view Jones as a trouble-maker and not the force he was, and he must have looked on in embarrassment as Jones went on to have the season of his life in West Yorkshire.

A week after City reached the League Cup Final at Villa Park, Coleman was sacked as Rochdale struggled in mid-table. Jones may not have caused Coleman to lose his job, but beaming pictures of the Rochdale legend in national newspapers certainly wouldn’t have helped the cause of the man who released him.

The parallels with McCall are striking here. In 2002, with the storm of administration brewing, McCall had been released by Nicky Law after a season that had featured a bust-up with the previous manager, Jim Jefferies, who argued McCall’s “legs had gone”. Stuart probably didn’t want to leave Valley Parade that summer, but found a new home at Sheffield United, where the team reached the play off final and the semi finals of the League Cup and FA Cup. McCall was a vital cog. Jefferies looked foolish.

There is evidently a difficulty in managing characters like McCall and Jones during their later years, as can be seen right now with Steve Gerrard and Liverpool. As age catches up with them, their influence on the team starts to wane and their manager has to address this – but that doesn’t mean these players suddenly no longer have anything to offer the club.

Perhaps Jones couldn’t be a week-in, week-out starter for City this season, but he could still have played an important role had he been offered a deal to remain. When the diamond was being worked out and Billy Knott pushed to the base, in front of the back four, City could have benefited from having Jones to play there and influence games without covering every blade of grass. When recently the Bantams were attempting to see out narrow leads against Gillingham and Scunthorpe United but began to panic, they needed a calm figure like Jones to have seen them over the line.

The point is this: we have missed him. And observing his heroics at Meadow Lane, from afar, leaves you wondering why we let him leave.

Money – or specifically the need to make £500k worth of savings during the summer – was probably the reason why Jones was released. The wages committed to Aaron Mclean clearly affected Parkinson’s decisions over who to retain during the close season. Perhaps he identified Gary Liddle and saw better long-term value. Either of these scenarios, I would be happy to believe and support. The alternative – that Parkinson thought Jones’ “legs have gone” too – doesn’t  really bear thinking about.

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Prior to Jones’ homecoming on Sunday, City travel to a Fleetwood Town side who are enjoying a solid first-ever season in England’s third tier and who – like the Bantams and Magpies – are reasonably placed for a play off assault. After an amazing six promotions in nine years, Chairman Andy Piller is working towards a five-year plan of getting the Cod Army into the Championship. If completed, such a rise up the football pyramid would be unprecedented in the modern era.

The theme of ex-Bradford City players continues, as this Boxing Day fixture sees a reunion with two former Bantams who are associated with unhappier times. Steven Schumacher was part of the 2006/07 relegation squad and found himself many people’s scapegoat for the club’s collapse during the second half of that season.

And then there is Gareth Evans, who spent two seasons at Valley Parade before leaving as part of then-manager Peter Jackson’s culling of a poor squad, in 2011. Evans made an unhappy return to Valley Parade the following season, with new club Rotherham, where a strong Michael Flynn challenge saw him stretchered off the field and out of action for months. Bitter about this, the following season he scored against the Bantams for Rotherham and controversially celebrated in front of a packed City away end.

Fleetwood’s success this season has been built upon a strong defensive base and solid home performances – they have the sixth-best home record in the division. A big test then, for the Bantams, who coincidentally hold League One’s sixth-best away record.

The away victory at Chesterfield, last time out, was City’s fifth on the road this season – one short of the six away wins they achieved in the whole of the 2013/14 and 2012/13 campaigns. It would be a great achievement to reach the half way point of the season with another away win notched up.

As it would be to continue recent home improvements by recording a victory over another play off challenger, two days later. Not only will Notts County’s visit to Valley Parade see a return for Jones, it looks set to be an emotional afternoon for their top scorer, Garry Thompson.

Thompson’s success at Meadow Lane this season is more of a surprise to this corner of West Yorkshire. During his early days at Bradford City, there was much talk about how he wanted to be selected up front. Yet he was never going to be regularly selected to lead the attack ahead of James Hanson or Nahki Wells, and ultimately found a happy home on the right side of City’s midfield.

