David Jones prepares for next step, but he’s not ready to hang up his boots

The last time Wolves welcomed Crystal Palace in the FA Cup, midfielder David Jones was among the scorers...writes Paul Berry.

His goal, 11 years ago this month, was perhaps overshadowed by a Ronald Zubar thunderbolt to clinch the 2-2 draw, although both were then outdone by Eagles right back turned centre forward Danny Butterfield notching a perfect hat trick in six minutes and 48 seconds as Palace won the replay.

Jones will not be involved in any of the FA Cup fixtures this weekend.

It is almost a year since he last enjoyed a taste of footballing action, for Oldham in a goalless draw at Stevenage watched by a crowd of 2,156.

All far cry from his debut back in December, 2004, coming off the bench for Manchester United at Old Trafford in a 1-0 Carling Cup win against Arsenal in front of a gate of 67,103.

The 36-year-old, as you would expect from someone with an affable demeanour and high supply of footballing intelligence, is already preparing to take the next step in his career path picking up various bits of coaching experience and studying for a Master’s degree in Sports Directorship at Manchester’s Metropolitan University,

But the playing side? Jones is not yet ready to consign that to the past tense just yet.

It has been a challenging 12 months, and the Covid-19 pandemic has slashed many a club budget and also reduced the opportunities for trials where he could show not only the experience picked up during an impressive career to date, but also that he has continued to keep himself in excellent physical shape.

He is currently training with League Two newcomers Barrow thanks to a contact firstly with former Blackburn team-mate David Dunn, and then new boss Michael Jolley, who has previously worked as Under-23s Head Coach at Burnley at a time when Jones was patrolling the Clarets engine room

The body is still willing, the mind as sharp as ever and so too the determination to grasp every last spot of enjoyment from a career which has included four Championship promotions, over 100 Premier League appearances, captaining United to the FA Youth Cup and England Under-21 recognition.

Now though, all Jones can do is wait.

“Since leaving Sheffield Wednesday about 18 months ago I have struggled to find opportunities at the level I was really hoping for,” he explains.

“I was trying last season for the Championship and it didn’t happen and I really needed to get back involved and spent six weeks or so with Oldham where I played a few games.

“Since then I have been trying to pursue other options which haven’t really happened as yet and the lockdown has made it difficult.

“Although I am 36 now that doesn’t seem old to me, and I still feel fit and have that hunger and desire to play and enjoy however long I have got left.

“I have stayed as fit as possible and trained with a couple of clubs including Barrow at the moment, and I am just waiting for an opportunity if someone might be in need of some of the experience that I have got.

“It is about trying to prolong my career for as long as possible while I feel I can contribute because I love playing football.

Celebrating that goal vs Stoke

“In my last year at Sheffield Wednesday I didn’t really enjoy it with that situation at the time, and I do really just want to enjoy my last taste of professional football.

“Whether it is a five a side with my mates or playing in front of thousands, I still just really love playing the game.

“Hopefully an opportunity will come along but, if it doesn’t, then I will start to pursue other career paths.”

This should not read like a footballing eulogy, as Jones still feels there is plenty left in the tank and is ready, willing and able to prove it.

Suffice to say though it has been a hugely fulfilling career so far, starting out with Manchester United at the age of ten and going on to make a handful of cup appearance before other and far busier spells with Preston, NEC Nijmegen, Derby, Wigan and Blackburn before Burnley, Sheffield Wednesday and Oldham.

Sandwiched neatly in the middle of all that, from age 23 to 26, came the three years at Wolves, Jones choosing to move to Molineux ahead of several other suitors following Derby’s ill-fated Premier League season.

“Disastrous,” is the word Jones would use for that Rams campaign, a major disappointment after he had been a key cog in the wheel in the promotion play-off success the previous year.

“It was a weird time at Derby and I knew I would be leaving after Billy Davies had gone, and there were a few options.

“I had previously met Mick McCarthy, and as soon as Wolves were interested I had a good chat with him and was really excited to join.

“I look back on Wolves as one of the best times of my career in how much I enjoyed my football.

“I loved the club, the fans, playing at Molineux, and still have a lot of good relationships with people that I met there.

“There was a really good balance in the squad at the time with the ‘young and hungry’ element alongside more experienced players with a lot of games under their belt like Jody Craddock, Chris Iwelumo, Karl Henry and Micky Gray.

“Mick had put together a really good blend at the time and I felt I slotted into the dressing room very comfortably and went on to make some really good friends.”

