I return from deepest Teesside with important news for fans of Hibernian. Rob Jones is just as tall as he was when he netted with that steepling header to send the team on their way to cup glory – just as bald, too. And he’s just as moved by his very own song as he was the first time he heard it belting out of Easter Road.
“Jones! Always believe in Rob Jones, he’s got the power to score, he’s indestructible… Jones!” I am singing the ditty, to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s Gold, without the benefit of Ballet vocalist Tony Hadley’s foghorn voice and nor do I have one of those prissily-thin 1980s-style microphones at my disposal – but he gets it.
“They sang the song at Scunthorpe United, too, at Sheffield Wednesday and at Doncaster Rovers,” says Jones, recounting his football journey since leaving Hibs in 2009. “When you’re playing you don’t always know exactly what the supporters are singing because you’re concentrating on the game. But I came off injured this time and Fletch [Steven Fletcher], who was on the bench, twigged first. ‘Just listen’, he said. Then Tam [McCourt] the kitman said: ‘That’s classic’. I was really chuffed and must admit I was disappointed when this other version turned up later as a TV jingle. I had to ’fess up to my sons that their dad had no more claim to the song than a butter manufacturer did.”
Here’s something else the faithful might like: their old skinnymalink central defender still replays the DVD of the 2007 League Cup triumph in the snow against Kilmarnock, often in the company of his boys Ethan and Joseph – and they always watch right to the end when, as the players celebrated their blizzard of goals with the trophy, the communal singing switched from the jokey to something altogether more moving. “Sunshine on Leith must be the best song in all of football and the rendition that day was just magnificent.” He extends his extra-long arms and adds: “I’m tingling right now just thinking about it.”
The euphemism you might use for Jones’ three years in Leith would be “eventful”. Including stand-ins, he played for five different managers, in front of as many different goalkeepers, all of whom required his protection, but with bonnie talent everywhere else on the pitch, all of it to be sold off later. Jones was there when the club were hit by what the small, funny papers called a “mutiny” and, shortly before that, when Kevin Thomson was stripped of the captaincy. Of course he was because he was the immediate beneficiary, skippering his men to Hampden glory, becoming only the third in green and white to hoist serious silverware there, with Hibs’ two Scottish Cups both being won at other locations. He was vital to the team overcoming St Johnstone in a Tynecastle semi-final and also scored the winner in a cup-tie against Hearts, so he’s the ideal fellow with whom to have a chat, given Hibs’ challenges over the next eight days.
Now 36, Jones is under-21s coach at Division One Doncaster. We meet in the town of Yarm, situated on the Tees, dominated by a 43-arch viaduct, once home to the founder of Methodism but these days the base for an Iron Maiden guitarist and a good number of football folk. Mostly giant centre-halves it seems: the last time I was here, calling on Gordon McQueen, the Tartan Army hero pointed out Gary Pallister’s favourite coffee shop. Now I’m in Jones’s where, only the other day, he was with Tony Mowbray who brought him to Hibs.
This is Jones’ heartland and I can understand why he and his wife Laura have drifted back here, its friendliness typified by my train journey from his birthplace in nearby Thornaby during which the guard delivered his announcements in verse (“Any passengers for Allens West?/Take all your belongings, that’d be best”). It’s also something of an old Hibees retreat these days, for as well as Mowbray, Fletch and Murph – David Murphy – both live nearby and Jones keeps up with all of them. What could that team have achieved if they’d stayed together? “I know,” he says, “football’s full of ‘What ifs?’ There was a bit of an exodus with too many leaving around the same time. The club had to completely rebuild but now under Alan Stubbs they’re looking good again, I think.”
Mowbray was only Jones’ manager for three months before departing for West Bromwich Albion. Enter, with a vital League Cup (then the CIS) derby upcoming, John Collins. Nicknamed Jonah, he smiles as he remembers his jousts with Hearts. “I lived out in Midlothian during my time with Hibs, in a place called Rosewell that I didn’t know was Jambo country! My neighbours either side were Hearts fans and there was another round the corner. But they were good guys – proper football supporters.
“The derbies were always special – you could taste the atmosphere. Before one of them, it was all everyone wanted to talk about in the street, the shops, the garage – and the same afterwards. My very first, a 2-2 draw, I only just made it after being injured. Colin McLelland, our physio, worked really hard to get me fit. ‘You need to play in this, Jonah’, he said. The Hearts boys knew I’d been touch-and-go. Laryea Kingston was a bit naughty and tried to thump me. I liked a fight in games and he got just as much back.”
Jones scored the only goal to win the all-capital quarter-final, to add to one in the previous round against Gretna and would finish that campaign with nine, an excellent return. “We were magnificent that night, it was a really powerful performance. That was a great team – look how many went on to play in Europe and the English Premier.” Then he mentions two who did neither, Guillaume Beuzelin and Scott Brown: “The cool Frenchman and the crazy Scotsman. Boozy had the best first touch of anyone I’ve seen – outrageous. He’d do something amazing with the ball and I’d be like: ‘How’s he even thought of that?’ Broony was a lunatic, always involved in mischief, but every club needs one of them. He had an infectious personality and just wanted to play football all the time. What an engine he had – I thought I was fit but in tests could never get near him. Broony was the complete midfielder.”
The semi-final was a far trickier affair. Then second-tier, St Johnstone mounted a stirring comeback and could have won it in regulation time, but Hibs just had too many goals in them back then. Jones runs through the scorers: “Fletch had everything; we all knew he was going to become a top, top striker. Murph was the best full-back I’ve played with – and then there was Benji [Abdesallam Benjelloun]. He was a strange one: a very talented boy but sometimes he would look disinterested. He obviously observed Ramadan but that didn’t help him, at least not as a footballer.”
