By Katie Whyatt
If there was one regret attached to Gary Jones, it was that he didn’t stay at Valley Parade longer – or rock up earlier. As he puts it: “I was only here two years but it’s been a massive part of my life – I’m always made up to come back to Bradford.”
It is hard at times to believe Jones’ stay in West Yorkshire was so brief, largely because the 2012/13 side that he captained redefined Bradford City’s modern-day landscape. A club scarred by a decade of hurt – two administrations and three relegations, literally swapping the environs of the Premier League for the grittier backstreets of League Two – began, with Gary Jones at its heart, to heal. They won promotion at the first time of asking – after five previous failed attempts under three different managers – and became the first team from the fourth tier to reach a major Wembley final after defeating Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa – all then Premier League sides – in the League Cup.
Now, almost five years on – terrifyingly, this December will mark half a decade since Jones and co. defeated Arsenal at Valley Parade – Jones exudes warmth. He rounds things off with the words: “Can I just say what a pleasure it is to come back tonight?” He thumbs contentedly through a season review supplement from the end of the 2012/2013 season, through the photographs ingrained into Bantams folklore. “Look – Lenny’s on that one,” he laughs, picking out City’s erstwhile mascot as he scans the team photograph from the Burton play off second leg, a muddied Jones raising a double-fist pump to the sky as the party explodes into life around him. The Player of the Year awards, at which Jones cleaned up. The victory parade, in City Park, at the end of the season. “That was something I’ll never forget. The bus coming round the corner, seeing all the supporters that had turned out for us…” He smiles. “I get goosebumps now, just thinking about it.”
Gary Jones is so revered in these parts that the mere mention of him draws a unique kind of response. The feeling is mutual, and at times it is astonishing just how intensely and zealously Jones speaks of what it meant to him to play for Bradford City. Later that night, my phone sparks with tweets. One reads: “One of the #bcafc all time greats. If only we’d had him a few years earlier.”
And yet, bizarrely, City nearly did. “I met Peter Jackson the season before, but it just wasn’t the right time,” Jones begins. “I came up to meet Peter and the squad was of about eight – they had no team. I decided to stay at Rochdale. But the year after, everything changed. John Coleman came to Rochdale and we didn’t really see eye-to-eye – to be fair, we hated each other – so Phil [Parkinson] gave me a ring, because Steve Parkin was his assistant. I came up and spoke to Phil, and from playing at Bradford previously, I knew what the crowd was like and what the ground was like. The crowd always came in numbers, and he just said, ‘Listen – if we can win a few games, get the fans going and get the club going, it could be great.’ And it was.”
The team was built in the image of its manager, Phil Parkinson. “He was firm but fair,” Jones explains. “Steve was my manager at Rochdale and he’s probably the angriest man in football – he’s very intense. Phil’s a bit laid-back, so they work well together. Every number two is a go-between and Steve was certainly that.
“I think every player knew their role, knew their job. I don’t think there were any airs and graces with us. We weren’t one of those teams that was possession based – we weren’t long ball, but we weren’t like they are now, where they try and dominate the ball. We were a hard-working side.”
Of that there can be little doubt, and City’s gruelling 64-game campaign was littered with stardust. “Cue the celebrations, the likes of which they have not seen in many a year,” goes the Sky commentary from December 11th, 2012 – when, under the Valley Parade floodlights, Bradford City beat an Arsenal team that sat 65 places ahead of them in the league pyramid to reach the first League Cup semi-final in their history.
“It was an unbelievable draw, what dreams are made of,” says Jones. “Everyone was excited, because Arsene Wenger was under a bit of pressure at the time. We knew he’d bring a full-strength side out but we didn’t think it would be that strong.
“It was funny, because the captains go in to see the referee before the game – I think it was Steve Bould, Steve Parkin’s mate. We went in and we saw the team sheet. Steve Parkin wrote it out on the board. As he was writing it out, it was all the main men. He put the names on the board…” Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Coquelin, Podolski, Cazorla, Gervinho. “And then he went, ‘All the best!’ And that was the team talk!
“We knew we weren’t going to have the ball. We knew we had to stay in shape, work hard for each other, and when we had the ball, we had to keep it – that was the main thing.
“I think you think about the names before, but once you’re in the moment, with the crowd roaring behind you – it gives you a lift. You put the fact they’re some of the best players in Europe to the back of your mind. But it was funny, because the pitch was frozen that night. Wenger came out before the game and we could see him digging his heels into the pitch. I don’t think they fancied it. It was a tough, rock hard pitch and it suited us down to the ground. I think it the overriding emotion was disbelief – we’d just turned Arsenal over and we were in a semi-final.”
“I was playing for Caernarfon and working for my dad in a factory. I never thought I’d be a footballer.”
Not that the build-up was smooth. “We’d just played Barnet on the Saturday and got beaten 2-0 away,” Jones says. “That was horrendous, that one. I can remember that game to this day and we were terrible. We were dreading the Tuesday – but Villa were struggling at the time.” When did a League Cup final start to feel like a realistic prospect?
