Jimmi Lee Jones' historic Wolves Premier League deal
The Premier League is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season.
Now of course, football existed long before the league was reshaped into its current form, and, lest we forget, Wolves actually won its equivalent three times back in the 1950’s.
And the 2022/23 campaign is only the ninth out of those 30 that the club has occupied the Premier League, albeit now on a run of five seasons in succession having made themselves very much at home in the mid to upper reaches of the table.
The level of investment is chalk and cheese to how it was when Wolves first entered the league after that memorable play-off success back in 2003.
Nowadays wages and salaries occupy a far different stratosphere to those splashed out back then, notably most recently when midfielder Matheus Nunes became the latest to take on the record signing mantle for an initial fee of £38million, potentially rising to £42.2m.
So, here’s a quiz question to have even the most devout ‘anorak’ of a Wolves supporter scratching their chin with an air of bemusement.
Who was the first Wolves player to ever put pen to paper on a Premier League contract?
And if you don’t want to know the answer, look away now.
Because the answer is not one of the glut of new signings which arrived in that summer of 2003, nor indeed one of the established players who had agreed an extension or improvement to their previous Championship-based contract.
It was a young, well-regarded striker who had scored plenty of goals in the reserves the previous season and of whom much was expected over the coming years.
Step forward, Mr Jimmi Lee Jones. Offered a new contract by his namesake manager Dave Jones, whom of course managed – and enjoyed success - with both teams in action at Molineux this Saturday in Wolves and Southampton.
“I had just come to the end of initial three-year contract after leaving school and Dave had told me they were going to give me a new one-year contract,” Jones – the striker - recalls.
“It just so happened that I was the first player to either sign a deal or join the club since they had gone up to the Premier League.
“The format of the contract was different to a Football League one so there was a bit of a fuss about me being the first player to sign a Premier League contract for Wolves.
“I suppose it’s something a little bit historic to be remembered for, and was certainly a big moment for me as a young player just coming through.”
A picture of the signing made it onto the back page of the Express & Star under the headline, ‘Wolves kid makes history’, Jones snapped, pen in hand, with club secretary Richard Skirrow, ahead of fellow young hopeful Marlon Walters following in his footsteps later that same week.
But Jones was soon hitting the headlines for very different reasons as part of a squad with plenty of senior involvement in a pre-season friendly away at Worcester City.
By this time signings had started arriving and defender Isaac Okoronkwo made his debut at St George’s Lane in a game watched by over 2,000 and refereed by current Premier League official Andre Marriner.
There was a little bit of pressure on the game as well, there was only a week-and-a-half left until the start of the new season and Wolves hadn’t had a great run of results, including a 6-0 defeat away at Morecambe.
Step forward Jimmi Lee Jones, again, to notch a hat trick inside the first 15 minutes.
“We had a decent team out that game, Keith Andrews was playing, Ivar Ingimarsson, Isaac, and I was up front alongside JJ Melligan,” Jones recalls.
“It was nice to bag a hat trick in a pre-season game, we won 3-2 in the end, and I thought that might give me a bit of kudos in terms of the overall first team picture but unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way.”
Indeed that, and the contract signing, turned out to be as good as it got for Jones during a Wolves career which had seen him progress right through the ranks from having joined the Centre of Excellence after being spotted as a ten-year-old playing up front for Trysull Tigers.
As he played through the years, scoring goals in every age group, he eventually signed professional terms and benefitted from the influence of the likes of Academy director Chris Evans, youth coach Keith Downing, and Terry Connor, who was then working as a bridge between the first team and reserves.
“Chris was there throughout my time and always carried that influence – if he came in to speak to someone after a game or dish out a rollocking then it always meant that little bit more because he didn’t do it too often,” says Jones.
“Fortunately, I didn’t get one of the rollockings, I got on well with Chris and felt he always rated me and supported me all the way through.
“TC was a big help to me in trying to bridge that gap between youth and first team football whilst Keith was in charge of the youth team at the time and was also an excellent coach.
“The one thing I remember with Keith is that you could never get him off the training pitch!
“We’d do a tough session in the morning and get in at lunchtime and think we were done and then very soon you’d look at Keith and he’d be getting his gear on ready to go out for the afternoon as well!
“He was such a good coach and had a big influence on those of us at the club around that time.”
Progressing to the reserve team Jones found himself among the goals at that level in the 2002/03 season, which ended with an equally promising and prolific loan spell with St Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland in which he notched three goals in six games.
