When Gary Jones left Rochdale AFC in 2012 at the ripe old age of 35, it was a sad day.
Sad not just because he was the club’s record holder for most appearances – an amazing 531 of them – but sad also because he still had so much more to give.
Watching him lead League Two club Bradford City to a League Cup final at Wembley the following season only served to remind all onlookers of the qualities Jones still possessed, those that saw him become one of Rochdale’s most effective ever captains and those that saw him single-handedly drag the team over the line on too many occasions to remember.
The Gary Jones who played for Bradford that day was certainly a far cry from the Gary Jones who arrived at Spotland on loan from Swansea in 1998. Back then, the Birkenhead-born midfielder was an unknown, brought in to help bolster a Rochdale side that had already endured 18 months of struggle under the management of Graham Barrow and, as Jones explains, it wasn’t where he imagined himself ending up when making the transition from Sunday League to professional football.
“While there seems to be a myth that I was part of Liverpool’s Academy, I actually never did an apprenticeship with any club,” he says. “I learned the game playing Sunday League football and turning out for [Welsh League side] Caernarfon on a Saturday.
“Funnily enough Jan Molby, who was Swansea manager at the time, used to come and watch the Sunday League team I played for. I think he knew a couple of the people involved. After one particular match, he invited me to Swansea for a week’s trial. I went down there for a week, stayed in a hotel, and, at the end of it, they offered me a year’s contract. That’s where it all started for me, from a professional perspective.
“It was okay at Swansea but then Jan got the sack and Micky Adams came in. I was only young and still new to professional football. He never really took to me and so I never got a look in.
“Graham Barrow was aware of me, I believe, and asked if he could take me on loan to Rochdale. I went there and saw they had some really good players – Robbie Painter, Dave Bayliss, Mark Stuart, Andy Barlow – so I wasn’t sure why the team was struggling in the league. But then you realise that good individual players don’t necessarily guarantee team success. There has to be something else there. We were always at the wrong end of the table and that era is, sadly, synonymous with a really poor team.
“And, while my move had been made permanent, I was in and out of the side and was very close to being released – then Graham Barrow got sacked. I played in the last away game that season, against Brighton, and I had a really good game. I showed what I was capable of. On the strength of that, Dave Hamilton [caretaker manager] pleaded with the chairman [David Kilpatrick] to give me a new contract – and he did. Sometimes you need a little bit of luck in the game and that was my little bit of luck right there.”
It was under Barrow’s successor, Steve Parkin, that Jones really came into his own, coinciding with the formation of a Rochdale side that seriously looked like achieving promotion from English football’s fourth tier for the first time since 1969. Under Parkin’s leadership between 1999 and 2001, Jones eventually established himself as an essential first-team player, his box-to-box dynamism an integral part of a side that inched closer and closer to the play-offs with each passing season.
“It was funny when Steve first came in,” remembers Jones. “First day back for pre-season training and he’s calling all the players in to see him, one by one, to say hello and give them their squad numbers and what not. I didn’t get called in and I’m thinking, ‘what’s going on here, like?’
“I mentioned this to Dave Hamilton, who went in to see him and it turned out Steve didn’t even know who I was! I think he thought I’d been released. Needless to say, I wasn’t in his plans at all and players such as Jason Peake were ahead of me. But then I started to gradually improve in training, got noticed and I got my chance. I think my first start under Steve was at home against Exeter. I did enough to keep my shirt and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I became captain of the club aged 23, which was a massive honour. It was on the way to Chesterfield, I think, and current captain [goalkeeper] Neil Edwards was injured. Steve came up to me and said, ‘Gary, you’re going to be captain today.’ When a manager says that you, and puts his faith in you in such a public way, it’s like a massive shot in the arm. It raised my game to a level that I aspired to for the rest of my career.”
Jones believes that act is the perfect summary of Parkin’s attributes.
“Steve was a fantastic man manager,” he says. “When you talk about good players alone not being enough to create a good team, that’s what Steve offered – he knitted everybody together. Yes, he signed a lot of good players, and was given a lot of money to do that, but he created an unbreakable team spirit. He had a magnetism that drew people to him, even the lads who weren’t playing. He certainly knew how to get the best out of his players.”
