Nathan Jones: I Can Promise Stoke Fans a Team they Can Be Proud of
It was a legitimate question and one Stoke’s board must have considered before contacting Luton, yet the way Nathan Jones responded to the idea some people may be concerned about his lack of managerial experience at a higher level, including the players he has inherited who have spent the majority of their careers in the Premier League, said everything about the Welshman’s self-belief.
“Look, there is, I wouldn’t say a concern, but an eye on that, in terms of how you would deal with the more experienced players. But players will respond to the work that you do,” says Jones, who was appointed as Gary Rowett’s successor on Wednesday. “So I might have come from League One, I might now be a Championship manager, but I believe my work is top-end. If it’s top-end, then players will respond to it. That’s the only way I would like to gain their respect.
“I will get to know them, I will man-manage them, because that’s part and parcel of my job, and it’s what I like doing. But the fundamental thing is when we go out on the training ground, they will see work that defies where I’ve come from. People will say: ‘You haven’t managed at the top level.’ But I believe if I was to put my work against top-level coaches, there would be no big gap.
Aged 45, raised in a Welsh mining community, fluent in Spanish, Jones is a fascinating character. He spent the majority of his playing career in the lower leagues and, by his own admission, is a far better coach than he ever was a footballer. “I would always see the next pass but I was never good enough to play it,” says Jones, who had spells with Southend, Yeovil and Brighton as well as a stint in Spain.
While Jones knew and accepted his limitations as a player, there is no ceiling on what he thinks he can achieve in the dugout. Ambitious and driven, there is an intensity that shines through in how he expects his teams to play – “a fast, attractive style of football based around hard work” – and in the way he talks.
Asked what message he had for Stoke’s supporters, Jones replied: “I ask them to buy into it now. Be part of the journey now. Don’t be a skeptic. Get right behind us, because they are a great group of fans. I’ve played here, I’ve had some hidings here. I’ve listened to Delilah four times in a game. I can promise you that my staff will give them a team that they can be proud of. I guarantee it.”
Jones never disappointed anyone at Luton in that respect. A club that was languishing in the bottom half of League Two when he was appointed, are second in League One three years later. Where some fans do feel let down, however, is in the manager’s decision to leave, especially at a time when the club is on course to win consecutive promotions.
Jones admitted it was an extremely difficult decision. “It’s like a marriage, it’s difficult when you break up, sometimes there can be bitterness. But I gave Luton everything. I gave them my life. I loved the club. I had opportunities to move and I never even considered it. I think I significantly improved the whole football club. I united a club.
“Now, I understand there is going to be a certain heartache. The amount of time I’ve cried from text messages that I’ve had from players … when I think about it, it makes me emotional because I had a good time there. I was married to the club. I am ambitious but I had no intention to leave and to leave them in the lurch in any way. And I think I’ve left them in a wonderful position. I hope they understand that I’ve left purely for nothing other than total progression.”
There has not been much sign of progression at Stoke of late. Relegated from the Premier League last season, Stoke invested heavily in the summer with a view to returning to the top flight at the first attempt, but find themselves in 14th place. With the league so tight, there is arguably still the opportunity to win promotion this season. “The gap isn’t sizable,” Jones adds. “It’s eight points to the play-offs.”
Whether that happens or not, Jones’s faith in the way he goes about his work, and his life in general, will be unwavering. “I believe we are on a journey, I’m on a journey, I believe it’s all God’s will, so I trust that journey,” he says. “I work hard to be the best I can be and if I can respond a little bit to God’s guidance, then it’s a good place.”
The Guardian Sport