That left everything set fair for the historic signing of the contract, and, now training with the first team as a fully-fledged professional, even at just 19 he possessed the confidence to feel he could stake a claim for a place in a matchday squad in the Premier League.
Sadly however, it wasn’t to be, and he was despatched on loan to Forest Green, then in the Conference, before returning to play out the remainder of the season in the reserves.
“I never really had a sniff,” Jones recalls.
“I know I was young and it was the Premier League but I was confident and felt I could make an impression, especially having done well for the reserves the previous season.
“I was really hoping for a shot at it, but it didn’t turn out that way at all, and it soon became apparent it just wasn’t going to happen.
“It was a tough year for Wolves and a tough start especially and with results not great they were in the bottom three all season.
“Being around the senior players, they always gave their all and gave it a real good go but there was just this sense that they knew they were probably a little bit short.
“I quickly sensed I wasn’t going to be getting a chance, and when that happened my confidence started to suffer.
“I hadn’t really wanted to go to Forest Green, I wanted to stay and try and make an impression, but when after that I came back and played for the reserves, by my own admission I never found the form I had been in the previous year.
“So, it came as little surprise when my Wolves days came to an end when I was released at the end of that season.”
So often in football timing is everything.
Just as it was in being there in the right place at the right time to become the first Wolves player to sign a Premier League contract, doing so at a time when the club was set to struggle in the top flight - as opposed to perhaps still being in the Championship - was always going to reduce Jones’ chances of breaking through.
Yet, after he was released, and Jones the manager later lost his job, Glenn Hoddle arrived and offered opportunities to young strikers who had been behind Jones in the pecking order whilst he was still at the club.
The man himself remains philosophical, there is no bitterness, perhaps in part due to the fact that even greater misfortune was soon to follow.
After departing Wolves he returned to St Patrick’s to try and rekindle the run of form he had shown on his previous loan, but a few months into the season, he broke his leg.
Having only signed a one-year deal, Jones headed back to England and, having later made one appearance for Burton in the Conference up top alongside player-manager Nigel Clough, he joined Worcester City.
However, soon into the 2005/06 season, he suffered the cruel twist of fate of breaking his leg again, the same leg and the same bone and, this time, he knew straightaway that his race was run.
“When I drove away from the training ground after being released by Wolves it was a surreal moment but it wasn’t unexpected,” Jones explains.
“As much as I was confident the previous year I would get a new contract, I was also confident I wouldn’t get one second time around because I really didn’t play well that season.
“Wolves was the only professional club I had ever known because although through my teenage years other clubs had been pressurising me to move, I had always stayed at Wolves.
“So, while it was surreal to leave after so long after being released, I wouldn’t say it was emotional because I was anticipating it and was probably more kicking myself for having had such a bad season.
“Going over to St Pat’s gave me a chance to play at a good standard where I had enjoyed it previously, but after breaking my leg I came back and then after going to Worcester to try and build myself up again the same thing happened.
“By that stage, I remember sitting in the hospital, and just mentally checking out from football completely.
“I didn’t have a contract, I was playing semi-pro, and had just broken my leg for the second time just over a year after I had been at a Premier League club with Wolves.
“I was now a million miles away from that and, given I’d like to think I’m a fairly sensible bloke, I knew it was going to be way too much of a slog to get back to anything like where I had been.
“There were moments when I felt down about it, and my mind was racing a little bit, but that never changed my initial instant acceptance that I was going to have to move on to something else and I wasn’t prepared to wallow in any disappointment for too long.”
Once the decision came to hang up his boots, Jones was ready and prepared to move in a different direction.
Academically, while living in Wombourne and studying at Ounsdale School, he had been fairly strong, and it was an eye for figures and finance which provided the impetus for his next step.
“I had always been fairly good academically and could do well with exams and so on but I wouldn’t say I spent too much time on it because I always knew I was going to be a footballer,” Jones admits.
“I had always been interested in finances – money, investments and the stock markets – so when I finished, I started studying financial adviser qualifications off my own bat.
“I then got a job as a financial adviser and have been doing it for over 15 years, now set up on my own working for myself in partnership with a big national wealth management company.
“Do you know what? It’s the best decision I have ever made.
“I am now 38, and to have been doing it for the amount of time I have, I have built up a lot of experience, and I also know there were lads in the academies at the same time as me who went on to have decent careers in the lower leagues that have since finished and found it difficult to know what to do next.