Sadly, late in 2001, with Dale competing for the top spot in the division, Steve Parkin left for second-tier Barnsley and took Jones with him.
“The team that season was the pinnacle of what Steve and Tony [Ford, assistant manager] had been building since 1999,” confirms Jones. “It was good enough to take the title. When they left, it was a massive blow for all of us. Massive. I had no idea at that point that they wanted me to join them at Barnsley. I remember driving in for training a few weeks after they had left, I think it was a Thursday, and being told by Dave Hamilton that Rochdale had accepted a bid for me from Barnsley and I was to go over there right away to sort out terms. It felt strange, of course it did, but football is a short career and this was my chance to play two levels higher. I drove to training in the morning as a Rochdale player and came back Thursday night as a Barnsley player – that’s how quickly it happened.”
While John Hollins came in to replace Parkin, and gamely kept Rochdale in the hunt for promotion, the side fell at the first hurdle in the play-offs. It was to be the end of another era for the club and, for the next six years, normal business was resumed, with the team reacquainting itself with the tag of perennial fourth-tier strugglers.
During this period, in 2003 to be precise, Gary Jones returned to Rochdale on loan, after finding his Barnsley first-team appearance limited. The deal was made permanent once again in 2004, with Jones going on to re-establish himself as club captain, a role he didn’t relinquish until leaving the club in 2012.
“I did my metatarsal in training at Barnsley and so hadn’t been playing,” explains Jones. “I wasn’t really in the manager’s plans and Alan Buckley was manager of Rochdale at the time. He asked if I would be interested in coming back. I told him absolutely, but warned him I wasn’t the player I was due to me being out for so long with an injury. I was right. I was miles off, to be fair. I kept breaking down with scar tissue and so on. I just wasn’t doing myself justice. However, at Rochdale, I was given the time I needed to get myself fit and I did just that.”
In late 2006, with Steve Parkin, who replaced Buckley, leaving the club for a second time, youth academy coach Keith Hill stepped into the first-team manager role and led the club into the most successful era of its history, culminating, finally, in that long-awaited promotion from the fourth tier in 2010.
“Hilly came into management at just the right time for the club,” Jones remembers. “It needed that breath of fresh air and a new approach. Hilly brought sports science with him via John Lucas, and he brought in Dave Flitcroft as his assistant, who was previously part of the dressing room with me under Steve Parkin. It was the perfect combination. Dave acted brilliantly as that go-between with players and manager.
“I still remember Hilly’s first day in the job, as caretaker manager at that point. He got me and John Doolan into his office and told us that, as the elder statesmen of the dressing room, it was on us to get the players going and that’s what we did.
“Under Hilly’s leadership we just hit the ground running from day one. His training techniques were modern, new and interesting with short, sharp ball work – every single player was engaged. Revolution is not too strong a word. We knew something massive was happening. We began beating teams by four or five goals – I’m talking out of sight by half time. It was a no brainer to give him the job full time.”
Prior to Hill achieving that 2010 automatic promotion, he led Rochdale to a first Wembley appearance courtesy of the play-off final in 2008. While it would end in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Stockport County, Jones said he was proud to lead the team on such an occasion.
“What an amazing experience that was,” he says. “To captain a football club in its centenary season at England’s national stadium was unbelievable. I go back to the amazing semi-final win against Darlington when I remember this experience, too, because we came back from 1-0 down to win on penalties in front of nearly 10,000 supporters. I can still vividly see Ben Muirhead wheeling away after banging in the winning penalty that got us to Wembley. The result at Wembley wasn’t what we hoped for, but we dusted ourselves down and made the play-offs again the next season, albeit we didn’t do enough to get to Wembley again.”
In 2009/10, Rochdale’s eventual promotion season, the team looked set for the League Two title before a late wobble saw the team finish third – while it was enough to achieve a step up to League One, there was still a lingering sense of what might have been for Jones.
“I think our slump coincided with Notts County getting a boost from signing all these big-name players like Kasper Schmeichel, and us running out of steam. We didn’t take our foot off the gas, I think it was a mental thing. We were at the top of the table for a long time and we should have seen that through. It’s as if something got to us collectively and after one bad result, we couldn’t shake it – I recall getting absolutely smashed 5-0 down at Torquay and then we lost to Darlington at home, too. It was getting a bit daft. We got promotion in the end, though, and achieving that at home against Northampton, and the scenes it created with the supporters, with what it meant to them, will live long in my memory.”