Given the opportunity to play up front by Notts County manager Shaun Derry, Thompson has delivered a solid return of seven goals – which included a perfect hat trick in the 5-1 demolition of Crawley, the first of his career, and a stoppage time equaliser at Rochdale last Saturday.

Thompson won’t receive the adulation that Jones receives on Sunday, but he will earn a great reception nonetheless. He is one of the History Makers, and will be forever remembered for his goal against Arsenal especially.

It all adds to a special afternoon at Valley Parade. There really couldn’t be a better choice of opposition for the traditional bumper Christmas home crowd to play host to.

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16 replies

  1. To be fair to his detractors, and I wasn’t one of them, he did appear to be treading water in certain games. Which, given the role he had (fulcrum of the team/making himself available all over the pitch) was hardly surprising given his age and condition of some of the pitches he played on. But his attributes were so great I’m at a loss to understand why he couldn’t have been asked to play in the ‘trendy’ sitting role in front of the back four? Regardless of whether or not ‘his legs had gone’ he would have certainly provided more energy than Nathan Doyle and Gary Liddle and when required, a damn sight more than either of them going forward.

    I sincerely hope the decision to release him was financial, because I for one feel we missed a trick releasing ‘El Capitan’.

  2. Gary jones was a fanastic role model for the football club & the city of bradford. I will always remember how he lead us to wembley twice, scored in the penalty shoot out against Wigan & Arsenal & how he picked out the the child after the villa semi final victory who was a mascot at a previous home game. Pure class, great bloke with touch of humility too. Rightly or wrongly released by parkinson with the aim of bringing in younger fresher legs & pushing us in to the next level Jonesy began 2 1/2 years ago. Both Jones & Thompson will receive a warm welcome with Notts County over the Christmas period and will always be remembered as the history makers who finally gave the city fans something to shout about and put some much needed pride & passion back into the claret & amber of the football club.

  3. I was thinking of our first shot at Wembley in the cup final……………….Gary Jones, and he looked disgusted it didn’t at least hit the target. He should get a hero’s welcome. I also believe he wouldn’t tolerate being a squad player;play every week or leave for somewhere he can.
    Thompson is a different case, and I’m concerned; he seemed to pick the games he really tried in, and I’m sure he’ll be trying at Valley Parade.
    And since you mention Stuart, he performed heroics for City over many years, not just one or two. I only have vague memories of the early games I saw at city, but I remember a young pale ginger all-action pocket dynamo that was the irresistible force that was driving the team.

  4. to let Jones go was a mistake. we need his type of player right now and we don’t have one on the books. I might….just might have understood it if we had kept Doyle. release doyle or release Jones but for goodness sake don’t let them both go. bad decision which I believe was forced on the manager by our severe financial constraints.

  5. Jones was indeed the first true hero since Macca. His heroics, and humility, will live with me forever. I was gutted whenhe left. I’m 39. I posted at the time I was lost…..

    One month later A Player was presenting awards at my sons football club end of year bash. I have dealt with him professionally so approached him. I discussed the strange movement of Jones. He told me, face to face, that if Gary wanted a contract he could have had one. He was a man of power. He dictated terms at VP.

    So maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t prepared to be a bit part player. Maybe PP, rightly, told him you won’t play every week and this didn’t suit him. Correctly the manager dictated to the player. Maybe, I’m wrong!

    Either way, this isn’t a contrary opinion to the authors. I was truly gutted when I heard. I still am. We haven’t replaced him. I wish he’d ended his career with us.

    But, I also don’t think we ever know the true story. Ever.

  6. Shocking to compare Jones to McCall. 1 and 1/2 seasons compared to about 10 years service? Rewriting history & sentimental rubbish.

    Yes, Gary arrived and was just what we needed, a leader on the field he got us up but was found wanting in his second season. Not through lack of quality but his age & legs. Yes people will point to him this season at Notts but he had a summer free. After the play offs the short break caught up with him and at times he was treading water. No shame in it, he never gave less than 100% and i’ll never forget his contribution to Citys ‘rebirth’ but to compare him to McCall is an insult to a true City legend.

    Sits back and waits for insults thrown back.!! Merry Christmas to you all! IPWT.