“I don’t think it ever came into our minds. We were 3-1 up at the end of the first leg and I think everyone still believed Villa would win. When Benteke scored after 20 minutes, I think people thought we’d crumble. We didn’t have stars – we had Nahki Wells, who was an unbelievable player – [but] we had a team spirit like I’d never known before. Teams I’ve played for in the past, there’s been a few bad eggs, people who’ve not gone with it. But that team – we just had a massive belief and that shone through. We all gelled, and sometimes you get that unbelievable feeling. You’re in that changing room and you’re all backing each other.”
Carl McHugh, the teenaged centre half from Donegal, made headlines around the world with his own fairytale, riffling a header past childhood hero and compatriot Shay Given to hand City their third goal in the home leg. “He handled it all well [the media attention] – I don’t think he thought about it,” Jones says. “He was in a successful side and just fitted right in.
“We all wore our heart on our sleeve, and every time we stepped on that field, we gave 100% – I think that’s what a lot of supporters related to. Everyone was of the same mindset: you train the way you play. If someone got kicked, they’d react, be dead intense. That’s the way it should be. Carl would head anything, kick anything – he’d kick his own nan, probably. He was mad and a good player.”
And what kind of leader was Gary Jones, the side’s beating heart? “You get ranters and ravers, and I played with captains that have had people by the throat when I first started, fighting in the tunnel and stuff like that. That’s gone out of the game, but I was never one for that. I was always one for trying to lead on the pitch instead of in the changing room. I wasn’t really a shouter in the changing room.” What drove him so fiercely? “I’m not sure. If it’s in you, it’s in you. You don’t want to let anyone down. People spend a lot of money going to watch football matches. You give your best every time you step onto a football pitch and put that Bradford City top on.”
It is at this point worth remembering Gary Jones might never have become a professional footballer – at least, his path into football remains far more humble than most – and it is the fledging stages of his career that perhaps illuminate just why it was always Jones – never beaten, never jaded, both parties kicking and screaming – who relentlessly dragged his Bradford City side to points they sometimes had little business in earning. “I was playing for Caernarfon and working for my dad in a factory,” Jones explains. “I was earning more in the factory than I was playing football – that used to pay for my beer money. I was only 19 at the time. I didn’t do a YTS or an apprenticeship – I think I started the right way. It was a good grounding because I was getting up to go to work every day – I was living with my mum and dad at the time, but I had to graft every day. I was getting up at 6 O’clock in the morning, and some players never know that lifestyle. I always wanted to be a footballer – I think that’s every person’s dream – but I never thought I’d be one.”
Just as they share the same route into football, Gary Jones and Dean Windass share the same football hero: “Gazza was an idol of mine,” says Jones. “In the 90s, I thought he was the best player in the world.” But growing up as an Everton fan meant there was someone else, closer to home, who Jones would grow up to rival as City’s greatest modern-day midfielder. “I watched Stuart McCall when he played for Everton – I knew what type of player he was,” Jones explains. “He’s a legend at this place, and it was amazing [when people compared us] – something I’ll never forget.
“And I think he’s doing a decent job [as manager]: sometimes, losing in the play offs, you get a hangover from the season previous. You lose three of your back four who’ve been here for a long time in one window – they know the club and they know it inside out – but he’s got the team going again and into the top five for a very important period coming up. At this moment, they’re probably a bit inconsistent, and I think they may need another striker to complement Charlie [Wyke] – I think there’s a lot of emphasis on Charlie to score all the goals. You get through this period and you’re in the mix, then you’ve got a great opportunity to do something.”
“Phil Parkinson read the riot act after the 4-1 loss to Exeter. We spent three hours watching a 90 minute game, stop-starting the clips all the time.”
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. The gulf between City and Swansea was cavernous, the Premier League side zipping about the polished Wembley turf with to collect just the five.
“Everyone was buzzing beforehand. It was unbelievable, what we’d achieved – but after ten minutes, it turned out to be a nightmare,” Jones recalls. “When they kicked off, we didn’t see the ball for five minutes – it’s pretty tough, because all you do is chase it, and we realised we were up against it a little bit. It’s hearbreaking. After ten minutes, we couldn’t get near them.”
There were rumours Carl McHugh, when goal number five flew in, turned to Jon McLaughlin and sighed, ‘It’s going to be 7-0.’ It was at this point, apparently, that Michu called the onslaught off and prompted his Swansea teammates to show a shred of mercy. “I think there’s a bit of truth in that,” Jones corroborates. “I think they took their foot off the gas, which shows what type of people they are – especially with the guard of honour, as well. They were all massively supportive of us. They showed you their class.
“[After the game], we went back to our hotel – Watford or somewhere – and we had sort of a party, but it wasn’t really a party. Steve Parkin had a party, mind you – he partied for us all. But we were in bed pretty early to travel home the next day, and it had been a bit of an anti-climax and a massive let-down.”
