By Katie Whyatt
7:30 pm, on a damp Thursday in June, and Gary Jones has just returned from football training. His kids’ football training, as it is these days. As he puts it: “I’m living the dream through the kids now – my little girl and boy.” He talked two months ago of now, at 40, hanging up his boots, letting the curtain fall on an unignorable career that has spanned over two decades. As it is, he might be retired. “Yeah. I think I’m retired. Well. I’ve had no offers come my way yet, so at this moment in time – I’m currently retired.” How does it feel? “I don’t know if it’s relief. I think it might be relief. Your body can only take so much punishment, you know?” Do his kids ever ask about his career? “Not really – but they obviously know I’ve been playing a long time.”
For two years, Gary Jones was the beating heart of Bradford City side that accomplished the impossible. Against the backdrop of a decade of underachievement – two administrations and three relegations – came a League Cup final, three Premier League scalps over Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa, and promotion via the League Two play offs. Then 35, Jones was a Peter Pan figure, running the midfield with a bruising intensity and verve, able to turn tides in an eyeblink, like flicking a light switch: the one man embodiment of a team that refused to be denied, a team built in the image of its manager, Phil Parkinson.
“I went to meet him at the club in the executive boxes and he just said, ‘You know what the support is like, what they’re like and the way they get behind the team. If we get a couple of wins and we get some momentum, this place will take off,'” Jones recalls. “[My relationship with Parkinson] was good – it always was good, ever since I walked through the door. I text him now and again – we still text each other. I respected him and he respected me, too. We had a good working relationship.
“He was very good. If he needed to pull you aside, he would: he’d give you a pat on the back when you needed it and he’s give you a right telling off if you needed that, too. His best quality, I think, was the effort he put in on the pitch. Everyone knew their jobs, the team shape – there wasn’t one person who didn’t know what was expected of them. Even the subs, when they came on, knew their role – that was a massive part of his success.
“But I think Steve Parkin, his assistant, was a massive thing, a massive bonus. Because he was the sort of go-between between the players and the manager. Every team has one. His number two talked to the players more than Phil used to – he was a massive part of that.”
There were endearing stories everywhere you looked: the injury-addled former West Ham winger in Zavon Hines; former Middlesbrough defender Andrew Davies, who fallen through similar cracks; James Hanson, the ex-Co-op shelf-stacker; teenager Carl McHugh – who Jones describes as “brilliant – just a heart on his sleeve player” – recently appointed captain of Motherwell, back then checking off his Football League debut in October 2012 before riffling a header past childhood hero Shay Given three months later; Nahki Wells, even then emerging as a star destined to shoot to the Premier League.
“You know what Nahki’s like – he’s in the Premier League now, and he deserves to be there,” says Jones. “He works so hard, and he’s not just an individual player – people may think he is, but he works his socks off for the team and deserves everything he’s getting.
“We were very close – there wasn’t one bad egg. Everybody was pulling in the right direction, even the ones who weren’t playing, and that’s the hardest thing for a manager, to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. Everyone was right behind one another, and I think that was a massive part of our success – the team spirit we had, the way we gave 100% for each other. We got on well off the pitch and we got on well on the pitch.
“We had this bond. Everyone knew that everyone had each other’s backs. It was a strange feeling, because obviously we didn’t know each other – but when you’re winning football matches it gives you confidence and it gives you a togetherness. That’s what we created.”
“That night at Villa Park was one of those nights where I don’t think you could put your finger on it, but you just knew we could do it.”
It is difficult to think of a Bradford City team for whom the stakes remained so repeatedly, perennially high. The cup games aside – and it should be noted that City also beat Notts County and Watford, both from divisions above, in earlier rounds – there was the season-defining Burton away leg of the play offs, City two goals behind after an uncharacteristic first leg submission. How can you ever prepare a group for games of that magnitude? One imagines Parkinson would be the master orator.
“He never really said that much,” Jones says. “I think everyone knew – everyone knew how big the games were, what was expected of us. Everyone knew what we had to do – the work had been done in the week, on the training pitch. No one give us a chance of winning any of those games. That give us fire in our bellies to go out and try and create the history. We did that.”
Wigan were defeated on penalties; Arsenal were the second to fall. “It was a freezing cold night. The pitch was frozen. I don’t think they fancied it, to be fair. The changing rooms are small, not like what they’re used to, and that gave us a lot of confidence. The pitch was a massive leveller. We knew what we had to do – we had to frustrate them. Scoring first was a massive bonus obviously, giving us something to hang onto.”
Bradford lay 60 places beneath Aston Villa on the night of the semi-final first leg, yet all their superiors could muster was an Andreas Weimann lifeline. For City, the moments are ingrained in folklore: Wells pouncing opportunistically, as he always does, to open the scoring; Jones threading in two pinpoint crosses to find the heads of Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh deep into the second half to give his side a 3-1 lead to defend in the away leg. It is telling that the BBC report from January 8th, 2013 could have passed for any of Jones’ 100 Bradford City appearances: “Gary Jones has led by example in the middle of the park.” 14 days later, he would head to Villa Park for arguably the greatest night in the club’s history.
“When we walked out, and it was snowing – it just felt special,” Jones says. “It was just amazing, one of those nights where I don’t think you could put your finger on it, but you just knew we could do it. Even at 3-1 up, no one gave us a chance. When Benteke scored early, it was a backs to the wall job, but Phil told us, second half. He went, ‘You need to start playing.’ Hans scored and we were the better team from then on.
“Seeing all the 5,000 supporters, little Jake [Turton] in the crowd – it was just amazing. You can’t put it into words, how good it was. They were unbelievable [nights]. I get goosebumps now, just thinking about it. Everyone just couldn’t believe it – I don’t think any of the supporters could believe it. We definitely couldn’t believe it.
