The generational talent lost through injury – Rob Jones, the forgotten man of English football

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The generational talent lost through injury – Rob Jones, the forgotten man of English football

By Dave Prior

It was Sunday 6th October 1991and the fixture list had thrown together, at Old Trafford, Manchester United and Liverpool for their first meeting of the season. This was pre-Sky, Martin Tyler and Richard Keys, with Elton Welsby and Brian Moore running the show for ITV’s ‘The Match’ – this being their chosen live game of the week.

Anticipation was always high for this fixture, but there was an extra fizz this time, being that Manchester United were currently top of the table after a strong start to the season. The title hadn’t been won for 25 years, but there were real reasons for optimism amongst the United faithful based on the team they had assembled. Most exciting of all was 17-year-old Ryan Giggs. Memories of what certain players were when they re-invent themselves, due to age or injuries, often fade, but Giggs made a ferocious entry onto the stage in his career. He was electrifyingly fast, with great dribbling skills and an eye for goal. Lee Sharpe, so prominent for Manchester United the previous season, was very much shunted aside, such was Giggs’ initial impact.

Forty-eight hours previously, Liverpool had spent £300,00 – a relatively small amount even in 1991 – on an unknown full-back from Crewe Alexandra, Rob Jones. Graeme Souness, the manager at the time, had travelled to Gresty Road to watch another player, but Jones caught his eye and Liverpool put in a bid. Very quickly, he became a Liverpool player.

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Rob Jones had been at Crewe since 1987, having signed professional forms with them when he was 17. His Grandad, Bill Jones, had played for Liverpool between 1938 and 1954, also going on to represent England. He was also a defender, but I don’t know anything about him apart from that. I like to imagine an original version of Rob Jones, down even to the same look, but the romanticism of football is still well alive with the generational stretch. I would imagine that Graeme Souness probably had no idea of Rob Jones’ family history with the club when he caught his eye in that game. It’s a delicious touch that he was the player who caught the eye.

It seems a little hard to believe now, but Jones was put straight into the starting lineup at Old Trafford, having been playing in Division Four (League Two in today’s currency) just the previous week. The phrase ‘baptism of fire’ probably doesn’t really do this justice. Old Trafford for a Manchester United/Liverpool game is as tough as it gets for a visiting player. Added to this Manchester United’s relative position of strength and the form of Ryan Giggs, and a pool of fire probably seemed quite appealing.

The match finished 0-0. It wasn’t a great game, but it wasn’t a poor game either. The sides were evenly matched and a draw was a fair result. What caught the eye was the performance of a hitherto unknown Liverpool defender, who had been signed from Crewe just 48 hours earlier. Rob Jones had a debut to remember: he kept Giggs quiet throughout, was good on the ball, composed, and looked totally at home at the top level. Liverpool had unearthed a gem.

Jones kept his place in the side for the remainder of the season. He was called up by Graham Taylor to make his England debut in February for a Wembley win against France, before going on to win the FA Cup with Liverpool in May. All in all, it wasn’t a bad season.

It is not an unfair sleight on Graeme Souness to surmise that his transfer dealings whilst manager at Liverpool were, to be diplomatic, underwhelming. 

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Torben Piechnik and Istvan Kozma are just two names to induce grimace-based wincing with any Liverpool fans who can remember them. Better-known names, such as Julian Dicks and Nigel Clough fared a little better. So Rob Jones was a bit of a positive anomaly.

Where Souness did better was integrating some of the young talents he had at his disposal – Steve McMananaman, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp were all brought in and flourished. Jones fitted in well with this group, forming the basis for the transition of the team into the Roy Evans era.

Roy Evans, a veteran of Liverpool’s boot room, and assistant under many different managers, was clear about the way he wanted to play and the players that he wanted to be able to do this with. A switch to a 352 formation meant a wing-back role for Jones. It didn’t faze him. In fact, if anything, he flourished further; his natural talent and ease on the ball gave him more opportunities in a slightly more advanced role. Defensively, he remained strong and was an integral part of keeping the side balanced.

The following season, Jason McAteer was signed by Bolton. Ostensibly a midfielder, Evans integrated him into the team in Jones’ position – right wing-back. Jones remained too good to drop and so was switched to the left wing-back role. Undeterred, he continued to perform strongly, even whilst out of position.

Sadly, this was about the end of the line for Jones. Injuries, which had already cruelly struck to keep him out of contention for the England tournament squads in both 1992 and 1996, returned with a menace. The following season was practically a non-event in terms of playing time. An attempted return the season after also faltered, circumstances which led to Jones being sold to West Ham in 1999. Sadly (for both parties), he wasn’t able to even make one senior appearance and was forced to retire after aggravating his knee injury. He was just 27.

Liverpool have always had good right-backs. Markus Babbel, Steve Finnan, Alvaro Arbeloa, Glen Johnson and Nathaniel Clyne have all done well with the team before Trent Alexander-Arnold came along and redefined what the position meant. However, up until Trent’s arrival, Rob Jones would always have been included in my first XI for Liverpool of players I had watched since 1990. He was always a favourite of mine. And what right-back is ever a favourite of any fan? No one wants to be Gary Neville, as Jamie Carragher once wryly quipped.

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Rob Jones would’ve been a wonderful player in today’s game, where the full-backs are so key to each team. His paltry eight caps for England come nowhere near, either, in highlighting what a good player he was. Gary Neville was a fine player and fully deserving of his England caps, but I suspect they would’ve numbered a fair few less had Jones not succumbed to injury.

Rob Jones is always the first player I think of whenever the subject of underrated players comes up. I suspect it is not a label that he, nor any other player, would want. Naturally, players would want their talent and potential to be fulfilled. However, he does remain one of the best right-backs ever to play for Liverpool. Perhaps, to go along with his FA Cup and League Cup winners medals, this is not a bad legacy to have, especially with such an early injury forced curtailment of his career. Yes, it could, and should, have been so much better, but there is little he could have done about that.

And the one stat that everyone will always bring up about Rob Jones? Despite all the games he played for Liverpool down the years, mainly as part of a vibrant attacking team, there was one thing he never did. He never scored a goal…


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