Matthew Jones was a Premier League teenager with the world at his feet. He packed a lot into six years, but a career-ending back injury brought desperation, depression, uncertainty, but finally fulfilment through coaching. Newly appointed in charge of Wales U18s, he tells Owen Morgan about growing up, growing wise, and a growing reputation.
Matthew Jones was being touted as a future Welsh football captain from the time he first ran on a field.
The exciting Llanelli prospect had skippered his country at every age group up to senior level.
Such was his natural instinct to lead, when he replaced Wales captain and Leeds United team-mate Gary Speed to earn his first senior cap as a substitute in October 1999, the teenager automatically reached for the skipper’s armband.
“In my senior debut up at Wrexham against Switzerland, I came on and replaced Speeds,” recalls Jones with a smile.
“He was coming off and pulling his armband off and I genuinely went to go grab it off him! Chris Coleman was running up saying ‘what the hell are you playing at?’
“But I didn’t think any different. I genuinely felt I could do it. I’d done it the evening before against Switzerland for the under- 21s. Mark Hughes took me off at half time, I thought I’d done something wrong but he was like, ‘I want you with the first team tomorrow’.
“So, I was in game mode – I thought, ‘I’m representing my country, I’m taking the armband’! It was quite comical really.”
Jones doesn’t mean to name drop in relating the anecdote, but those involved illustrate the kind of inspirational Welsh leaders he was surrounded by during his formative playing days.
A career-ending back injury meant Jones never fulfilled his dream of captaining Wales, but those natural leadership qualities and early influences will now be utilised again in the national cause.
Jones has taken over as manager of Wales’ new Under-18 age group team.
It’s difficult to think of a man more suited to the role given his experiences as a young player.
The combative but skilful midfielder enjoyed the dizzying highs of making his Premier League debut as an 18-year-old, and the devastating lows of being told his career was over by the time he was 24.
Jones sees his new role as a chance to share his experiences with Wales’ next crop of emerging stars as well as an opportunity to continue some unfinished business with the national team.
Speaking from his home in the Swiss Valley area of Llanelli, Jones’s passion for the game and his country burns as brightly as during his playing days.
It’s a passion he hopes to nurture within his young charges, alongside some good old fashioned values he picked up during his formative years when he had to grow up fast as a player.
“Dreams are everything when you are a young player,” says Jones. “Running around the streets of Morfa, which is and was a deprived area of Llanelli, I had values.
“I had principles instilled in me from my grandfather who was an absolute gentleman and taught me the basics of life – to acknowledge someone, to speak to them, to have confidence in yourself, so those people skills gave me the opportunities from day one.
“But my real passion, where I had excitement and a smile on my face, was on the grass. I was a terrier, right from a young age, from six, seven, eight, I’d go sliding in tackling people and that went through my career.
“I was always known as being very tenacious, really good at breaking up play but also contributing in terms of my passing ability. I described myself as an animal, something different when I crossed that white line, but I also knew the importance of being a gentleman off it.”
Jones relishes the challenge of communicating those values to Wales’ emerging Dragons.
“It’s hard sometimes, because when you are active in the game you can show that passion and you do it through effort, you do it through action,” says the former Welsh Young Player of the Year.
“When you’re off it, it’s really hard to describe how you really feel, and that for me has been an important part of my progression of how to express that to young players.
“How to show that patriotism, how I feel about my country and how they should be feeling representing the badge.
“It’s an opportunity for me to represent my country again. I thought the next opportunity would be in the vets when I’m over 40 and I get invited to play and put the shirt back on!”
Jones’ footballing talent was spotted at a young age by former Leeds United goalkeeper Glan Letheren, who also hailed from Llanelli.
Letheren recommended the youngster to the Elland Road outfit. A 14-year-old Jones waved goodbye to his parents at the town’s railway station and headed for Yorkshire to join the club which had won the Premier League just a few seasons before.
Within three years, having won the league and FA Youth Cup in the academy team, Jones made his Premier League debut against Aston Villa in February 1999.
The teenager lined up alongside the likes of Speed, who would become a great friend, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who Jones set up for the winning goal.
But almost as quickly as he burst onto the scene, serious knee and back injuries meant Jones’ top flight playing career was over by 2004 after some 50 first team appearances for Leeds and Leicester City and 13 caps for Wales.