Jones was a rare absentee through injury during the winter of that season, too, and he was forced to look on from the sidelines as Jasons Taylor and Kennedy swept all before them in the Rochdale midfield. He would still go on to make the PFA Team of the Year, however.
“I couldn’t get back in the team,” Jones recalls. “It was tough as captain but, if you’re winning football games, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can’t change a winning team. That was the situation I was in. I didn’t like it, but I understood it. If you’re smashing goals past all comers, then you don’t disrupt that. I just kept working hard and waited for my chance to come again.”
Jones would continue to excel during Rochdale’s first season in the third tier for 36 years and his performances are perhaps best encapsulated by a single moment of brilliance at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium. His 30-yard thunderbolt secured Rochdale a 2-0 league victory and is widely regarded as one of the best ever goals scored for the club by any player.
“I’ve got to be honest, I found the step up easy,” Jones says. “We all did. Hilly had been preparing us for this transition before it arrived, so we were ready. Everyone thought we would struggle, but we weren’t far off the play-offs by the time the season ended.
“For me to score 19 goals from midfield also made it a fantastic season personally. I’ve still got the DVD from that season and sometimes put it on to show my son that I wasn’t a bad player in my day!
“The goal against Southampton still looks good. Anthony Elding laid the ball off and I just concentrated on hitting it as best I could. Fortunately for me it flew right in. But that goal was just part of a terrific team performance. It was boiling hot that day and they had a fantastic team containing Rickie Lambert, Morgan Schneiderlin and Jason Puncheon – and we outplayed them.”
Like Steve Parkin a decade before, Keith Hill’s success at Rochdale took him to second-tier Barnsley, only this time Jones stayed behind. With Hill gone, the club slid back into League Two within a single season, under the guidance of Steve Eyre and then John Coleman. It was under the latter’s management that Jones ended his association with Rochdale.
“When Hilly left, Bradford wanted to sign me at that point,” Jones reveals. “Obviously, I was out of contract, so I went to speak to Bradford manager Peter Jackson, but it didn’t seem the right move for me at that time. Rochdale had just had a good season and, even though Hilly had gone, I didn’t see why we couldn’t do it again. I went on holiday and Steve Eyre phoned me up. I’d never heard of him, to be fair, but I liked what he had to say and he got me a new two-year deal at the club. Sadly, managing the youth team at Man City, which Steve did before getting the Rochdale job, is a big difference to managing seasoned professionals and he struggled with that. It didn’t work out for him.
“Then John Coleman came in and it started off really well with a good win over Bury. To be fair, and this might surprise you, I loved the way he wanted to play football, I really did. Where I had an issue was in the preparation. With Keith Hill, everything was done meticulously and on time. Everything. I needed that structure and it got the best out of me. With Coleman, that all changed – we were starting at different times and that discipline just wasn’t there. That didn’t suit me. We didn’t fall out or anything, we just didn’t see eye to eye. Don’t get me wrong, I had total respect for him and what he had done for Accrington, it just wasn’t for me.
“We were eventually relegated and the opportunity came around again for me to speak to Bradford after the club accepted an offer. John Coleman okayed it. By now, Bradford were being managed by Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin, and it was a much better proposition for me. That was that, my time at Rochdale was over. It was sad, especially on the back of such a poor season, but football works that way and you have to get on with it.”
And when Keith Hill retuned to the club in 2013, leading Rochdale back into League One, where they remain to this day, was there ever any chance of Jones returning?
“No, there wasn’t,” Jones says. “The opportunity never came around again. Hilly is an amazing manager and I would have loved to work for him again, but the chance just didn’t arise. It’s not just Hilly, though, it’s the club. It will always have a special place within me. It was the club that took a chance on me instead of discarding me, it allowed me to find my leadership qualities and it gave me time to get back to my best after injury. I would not have had the career I did were it not for Rochdale and for that I will be eternally grateful.”
Photos: Dan Youngs and Mark Wilbraham