“I feel lucky that I found something I enjoy, something I have been able to do reasonably well in, and something where I can build another career.”
And, in listening to him, that is probably the most refreshing thing about the way Jones reflects on a career which originally promised and threatened so much, but ultimately never quite got started at senior level, before coming to an end through no fault of his own.
No rancour or resentment, no bemoaning his lot, more just a sense of enjoyment and quiet satisfaction for what he did achieve in progressing so efficiently through the ranks, and getting to sample just a mere taster of the first-team set-up.
He does not lie awake at night wondering just what might have been, but looks back on the grounding and the experiences as something which has prepared him for what is now a very happy and contented existence.
Better to have loved and lost, then never to have lost at all.
“I enjoyed it while it lasted,” Jones acknowledges.
“I can say I went all the way through the youth system from the age of ten to the first team squad, and loads of others came and went during that time while I managed to stay the course.
“So, although I didn’t get over that final hurdle, I still look back and feel I did a lot better than most and have so many good memories and I’m absolutely cool with how it all went.
“And the decision to go off and do something else was absolutely the right thing to do.
“I did actually come back and try and play a few games for Willenhall after the second broken leg but I soon realised, and like I said I had mentally checked out, that it really wasn’t for me anymore.
“And even though my leg is absolutely fine now I have barely kicked a ball since, although I am still a big Wolves fan and go to most of the home games and still really enjoy it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be chatting to you now saying I had played hundreds of games for Wolves, scored a boatload of goals and earned millions of pounds but it wasn’t to be – it is what it is.
“It was just one of those things, and that was probably why I was able to accept it fairly easily after breaking my leg the second time as I was hardened to it and knew it had come to an end.”
A premature end to Jones’s career didn’t stop him keeping a close eye on the fortunes of his contemporaries from Wolves both in the same year group and from above and below.
He was pleased to see the Wolves Academy production line produce players such as Joleon Lescott, Wayne Hennessey, Carl Ikeme, Mark Clyde, Leon Clarke and Sammy Clingan from those he particularly remembers from his time at Molineux.
And not so long ago, living in Bridgnorth, he was reunited with his former manager when he and Dave Jones found themselves next to each other on the exercise bikes in a gym in the town.
Talk about ‘Keeping up with the Joneses.
On top of that, he is now part of the same friendship group, who can generally be found in the Dartmouth Arms pub in Burnhill Green, which includes legendary former Wolves commentator from Beacon and the Wolf radio stations, Bill Hatton.
In another moment of timing, he just missed out on being among the focus of Hatton’s dulcet tones as he was commentating on Wolves’ Premier League exploits back in that 2003/04 season just as Jones was trying to make his breakthrough.
Oh yes. And then there was Gazza!
What Jones certainly didn’t miss out on was the opportunity to mix with the England legend when he spent several weeks training at Compton and trying to impress to earn a contract, an effort which eventually failed to come to fruition.
Jones was fortunate not just to play in the same team as Gascoigne in reserve fixtures, including against West Bromwich Albion in front of a big crowd at Aggborough, but also to be in very close proximity to him in the dressing room at the training ground.
“I will always remember turning up one morning to be told that Gazza had arrived and was going to spend a bit of time training,” Jones recalls.
“He still harboured hopes of carrying on at that level, and was trying to impress in reserve games and was great with everyone to be honest.
“As a young player, there I was actually sat next to him in the dressing room, so those times before and after training were pretty much like story time for the rest of us.
“There were stories about the World Cup from Italy 90, and some of the stuff he used to get up to with Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’, and you got the impression that Gazza really loved it, being around a group of lads and sharing those conversations and having a laugh.
“For me it was really enjoyable and probably the highlight of that season for me. when things really didn’t go well on the pitch.”
As he says, while he didn’t quite make it all the way and was probably a victim of Wolves’ Premier League struggles just when he was in his best form as an ambitious young striker, there remains plenty for Jones to be proud of and numerous memories to cherish.
Sitting next to Gazza in the changing room will be one to tell the grandkids, not to mention that 15-minute hat trick in a first team friendly.
But perhaps mostly, as a fore-runner to all those that followed – Ince, Irwin, Doyle, Coady, Neves, Moutinho, Nunes to name but a small selection – exalted status as the first Wolves player to ever sign a Premier League contract is something that is definitely worth bringing out over a beer or two at the ‘Dart’.
Just a shame that contract probably didn’t have quite as many noughts on it as others that have followed!