Did Jones think Hibs might lose the semi? “No, I’ve never got worried during games.” What, not even when, last match of 2012-13 and last minute, Rovers were bound for the Championship but then rivals Brentford got a penalty? “I had a funny feeling their guy would miss. The ball struck the bar and we raced straight upfield and scored.”
Jones is still playing for Doncaster, but only just, having endured a bad spate of injuries, with a dose of concussion only the most recent of them and a plate in his cheek only one piece of metal in a body that almost seems half-robot. “My worst injury was a bit freakish. I elongated my neck heading the ball in a warm-up and immediately lost all feeling down my left side. The pain was terrible. I’d popped a disc which had to be removed. Coming round from the anaesthetic, more pain, I thought: ‘Give it up, Rob’. But the doctors inserted this little cage where the disc had been and filled it with bone shavings and, well, I’m hanging in there. Listen, I know I’m going to have to stop playing soon though maybe someone has to tell you to quit. But here’s the funny thing,” adds a footballer forever listed as 6ft 7in, “I think through the treatment I’ve actually grown a bit more.”
Jones is almost certainly the only footballer to have played for both John Collins and John Hollins and the latter’s part in his career, as caretaker boss of Stockport County, was not insignificant. A teenage centre-forward learning his trade at York City, Jones quit the game in the huff after being shunted to left-back and became a teacher. It was as a part-timer with Gateshead that Hollins spotted him, enticing him back to the pro-ranks.
Jones taught PE to special-needs children at a Stockton primary for four years. I want to congratulate him for his contribution to society but he just shrugs. “It was an exceptional job, very rewarding. I started out teaching kids in wheelchairs swimming and just seeing them being free in the pool was wonderful. But I still desperately wanted to be a footballer.”
Certainly when he got another chance he grabbed it. Did he, because of the valuable work he’d just been doing, have an enhanced appreciation of his good fortune? You get the impression the lofty Jones has always been a grounded individual. But he wishes more among the current generation of budding young footballers realised their splendid luck and made the absolute most of it.
“It’s a bugbear of mine they’re so cosseted,” he says. “The system for player-development has created this bubble for them so it’s not really their fault. They’re spared the chores I had to do, like mucking out dressing-rooms and cleaning boots. They’re treated like footballers when, really, they can’t yet claim to be. The ones who really frustrate me sign their first forms and then wait for the money. Why, when you’ve got all the ability, don’t you want to exploit it to the full? When I meet the new intakes at Doncaster I tell them that if they’re in football for the cars, the girls, the houses and the watches, then they’ll fail.
“I tell them how fortunate they are, not having to do a proper job, and why I became a footballer, which was because, right from being a tiny kid, I dreamed of scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final. That didn’t quite happen but I scored the first goal in the Scottish League Cup final and I couldn’t be more proud. I was the first Englishman to lift a trophy with Hibs and, so I’ve been told, the only slaphead to win a cup at Hampden besides Zinedine Zidane!”
Stockport, Macclesfield Town and Grimsby Town. Then later, Scunny, his beloved Owls of Sheffield and currently the Donny Vikings. The journey from player to manager for Jones, captain everywhere he’s been, will surely be aided by him having experienced more glaur than glitter during his postings, and he must have learned too from Easter Road when it was in training-ground turmoil.
When I ask about the bust-up during Collins’ reign it’s the only time he wavers. “What can I say? There was a difference of opinion between the manager and some of the players. These things happen.” The row, climaxing in a deputation to supremo Rod Petrie’s house the night Collins made a flying visit to his old Monaco stamping-ground, is supposed to have centred on the intensity of his methods. In myth, Collins, whose upper body was his temple as a player, is reckoned to have challenged his charges to beat his sit-ups record once too often.
“I never saw him do that,” laughs Jones. “Listen, I think John tried to influence the players in a positive way. He tried to make the group do as he’d done in his life. He was teetotal, had an incredible career, was still very fit when he was our manager and I bet that’s still the case. Hibs had so many good players, so many special ones, and he tried to say: ‘If you live your life this way you’ll do well’. Maybe that could have been explained a bit better.
“The training under John became more demanding – more scientific as well. Some of the players weren’t ready for that. We’d just won a cup and they didn’t understand why it had to change.” History shows that a few weeks later Hibs didn’t go on and win another, being knocked out of the Scottish Cup in the semis by Dunfermline. “I don’t think the dispute was to blame for that defeat,” says Jones, “but with the benefit of hindsight we’d all have dealt with it differently, John included.”
Certainly, the fall-out doesn’t mar memories of Hibs for Jones. “That was a special time at a special club and it made me as a player.” He thinks back to the morning of the triumph: “I opened the curtains in our hotel, saw all the snow on the ground and wondered: ‘Is our final even on?’ ” For his goal, a mere 6ft 7in was too much for Killie. “Colin Nish was marking me at the corner. I looked in his eyes and thought: ‘I’ve got you here’. The party back at Easter Road continued until Mr Petrie said: ‘That’s enough’. So we moved on to a nightclub and didn’t come out of there until seven o’clock the next morning. Still drunk, I remembered I had to go for an operation on my big toe.”
So say Jones becomes the manager he wants to be – could he see himself back doing the job at Hibs one day? “You never know in football,” he says. “But that was a fantastic chapter in my life and I don’t think it’ll ever close.”