“I just want to win at everything I do. It’s just a natural part of my make-up. That’s how I’ve always played. I want to give it my best, especially with those supporters. They’re just an unbelievable set of fans. Every time we walked out at Valley Parade, it was – it was like I was two men. I felt like two players. They gave you that confidence to express yourself.”
Bradford City became the first team from the fourth tier to make it to the final since Jones’ former club Rochdale, in 1962. But the fairytale did not get its storybook finish; what ensued instead was the heaviest defeat ever in a League Cup Final. City had bridged the gap to the top flight three times already that season but the gulf that day looked cavernous, Swansea City zipping about the polished Wembley turf with terrifying aplomb and swagger to collect just the five.
“Everyone was gutted,” Jones says. “We never even really got a kick of the ball. It was mad, because we went back to the hotel and had a bit of a party, but it wasn’t a party – it was like a funeral.
“We played Swansea at the weekend, and we had Dagenham and Redbridge at home on the Wednesday. That was a massive culture shock, I think, from playing Arsenal one minute to Dagenham and Redbridge.” The stuttering League Two form continued and the nadir – and turning point – came in the form of a 4-1 away defeat to Exeter. “We had a team meeting,” Jones recalled. “We got beaten heavily by Exeter on the Saturday, and we were in on the Sunday. We watched the game, and it was disgusting, to be fair. We were terrible. And I think from then on – we had a massive, like, heart to heart, to be honest. Everyone got things off their chest. Phil told us what he wanted from us. We let everyone down that day, but we just had a massive meeting and, on the Monday, we came in fresh and hit the ground running.
“Momentum’s massive in football and we picked our momentum up towards the end of the season. It was an unbelievable achievement to turn that around, to turn that negative into a positive. The way the lads picked themselves up after that, to go on a run when we were 12 points behind the play off places – it was just an amazing turnaround, and I think that’s the biggest achievement of that season.
“It means the world, because we’ll never be forgotten. As everyone says, ‘We Made History’, and we did – there’s a lounge in Bradford to commemorate what we did. You look back now and just realise how special a time it was – and I’ll never, ever forget. In a few years time, whatever it will be, we’ll always be remembered as heroes. That’s a very special thing.”
“Bradford City is a special place with special people. It’d be great to come back in some capacity.”
But not even Gary Jones could keep playing in the claret and amber forever. He confesses he can’t remember his last game at Valley Parade – “but every time you stepped out onto that pitch, it was a great occasion” – but for those who can, the memories of the fan in the Kop throwing down a Gary Jones flag, and Jones signing it before weeping into Stephen Darby’s arms, remain timeless. Jones had spoken publicly at the time of “hanging around here for a couple more years yet”, but instead he was released, just like that.
“Nothing ever should surprise you in football, but it was a surprise,” he recalls “[Parkinson] just said, ‘We’ve had a chat with the chairmen and we’re not going to renew your contract.’ It was disappointing – that’s how it went, really. I was gutted. I spoke to a few players, a few family members, and they couldn’t believe it. I probably went out at the right time, to be fair – in my eyes, anyway. I didn’t want to be one of these players that was just hanging on. ‘He’s finished. His legs have gone.’ I didn’t want to be that. Do you know what? I’m glad it happened at that time. I wasn’t happy at the time, but looking back, it was probably a blessing in disguise. I went out at the right time – I had two successful years. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome – only joking.”
He went on to sign for Notts County on August 7th, 2014 – two days before start of the season. Did he ever panic? “There was a period. When you leave Bradford and you’ve had two good seasons there, you think you’ll get something quite quickly, even at 37, like I was. Football’s quite ageist, to be fair – when you get over 35, 30 people think your career’s over. So I was panicking at the time, but I went to a good club in Notts County, so I can’t complain.”
Jones’ affection for Bradford – for the club, his Class of ’13, its supporters – is obvious and, as with Alan Connell, drips from every word. He was one of the five players of the 2013 team who went to Wembley again this year, to watch City lose 1-0 to Millwall in the play off final.
“We were all sat round a table, having a couple of beers – it was great to be back, to see a few of the old lads,” Jones explains. “To catch up was really nice – [there was] Ricky Ravenhill, Matt Duke, Alan Connell and Hanson – Big Jim Hanson. Only a few of us, but it was lovely. Everyone was taking the mickey out of each other – it was like we’d never been away.”
Inevitably, the conversation turns to a potential Valley Parade return, for real. The prospect been mooted since the day he left Bradford City, and now, effectively retired, is in theory a prime time for Jones to come back officially. Does he think he ever will?
“I’m not sure. It’d be great to come back in some capacity. As I say, I’ve got a lot of friends there and a lot of fond memories there. When you’ve been at such a great club like City is – only for two years, mind you – [it’s] such a special place with special people, special supporters. It’d be an unbelievable opportunity to come back. I spoke to James Mason about it – we talk about it, but we’re just… Obviously it’s a busy time now, with trying to sign players. It’s a very important time, getting players in for the start of pre-season. It’s sort of on the back burner at the moment, but when it’s all settled down, maybe we could get round a table and talk a bit more about it.”
He is unequivocal on where his two years at Bradford rank in his career. “Oh, at the top. It’s got to be at the top. I played 600 times for Rochdale and – what was it, 100 times for Bradford? It’s just a special place. When you step out at Valley Parade, I don’t think there’s any place like it. It’s just an unbelievable place. The kids and the family – the kids love going there. The kids love it more than me.
“We went there a few times towards the end of the season. I still get that buzz, coming downhill and seeing the stadium. I still get that buzz.”