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THE BIG INTERVIEW
IT’S ELEVEN years since Rob Jones was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to hang up his boots through injury but fans still speak fondly of the attacking full-back who famously swapped Crewe for Liverpool and made it look easy. BY GARETH ROBERTS
26 ROB JONES is rightly hailed as one of Graeme Souness’s success stories.
Plucked from the obscurity of Fourth Division Crewe, 48 hours after signing for Liverpool in October 1991 the defender from Ellesmere Port was marking Ryan Giggs out of a televised game at Old Trafford.
By the end of the season he had been capped by England and was an FA Cup winner.
Yet it all could have been so different for Jones who, instead of playing against Giggs, could have been playing with him for Manchester United.
“About a year before Liverpool came in for me, Man United were interested,” revealed Jones, 38.
“Alex Ferguson sent Gordon Strachan to watch me and he reported back that I had no pace! I was the fastest in the team so I think that was the end of his scouting days!”
When Souness arrived at Gresty Road with Tom Saunders around 12 months later he had in fact been interested in another Crewe player. But Jones, playing in an unfamiliar left-back role where he was later employed by Roy Evans, caught the eye of the Scot.
“I was playing left back because there were a few injuries,” Jones explained.
“I had a good game and Souness later said he noticed there had been a free kick on the right-hand side and I’d come over to take it and whipped it in with my right foot and we’d scored off it.
“He was obviously impressed that I was playing left back and had a right foot as well. I don’t know whether he thought I was left footed, I just use that to stand on! He sent Tom Saunders to watch the next game on the Wednesday and on Thursday morning Dario Gradi (Crewe manager) left a message on the answer machine saying Liverpool wanted to sign me.”
A bid of £300,000 secured the signature of Jones, a Liverpool fan. For a 19-year-old lad who stood on the Kop when his playing career at Crewe allowed it, it was a dream come true.
“It was a big, big shock – it didn’t sink in for ages,” he said.
“The next day after Dario had rang, Kenny Swain, who was at Crewe at the time, picked me up and took me in to see Graeme Souness and Tom Saunders. I signed straight away.
“That morning I was training with John Barnes, Steve McMahon, Steve Nicol – all these legends that I had watched for the last 10 years winning trophies, it was unbelievable. After training Souness took me back to Anfield and in the car he said to me ‘Do you think you’ll be able to cope with playing against Man United on Sunday?’ Obviously I was a bit nervous but you can’t say no and I said ‘Course I can, yeah.’
“I was supposed to be playing on the Saturday away to Darlington in the Fourth Division. All of a sudden I was playing against Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford live on the television. It was a massive step up but it worked for me. I was quite fast and I did OK against Ryan.”
Most thought he had done much better than OK and Rob had soon caught the eye of England manager Graham Taylor.
Taylor handed Jones his international debut in a 2-0 win over France at Wembley in 1992 to make it a remarkable five months for Jones.
With Liverpool and England appearances under his belt, the
“I was supposed to be playing Darlington in the Fourth Division. All of a sudden I was playing against Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford, live on the television.”
Wrexham-born full-back had now mirrored the achievements of his granddad, Bill Jones, an Anfield centrehalf who won two caps for his country and famously took Bob Paisley’s place in the 1950 FA Cup Final, the Reds’ first appearance at that stage of the competition.
Bill made 256 league appearances for Liverpool and later worked as a scout, unearthing talent including legendary striker ‘Sir’ Roger Hunt.
“I went on a few scouting missions with him when I was five or six,” said Rob.
“We went around the Ellesmere Port area looking for players. He picked up Roger Hunt from Stockton Heath and took him to Liverpool and he went on to win a World Cup winners’ medal so it was a good spot. I see Roger at the Liverpool Christmas dos and he still asks about my granddad.”
Although there was football talent in his blood, Rob says there was no pressure from his granddad to succeed: ”He was an inspiration and he used to come and watch my games but he’d leave me just to play. I think if you’ve got natural ability you’re halfway there and he used to just let me go and play and enjoy it. That’s what I’m doing with my son, Declan. He’s only nine, and he’s a good little player but I don’t say too much to him.
“All through school I was in the teams and I played for Cheshire but there were players better than me – there’s a bit of luck in making it, I think. Some players grow and get stronger, some don’t.”
Rob did and he was snapped up by Crewe at 12, making his debut for the Railwaymen at 16 while he was still at school.
“I played the last four games of the season while still at school,” he said.
“It was weird. We played Tranmere away on a Tuesday night (just down the road from Rob’s hometown of Ellesmere Port). My mum and dad said it was a big game so I could take the day off school - I think we told them I had a cold.
“I played Tranmere that night and the next day at school I got called in by the headmaster. He said ‘How’s your cold?’ and I was like ‘Loads better, thanks.’ And he said ‘Funny that, I was at the Tranmere game last night and I saw you running up and down the wing!
“He’d caught me out and he just warned me he could stop me playing for Crewe straight away and that I had to ask their permission so I didn’t get away with that one!” Jones’s dramatic rise to the upper echelons of English football is rarely seen in the modern game and this is often put down to clubs preferring to invest in experienced foreigners rather than plumping for raw homegrown talent in the lower leagues.
But Jones doesn’t see it that way. “Jamie Carragher said in an interview recently if players were good enough they’d move up the divisions and I think he’s right,” he said.
“The players are still out there but clubs have got their academies sorted now and they’ve already got all the talented young lads on the books. In my day, Crewe had a great academy – Liverpool didn’t have one, none of the big clubs had them.”
Unfamiliar route to Anfield or not, Jones quickly settled at Liverpool and was soon a fans’ favourite – no mean feat considering the huge leap in class of opponent.
But while his performances in a red shirt oozed class and confidence, Jones admits it wasn’t quite like that behind