In his first season Jones was largely a mainstay of the midfield when available, chalking up 34 league appearances and chipping in with a string of goals and assists as Wolves stormed to the Championship title.

There were many highlights, his first Wolves goal opening the scoring on that magical Molineux afternoon when Nottingham Forest were destroyed at Molineux, further goals at Watford and Southampton and a penalty and two assists in a blistering start against the Saints on Good Friday.

At times the following two Premier League seasons were more attritional – the challenge demanded it – but Jones still feels Wolves played far better football than they were sometimes given credit for as shown when he tucked home Matt Jarvis’s cross at the end of an 18-pass move to defeat Tottenham.

“They are all special memories,” Jones recalls.

“We had a sense that we were one of the favourites to go up at the start of that Championship season.

“Wolves had only missed out on the play-offs on goal difference the year before and a few new players had come in and we went on to lead from the front for most of the season.

“I think sometimes people associate a Mick McCarthy team with just being hard-working, organised and defensively solid, and we were that, but I felt with much more besides.

“If I was playing with Karl then maybe he would be more of a holder but I would have license to get forward and we would have two wingers and two centre forwards.

“That Forest game was incredible, and even going into the Premier League we played some good stuff, including that goal against Tottenham.

“I was just pleased to be in the right place to finish things off, but I do think we played some really exciting stuff at times.”

One other moment of excitement came with the free kick despatched on the first day of the 2010/11 season against Stoke, with slight variation on a theme first executed by Wolves favourites Willie Carr and Ernie Hunt as Henry rolled the ball back for Jones to flick it up and fire home.

“I had actually tried that a few times in pre-season at other clubs, but at Wolves it was Mick McCarthy’s idea,” Jones explains.

“It was something he wanted us to do from different positions on the pitch, giving the chance to get a different trajectory on the ball.

“It meant rather than sending in a usual floated cross you could fire it in with some dip and it made it far harder to defend.

“Against Stoke that day it really worked in front of goal, although at times Henry has picked me up and told me I have taken too much credit – and that he deserves more for the assist!

“I think it was a great idea from Mick, and I’m only surprised we haven’t seen it more often.”

Ah, Henry and Jones. A bit like Smith and Jones, just without the television series.

With wife Katrina and daughter Daisy-Belle

Although they did form part of a trio featuring Iwelumo known as the ‘Debate Club’ where all sorts of wild, weird and wonderful subjects would be discussed for the delectation of viewers of Wolves’ TV.

The two midfield maestros formed what might be termed an unlikely friendship which has stood the test of time given their perhaps very different personalities.

“We are very different characters, but I think Henry just appreciates somebody with an opinion and an honest opinion, even if it isn’t the same as his own,” says Jones.

“He gets his energy from having conflict with people!

“He is also very competitive, and I remember my first pre-season tour with Wolves in Scotland, when we got into an argument while we were playing FIFA on the PlayStation.

“I am really not a gamer, so I was probably telling him a grown man shouldn’t be taking it so seriously, and we very quickly bonded over an argument.

“We have always got on really well, there is a lot of winding each other up although I think he winds me up more than I do him.

“It is strange in football because you meet so many players in your career and you do try and stay in touch but it’s really not possible.

“Yet for a short time you get to know your team-mates really well, spending every day together, going on the pre-season tours together, all the travelling, it can get quite intense sharing the ups and downs.

“So it is nice when those links continue, and Henry is one of my best mates now, and I think how well we got on also helped our understanding on the pitch where our games were able to complement each other.

“We were team-mates and we are friends, but I would also say he is someone I look up to.

“I learned so much from him as a player and what he did on the pitch, but also off it as well.

“I think back to his charity work and what he did in Wolverhampton for the NHS last year, and just the way he lives his life, and Karl is someone I have a lot of respect for.”

That makes it particularly pertinent that the pair have started their coaching journey together, attending the residential towards their UEFA ‘B’ licence in Northern Ireland last year.

If it was an alliance forged in Wolves, their playing partnership was eventually broken up by what Jones describes as an unfortunately “sticky finish” to his Molineux career as his three-year contract came to an end and he moved on, remaining in the Premier League, with Wigan.

Having been offered a new deal before departing for post-season, Jones was later informed that the terms had been reduced, including in contract length.

Feeling that was a reflection not just on his value to the club but also his likely influence within the squad, he decided to move on.

He harbours no grudges, and in echoes of when Sir Alex Ferguson suggested United had sold him too cheaply to Derby, former Wolves boss McCarthy has since expressed regret that the club didn’t do more to keep him.

“It was a shame how it ended, and I’m not sure how often a contract gets offered and then reduced a few weeks later,” Jones suggests.