    • This is a good, albeit controversial, set of points. Ian is a fan of many years. As am I. Perhaps we have all been guilty of missing a hero for so long that we’ve propelled Gary’s status too high?

      I recall every single McCall episode and he is properly THE club legend. Unrivalled. Stint after stint. BCFC through and through.

      But I think the truth lies between Jason’s comments and Ian’s. They are both heroes in their own right and for their own reasons. Younger fans will hold Gary closest to their hearts and the older fans McCall.

      Ian’s right, there probably is no comparison. So just don’t compare. Enjoy them both singularly.

      Merry Christmas to all.

      • Both Jones and McCall are legends – in their own ways. McCall might have been here longer and played more games, but both played in the same way and it’s the parallels between the passion and the heart I think that sparks this direct comparison. For me, the History Makers did something unprecedented that will never be repeated. Reachig a cup final while in League Two and getting promotion in the same year – no teams will ever match that. Every member of that squad will go down in history, and Jones was the figurehead for that. In the context of our position as a club at the time and what preceded that season I feel he is even more of a hero. Like most members of that squad he touched people personally and professionally. A legend in my eyes. Not necessarily ‘better’ than anyone that came before but he is up there with the greats – he and others gave my kids the best season of football they’ve ever had.

      • To clarify by “even more of a hero” I meant the decade of decline made the cup run even better, not that Jones is more of a hero than McCall – as above I don’t think you can compare them.

  7. The McCall comparison is not about the ability – there is no question who is better. I am talking about their style of play, their influence on others and their impact at the club. To me there are comparisons but I guess to others there isn’t. Sorry to have caused so much offence.

    Honestly after all the stick I have today on Twitter I feel ready to jack in this website.

    • Of course there are comparisons between McCall and Jones. Without doubt Stuart is the all time city legend in most people’s eyes. Mine included. But Gary Jones lit up valley parade with his passion and fight two seasons. He may have been with us briefly but thank the Lord he was with us. He gave us all great joy after years of chancers and for that is a true city great. WOAP- don’t take the abuse to heart. This is a top top quality site and part of its purpose is to provoke debate – in which you are succeeding (as well as, of course, providing us with great writing). I’m a city excile and can’t get to the notts co game (how is love to be there) so please add a few extra decibels to the magic mans ovation for me.

    • Why not just jack in twitter rather than the website? In the main this is where the intelligent fans hang out!

    • I don’t share your view about Jones last season Jason. It wasn’t just the Swindon goal, there were several others where he was outpaced, leaving ouour defenders exposed. His passing was becoming sloppy and he too often ran down blind alleys. I am proud to have his signature on my Wembley shirt and will be cheering him as loud as everyone else on Sunday, but I think it was the right time for him to leave.
      But the point is that we can have these differences of opinion in a civilised manner here on WOAP, unlike the nonsense that happens on Twitter. This site is the best football site on the web; it is the well spring of informed information and debate about our beloved City. You are responsible for and treasured for that Jason. Don’t even think about jacking it in. Please.

    • Honestly think your post has been taken out of context and perhaps Ian has already grown weary of Christmas? 🙂 And as someone has said, those on Twitter? The only thing that would bother me is how they fail to grasp your point.

      Jonah was a modern day legend, not an all time legend like McCall. There is no comparing the two in terms of ability,longevity, the level they played at, or how they will be remembered in 20 years to come. However the similarities are there in being heart on sleeve, all action, proud to wear the shirt and affectionate towards the supporters. Great leaders on and off the pitch. Yes, despite that great year, Jonah is a poor mans McCall; But what an honour to be compared to McCall!

      Even though he does fall some way short, I think there can be little doubt that Gary is a modern day legend in a 10+ year spell where there has been no one that has come close to earning that tag.

      Hope he goes home on Sunday with a feeling of still being loved, to make up for taking no points from us!

  8. Nice to see the season of goodwill alive and kicking on the idiot-fest that is Twitter..

    merry Christmas all..

  9. I should post more often, but the main reason I don’t is that the majority of the time, I agree with what is being said on here.

    I wouldn’t take any notice of the comments on social media, as it is often people sitting behind a keyboard, giving out abuse to help them feel better about themselves.

    I look forward to reading more thought provoking articles for the remainder of the season Jason, and beyond.

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