In the ten league games between beating Arsenal and losing the cup final, City had won just twice and dropped from 5th to 10th. In their sixth game after the League Cup final – by then down to eleventh and with ten games to go – City arrived at Exeter – and lost 4-1 in the most galling afternoon of their season.
Jones shakes his head. “Terrible memories. That’s when our season changed.
“Phil had us in on the Sunday. We got back from Exeter at two in the morning and were in the next day at ten. He read the riot act. Three hours watching a 90 minute game was pretty intense, stop-starting all the time. It comes to your clip and you’re sort of sinking in your chair at what you’ve done wrong. It’s not very nice. Some home truths were said, what was expected of us. I think we thought we were a good football team, but, obviously, we weren’t: we were mid-table at the time. We knew what we could achieve, and we went back to basics in a way, tried to get it forward quickly. We always believed that we could get to Wembley again. We had nothing to lose.”
Jones likens the play off final – City beat Northampton Town 3-0 – to “a normal game”. “We’d done the media stuff, the suits, all the circus. We had a meeting before and Phil said, ‘Look – we’ll go down in our tracksuits, we’ll go down the day before.’ And we absolutely blew Northampton away in 25 minutes. You’re not relaxed, but you sort of enjoy it.” How did they celebrate? “We came back to Bradford, had a do at the ground – then we ended up in Tokyo Joe’s in town.” He laughs. “We were all worse for wear. We had a great night, anyway.”
“I don’t think I’ll come back to Bradford – not in the short-term, anyway. I have a new career now and I absolutely love it.”
But not even Gary Jones could play in the claret and amber forever. In his final Valley Parade appearance for City, he played as he always had, his performance etched with all the classic Jones tropes: he pitched his cross perfectly from the corner flag to find the head of Garry Thompson in the box, and the afternoon was given added poignancy when, as a fan in the Kop unfurled a Gary Jones banner, the captain wept into Stephen Darby’s arms. Less than a fortnight later, he would leave the club.
“I had a meeting with Phil and he just said, that was it – there wasn’t a contract there for me. It was sort of very amicable, you know?” Jones recalls. “I was surprised, I’m not going to lie – but things happen for a reason. I had two unbelievable years here – the best two years of my career.” Was he not sad, knowing he’d never play at Valley Parade again? “I think everyone who plays here thinks that – with the surroundings, the ground, the supporters. And I think you’ve got to be a certain type of player to play for Bradford, to be honest, to handle it. There’s a lot of pressure. There are 20,000 people every home game. You’ll know more than me that there’s players who’ve come and gone who haven’t handled it.”
With just two days of pre-season to go, Jones signed for the Notts County side that would go on to be relegated from League One. “Every out of contact player will tell you the same: you’re sort of in limbo. It’s always the unknown, and that you’re certainly not going to get another club like Bradford. It’s always a step down from there. When you’ve been at Rochdale for 11 years, and you’re 35, and you don’t see eye to eye with the manager at Rochdale, and he says you can go, and you’re sort of – well, where do you go? You never think you’ll come to a team like Bradford.
“It was tough when you come from playing for a team like Bradford and you struggle the next season. We got relegated at Gillingham away, on the last day, so you can imagine that trip back. Jesus. But it was tough – tough to take when you’re in a losing side.”
This summer, at 40, Gary Jones called time on a playing career that spanned more than two decades. “My legs had gone,” he laughs. “You can’t play forever. I’d love to play forever, but I’ve had 20 years. I’ve been very fortunate – some players don’t get a year, six months. I’ve enjoyed it. I really have. But I’m now onto a new chapter. I haven’t really missed it.
“I’m working in care now, in mental health. I had a friend who has worked there for many years, and he said, why don’t you have a look into doing it? I’ve done all my training. I’m three months into it and I absolutely love it. I see some similarities with football: every day is different. It’s a challenge. You challenge yourself. I really enjoy it.”
Does he think he will ever come back to Bradford – for real? In a coaching capacity, maybe? “I don’t think so,” he begins. “Not in the short-term, anyway. I’m onto a new career and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve done a few coaching badges and I probably could have stayed in football, but management was never really my style. I was always one of those who got into training, worked as hard as I could and then went home. I wasn’t really into analysing – some people have got it and some people haven’t. And I don’t think I’ve got it.
“I like to watch. I love coming back and seeing those supporters, reliving old times. It’s something that I’ll never forget. Stepping onto that pitch at Valley Parade, you felt ten feet tall. But I think that’s what’s special about this place. I don’t think you get it anywhere else.”
Gary Jones was speaking at the Wilsden and Thornton Bantams’ Evening With Gary Jones. The Wilsden and Thornton Bantams are a supporters’ club based at The New Inn, Thornton, and organise Q&A evenings, away travel & charity events. For more information, visit www.wilsdenbantams.com or facebook.com/BradfordCitySupportersClub/