“The feeling I had when that happened made me feel I wasn’t valued or someone for the long term and if that was the case then it was best to move on.

“Football is a business though, and genuinely I wouldn’t say I got upset or mad, I just accepted it and realised it was time for me to move elsewhere.

“I was just one of 20 to 25 players at the club, with budgets and everything coming into play, so maybe something got changed, and even then the decision to leave isn’t one I took lightly.

“I really didn’t want to leave, I was sad because I loved my time at the club, loved living at Tettenhall down the road from the training ground and loved the atmosphere around the place.

“And I still have very fond memories, both of Wolves and working for Mick.

“The job he did at Wolves was excellent and I really enjoyed playing for him.

“I have met him again a fair few times since I left and for him to say even now that maybe things could have turned out differently shows what a great guy that he is.”

And Sir Alex?

“I remember reading that comment about my transfer fee and while I only made a few cup appearances under Sir Alex, I learned so much from him from such a young age.

“He was always visible watching the junior teams train and play which I think showed really good leadership and is why he built what he did at Manchester United.

“It’s all pretty ruthless in football, especially when you leave a club, but I live quite close to him now and have seen him around and he will always have a chat and give me some stick!

“He is definitely one of those I feel I could go and speak to if I needed some advice.”

And while, after leaving Wolves, Jones would later also make Burnley his happy place with this third and fourth promotions, those pointers from Sir Alex and others he has played for may certainly come in handy when he does decide to call it a day.

He has already taken a double-pronged approach to preparing for a post-playing career, with the coaching combined with the Master’s degree which includes many aspects of the business and administration side of the game.

Alongside continuing his qualifications he has already visited Wolves Academy with Henry - and hopes to return - is about to take on a work placement with Burnley which will involve coaching and mentoring young players, and is also picking up experience guiding Wilmslow Under-12s.

“I just want to progress and pick up as much experience as I can,” Jones explains.

“Every bit of learning is vital, and what has also helped is that from my mid-twenties through the rest of my career, I have kept a journal writing down good coaching sessions and the way managers have worked and dealt with different situations.

“It has been conscious in my mind about the whole process of being a professional footballer, and from there it is about picking up the coaching skills to successfully transfer that knowledge and experience to whoever it is that I am coaching.

“The Under-12s for example is a very different challenge, to be able to break down what you need to say to help them work together and improve, especially as at that level there are a lot who don’t even want to be footballers.

“I am also six months into the two-year Masters which focuses more on the administration and business side of the game, that link between a Chief Executive and the coaching set-up, as well as incorporating some of the recruitment on the playing side.

“Looking through the modules it will teach me about leadership skills, which could help with the coaching and managing if I get an opportunity, and about relationships at all levels of a club.

“It covers a lot of bases that could help me with my next steps, and I have enjoyed being back learning new skills both to write academic papers and lead presentations.

“It is really going to help add some of the theory to my own experience and will help me reflect on myself and improve my skills.

“While I am still wanting to carry on playing, picking up this knowledge and experience is hopefully going to provide something for me to work with in the future.

“Age does creep up on you and when you hit your mid-thirties you do start to think you might not have too long left and need to think about that transition into what comes next.

“And for someone who doesn’t really want to retire, it is difficult to accept at times.

“Football has been such a part of my life that the enjoyment and the passion – and being able to earn a living – it has all been taken care of.

“Now, when the time comes that I am no longer playing, there has to be something else to fill that void.

“That is the challenge for all of us, and I can only hope that when the day comes, I will find something which gives me the same sort of enjoyment and passion from when I was playing football.”

Away from his efforts to find a new opportunity during these challenging times, there has at least been one happy event for Jones to cherish over the last 12 months.

The arrival, last May, of daughter Daisy-Bella to Jones and wife Katrina, means that life will never quite be the same again!

“People say that before you become a Dad don’t they? That it will be life-changing,” he reflects.

“You kind of listen to them and just think it is something people say but you only fully appreciate it when it really happens.

“it is an amazing feeling and has been an amazing seven months which has given me a completely different perspective on my life and career.

“All of a sudden you have someone else who becomes your first priority, and you also don’t get as much sleep as you did before, but I wouldn’t change a thing – I am loving it.”

Jones’ calm and unruffled presence in the centre of midfield probably means he hasn’t endured too many sleepless nights during a career which he hopes still has a little bit more distance to run.

Fulfil his post-playing ambitions of moving into coaching or management, or even higher up the footballing chain further down the track, and there might just be a lot more for him to think about!

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