When Steve Jones drifted away from the Showgrounds five years ago we reckoned it was just another case of a journeyman on the road to oblivion. Hed been a decent but scarcely spectacular League of Ireland player during his couple of seasons in Nicky Reids struggling Sligo Rovers team, the pinnacle of which was a first ever League Cup success for the club. His move t
By Jim Gray
When Steve Jones drifted away from the Showgrounds five years ago we reckoned it was just another case of a journeyman on the road to oblivion. He’d been a decent but scarcely spectacular League of Ireland player during his couple of seasons in Nicky Reid’s struggling Sligo Rovers team, the pinnacle of which was a first ever League Cup success for the club. His move to Bray Wanderers in 1999 hardly caused a ripple of interest.
But Steve Jones, former Sligo Rovers winger, is now an international footballer and one of the leading scorers in the fiercely competitive Nationwide League First Division, where he impressively plies his trade with Crewe Alexandra. He is also an integral part of the Lawrie Sanchez revival of Northern Ireland’s international fortunes.
O.K, so Crewe is a million miles from the glitz and glamour of the millionaire Premiership planet, but it is equal distance from the Eircom League first division, where Jones might now be operating had he opted to remain in Ireland five short years ago.
The metamorphosis from struggling Sligo Rovers winger to free-scoring international has been astonishing, and the player himself fully appreciates the enormity of the way his life has changed in recent years.
“Sligo Rovers was not the worst spell of my career, by any means”, he confides. “When I returned to England, I was playing part-time non-league football and working in a job which I hated, selling nuts and bolts”.
At 24 years of age, he must surely have thought the chance of playing professionally had passed him by, but when it’s something which you’ve dreamed about all your life you cling to that dream as long as possible.
A native of Derry, the birthplace of his mother, where he lived until he was 13 before the family moved to Manchester, Jones was a Bury reserve team player when the call came from Nicky Reid to join Sligo Rovers. The fact that a full-time contract was on offer made his mind up.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Sligo. I made a lot of friends here, and our first child, Luke, was born here. On the football side, Nicky Reid was a really good manager, who never got the credit he deserved. After all, he kept the team in the top flight and he won the League Cup. It was a fairly decent team”, he recalls.
When he returned to England, Jones signed for Chorley Town in the Unibond League, playing the last four games of the season. He then moved to Leigh RMI, a much more ambitious club, who won promotion in two successive seasons, ending up in the Conference.
With financial pressure crippling most of the lower league clubs, they now look to the Conference for emerging talent at knock-down prices. With 23 goals in his first season at Leigh and 22 the second year, Jones fitted the bill perfectly. A number of league clubs came sniffing, and Crewe, whose legendary manager, Daria Gradi, has a reputation for grooming young hopefuls, ultimately offered a contract.
“It was a big step up, to be honest. It took me quite a while to become accustomed to the rigours of full-time training, but once I settled in I felt quite at home, and the goals started to flow”.
Two successful seasons with Crewe have fuelled his ambition even further. Capped nine times by Northern Ireland, he is looking forward to an extended international career under Lawrie Sanchez, who he believes will make a big impact with the North, and is also hoping to move to a bigger club before the start of next season.
“Clubs like Derby, Reading and Preston all made offers during the last transfer window, and I have to admit I was disappointed when they were turned down.
“Crewe is a great club, but its ambitions are restricted by a lack of finance. Like all players, I want to play at a higher level, and a move to a bigger club would obviously be attractive.
“There are a few irons in the fire at present, so I’m hopeful of getting a move in the not too distant future, hopefully before the start of the new season”, Steve explains.
In recent years, he has been a regular visitor to Sligo with his wife, Lisa, and their children, Luke and Jarvis. Last week-end, they flew over to be Godparents at the Christening of little Padraig Cawley, the son of Steve’s long-time Sligo friends, Mark and Anne.
Next week, he’s off to the Caribbean for a short tour with Northern Ireland, then a family holiday, before resuming pre-season training and another leg on an incredible journey.
The nuts and bolts man has become the finished product.