During that time, Jones took the field against the likes of Brazil’s Rivaldo and Cafu as well as Portugal’s Luis Figo while representing his country. He also played in Europe as well as the Premier League at club level.
The journey back from those peaks to the crushing disappointment of being told your dreams of being a top international footballer are over hasn’t been an easy one for Jones.
But he wants to use the experience as a positive and another learning tool when it comes to developing young players.
Commenting on his career-ending back injury, Jones says: “That was the most heartbreaking experience ever – I went through a couple of real low years of depression after that as well.
“But for me, it then became more of a success story because I had an opportunity.”
That opportunity was a chance to return to his home town and pull his boots on again at Stebonheath Park club while also working through his coaching badges.
“The surgeon told me after two operations, you won’t play football again – you certainly won’t play at the level you played,” recalls Jones.
“But having that chance to come back to my home town club Llanelli – I was going through my coaching badges at that time and heavily involved in the media – a big focus of mine was proving someone wrong.
“And the person I needed to prove wrong was the surgeon, because he was the one who kept telling me ‘you will never play football again’.
“So to actually put my boots back on and play for Llanelli, it was a massive moment for me.
“Regardless of what I’d experienced and where I’d played . . . your Barcelonas and against Brazil for Wales, actually playing for Llanelli was a monumental moment in my life because it was that sense of achievement.
“So for young players now, and I don’t necessarily go into the detail of that story, it shows anything is possible. And you have got to have a purpose and a reason.
“For me, it was proving him wrong. That year we won the league, the league cup and just missed out in the Welsh Cup final.
“It was then time for me to hang my boots back up and think ‘I’ve had my success, there you go’. We even qualified for European status as well which was unheard of, so it was definitely a moment that stayed with me and will forever.”
Jones’ experience isn’t limited to what he achieved on the pitch. Before taking up his new role he coached at Swansea City’s successful academy where he worked with FIFA Under-17 World Cup-winning coach Steve Cooper.
Jones also has previous experience within the Wales age-grade set up with the Under-16 Victory Shield squad.
“I had a taste of it over an 18-month period when I worked closely with Richie Williams and he has nurtured me superbly well,” says Jones.
“It’s been a really good process to allow me to find my feet and to see how things work on and off the pitch.
“I see this as an opportunity to shine and showcase what my strengths are and what I’m about, regardless of my previous success and what I had done in the game because I think that is an important part of when you are a coach.
“I had worked with those coaches previously where they relied hugely on ‘what I’ve done’. Players quickly get fed up of hearing about you and what you’ve done and why.
“I think there is an art of explaining to young players, still utilising your experience, but doing it in a clever way that is non-egotistical, so you are not coming across as the big ‘I am’.
“It’s more subtle stories, dropping in there, to show through experience. A lot of mine has been highs, but I’ve also experienced so many lows as well.”
Despite being offered a spot on the coaching staff with Leicester after his retirement, Jones was keen to earn his stripes by working his way up through the ranks rather than walking straight into a job.
“I wanted to start with the younger generations, just to build my confidence because I knew that I had to learn a new trade again. It’s a different skill.
Congratulations to Matt Jones who takes charge of Wales U18 National Team 👏🏽👏🏽 pic.twitter.com/OfvPzhOurt
— 🇬🇧⚽️CoachesNetwork (@Britcoachesnet) June 6, 2020
“To actually play the game, I knew how to do that, but to go and explain it to someone is a totally different kettle of fish and that’s what I knew straight away.
“I knew how to be a really effective midfield player and I knew what I wanted from my wingers and my strikers and my centre backs etc. But it was a process where I had to identify, ‘how do I get this message across to these players and simplify it?’
“’How do I give them clarity in my explanation for it to make sense to them?’
“That’s probably the hardest part of coaching, or that’s what I certainly found at the beginning, but it has allowed me to have a platform.
“It’s like anything. You build from the foundation and you work up. It’s probably been my best advice as a coach.
“Now I find myself six or seven years down the line and I feel that I have accomplished something. I feel a lot more experienced.
“It doesn’t matter about my playing days, I feel experienced as a coach at the moment and I suppose that’s what has given me the confidence to take on this role.”
Despite the experience and qualifications he has already garnered, Jones is hungry to carry on learning.
The 39-year-old is currently working on gaining his FIFA Pro Licence through the prestigious course delivered by the Football Association of Wales, which has the likes of French legend Thierry Henry among its graduates.
