1 July ~ Gary Jones was 33 when he finally helped Rochdale win promotion from League Two in the 2009-10 season. Just like the club he captains, and for which he’s appeared more times than any other player, he had spent almost his entire professional career in the lowest tier of the Football League. Now this archetypal hard-man – tough-tackling and even tougher-looking – had a chance to end his career amongst the "big boys" in League One.
The final chapter of Jones’s career was supposed to be pretty straightforward. With Rochdale expected to struggle to survive at this level, on low crowds and a miniscule budget, Dale’s shaven-headed skipper would eventually lose his place in midfield to a younger man, maybe taking on a coaching role in Keith Hill’s backroom team. However, somebody obviously forgot to give Jones the script.
Primarily tasked with breaking up opposition attacks and protecting his back four, match reports would typically describe Jones as "combative" or "committed". I can vaguely remember him crossing the halfway line in the past, but only when it was absolutely necessary. Suddenly, encouraged to play a more advanced role, Jones was transformed. Regularly popping up in the opposing penalty area, taking potshots at goal from all angles, he became a veritable goal machine.
Statistics don’t always tell the whole story – but in this case they do a pretty good job. Jones scored 17 league goals (plus two at Birmingham in the League Cup). That’s more than a quarter of his team’s total for the season. It’s also roughly a goal every two-and-a-half games – pretty remarkable when you consider that his previous record, over more than 400 League appearances, was a paltry one in eight. Admittedly it included a few penalties, but this ever-present, top-scoring performance made a huge contribution to Rochdale’s unexpected ninth-place finish. No surprise that Jones swept the board at the end of season awards.
This was all so different to Jones’s previous experience of football outside the bottom division. In November 2001 he followed Rochdale manager Steve Parkin to Barnsley and played 25 games as the Yorkshire club were relegated from what is now the Championship. Another poor season followed, Parkin lost his job and by the end of 2003 Jones was back at Spotland, initially on loan. Nothing there to indicate what would happen when he got another chance at League One level.
The highlight of last season – for the player and probably the team as a whole – came quite early on, with the trip to St Mary’s in September. Admittedly Southampton were in some turmoil at the time, having just decided to dispense with the services of Alan Pardew. Yet it was still a marvellous and unexpected 2-0 win, capped by a long-distance goal that Jones later described as “the best I’ve ever struck”. This was the game that seemed to prove that Rochdale (and their captain) belonged at this level – and they never looked back.
Out of contract this summer, with several offers apparently received from other clubs and another manager off to Barnsley, it seemed that we may have seen the last of Gary Jones at Spotland. New manager Steve Eyre was, however, quick to spot his importance to the side and popularity with the fans, immediately signing Jones to a new two-year deal. It remains to be seen if Dale’s style of play or Jones’s role will change again under Eyre, but fans will be desperately hoping that his goals continue to flow. With no striker managing double figures last season, continued survival in League One probably depends on it. David Emanuel