Despite having to study remotely due to the coronavirus restrictions, Jones is full of praise for the course, its contributors and fellow candidates such as former Everton and Australia star Tim Cahill.
“It’s been great. I’ve had the opportunity as part of my contract with the FAW and already I’ve absolutely loved it. We’ve had numerous presenters come online.
“What we have seen over a number of years is that it has grown a reputation that is known world-wide and so many top quality players as well as managers and coaches want to get on that course.
“They want to experience the Welsh one. There is a uniqueness to it, there is certainly a warmth. We haven’t had the luxury of having that contact yet in person and that’s where you get to grasp and really get to know people when you start sharing your experiences. It’s a huge opportunity to network on the Pro Licence as well.”
However, Jones has enjoyed the opportunity to work from home, especially the chance to spend more time with his wife and four children – a rare luxury for a man who has been involved in professional football since his early teens.
But he is also excited at the prospect of getting to work with the latest batch of exciting Welsh talent rolling off the conveyor belt.
The success enjoyed by Wales on the field – combined with the close, club-type atmosphere generated off it – means the nation is holding on to more of the dual-nationality players it might have lost to the likes of England in the past.
Jones is keen to foster that sense of belonging within the young Welsh squads even further.
“During this time they can be easily swayed by outside influences, by agents, by representatives and by other nations. This is where we have lost out over the years.
“This is an important time of their careers where we need to pamper them, to look after them and to show them care and support.
“As well as that, what I am willing to add to the role is an opportunity to further develop under my wing as well.
“The fantastic thing is I am going to be getting involved in the games with an opportunity to qualify, which gives you competitive football.
“But a big part of my role is those training ground visits, going to watch them play, giving them those added little pieces of advice, treading carefully that I’m not stepping on the toes of other coaches who are working with them at their clubs.
“But, hopefully, creating a holistic environment around that player where support is coming from all angles. And if the option was to go to another nation, that player wouldn’t consider it because he feels at home being a Welsh player.”
Jones’ squad was due to kick of their qualification campaign in a new UEFA #U19EURO championship structure in October.
The tournament will incorporate UEFA Nations League-style groups in a two-season cycle. Wales are drawn in league B1 and will face Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and hosts Bulgaria.
For now though, the games are on hold and Jones is awaiting confirmation of the next step for his squad.
“What I would like to promote is the opportunity to bring them in for a training camp,” he says.
“But that all depends on whether they are back with their football clubs first. I’m just waiting for answers at the moment, really.”
Having taken his first step on the coaching ladder, does Jones have any ambitions of following the likes of Hughes, Speed and Coleman into the top job in Welsh football?
“I’ve always been someone who dreams and has targets and ambitions,” he says.
“My belief has always been that if you reach for the stars and reach as high as you can go, anywhere you fall short you will always have made an improvement during that journey.
“Coming into a new role, I think it’s baby steps initially, find my feet and get used to the role. What I have learnt within the academy is being careful of how I speak about other roles, other people’s positions and being respectful in my comments.
“I’ll focus on becoming elite within my role first before I envisage going on. What that does is constrains me to the now rather than getting too distracted by the future.
“All my efforts, initially, will be making sure that I settle into the role because it’s a good group I am taking over.
“I have already met the vast majority of the players. They are full of character. It’s taken me back to my days of playing for Wales.
“We have been lucky to have an abundance of talent and ability to come through the Welsh system but this group seems to have that connectivity, that spirit, that bond we all want to create as coaches.
“We want to create that culture which sometimes over the years has happened naturally just because that pride takes over. So it’s something I’m really looking forward to.
“And it’s about controlling the pride, controlling the emotion which I wish I’d had someone do when I was 18 or 19, because my pride sometimes took over and I got rash in my tackles.”
Having used his first cap to illustrate his instinct to lead Wales, Jones uses his last cap to illustrate how his pride and passion sometimes got the better of him and how he learnt from that.
“In my last game for Wales I got sent off against the USA purely because I was so proud in what I was doing, not thinking of the consequence even though it was a friendly out in California,” he says.
“But for me it was a case of, ‘I’m here to do my best, I’m here to represent my country’, just like every player, but it was an example of emotion out of control.
“A big part of their learning is how to manage that, how to direct your emotion and your feelings in the right manner.”
Doing things the right way is important to Matthew Jones.
The future of Wales’ new Under-18 side looks to be in good hands.