Alex put the case for the defence

Alex Jones  Former PNE Player
Alex Jones Former PNE Player
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It’s more than 20 years since Alex Jones pulled on a Preston North End jersey, but his name still lives long in the memory.

Well, for one particular fan in Bamber Bridge it does.

Every year a Christmas card will drop through Jones’ front door at his home near Bolton from a Lilywhites supporter, who used to idolise him in the late 1980s.

Jones said: “I still receive a Christmas card from a North End supporter called Martin Evans, who lives in Bamber Bridge.

“It’s literally the first Christmas card I receive every year.

“It’s really nice of him.

“He always used to stand outside the main entrance to the ground.

“In his card he always writes, ‘From your number one fan’.

“It’s the only link I have with Preston now.”

Jones certainly made an impression in his time at the club, which lasted a little over three years.

In fact, he is the subject of a famous anecdote which still makes North End fans chuckle to this day.

Signed by the late John McGrath in the summer of 1986, the legendary manager earmarked Jones as the man to play alongside fellow centre-backs Sam Allardyce and Bob Atkins in a three-man sweeper-style defensive system.

The Allardyce, Jones and Atkins combination provided the bedrock to a successful season for the club as they swept to promotion from the old Fourth Division in Jones’ first season.

It also prompted McGrath to nickname his defensive trio – ‘the Solicitors’, because he said the three names when put together sounded like a firm of lawyers.

Jones laughs when he recounts the story.

“He used to call us the Solicitors,” he said.

“I am not too sure when he first came out with it exactly, but it was probably half-way through the season and we were doing well.

“Our names were probably getting mentioned a lot, and to be fair, it does sound like a firm of solicitors when you say it.”

While Jones talks without any hint of legal jargon, he does speak with eloquence and authority when it comes to football matters – in particular the great time he spent as a North Ender. Signed from Oldham Athletic at the age of 21, Jones joined when the club was at rock bottom.

The season before it had been forced to go cap in hand to the Football League to apply for re-election after finishing second from bottom in the Fourth Division.

However, former Bury, Newcastle and Southampton defender McGrath swept into town as the club’s new manager.

He made a whole raft of changes to the playing staff, bringing in a mixture of youth and experience.

Jones was an ever-present throughout that first season as the club stormed to promotion.

Said Jones: “When I came to sign for Preston, they were at their lowest ebb.

“I remember on the day I signed somebody had written on the doors at Deepdale, ‘You were once proud Preston’.

“I think they had had the worst disciplinary record the season before.

“They had to apply for re-election to stay in the league.

“So when I signed they really were at their lowest ebb, but I could see that they were a big club with a lot of potential.

“To be fair, I think John McGrath did a tremendous job.

“He had the team very well organised, everybody knew their job and his motivational skills were superb.

“Don’t get me wrong, he had a temper and he let you know when he wasn’t happy.

“But he used to make you feel 10ft tall when you went out on to the pitch – just with the way he spoke to you.

“He used to shake your hand – grip your hand before you went out.

“But I think where he was clever, he kept some of the players, like Gary Brazil and Bob Atkins, who hadn’t done a great deal previously, and they turned out to be wonderful players.

“Gary Brazil was outstanding that season we won promotion and Bob was as well.

“He was a very good manager, very under-rated in my view.

“I have nothing but respect for him, God bless him.

“We had our fall-outs and arguments but that’s just part and parcel of a football dressing room.

“I know all the lads had nothing but respect for him.

“He was ahead of his time in many ways. He had us playing the sweeper system with wing-backs pushing on. Most teams at the time were playing 4-4-2.

“He encouraged us to play good football.

“He was just a big character.

“Some of his teamtalks were unbelievable.

“He would have you in stitches a hour before a game.

“I think during that season we went from November to March unbeaten.

“The season after we got to the Sherpa Van Trophy semi-finals and then the season after that we got to the play-offs.

“Obviously Preston were on the verge of getting to the Premier League under David Moyes a few years back, but I really do believe that John McGrath was the instigator of Preston’s rise back to where they belong.”

North End clinched promotion that season with a 2-1 victory over Orient at Brisbane Road – a match which Jones remembers vividly.

“Les Chapman scored the winning goal,” he said.

“I remember all the lads jumping and diving on Les.

“Les was player/assistant manager and he was like a buffer between the manager and the players.

“Another game which sticks out in the memory was when we played Northampton, who were top of the league, on a Friday night.

“There were 17/18,000 on Deepdale that night and we won 1-0.

“But that season we had an incredible dressing room.

“I remember Frank Worthington saying in all the years he had been involved in football, that dressing room was the best he had ever been involved in.

“It was full of characters, strong characters.

“There were no big-time Charlies, everyone was down to Earth.

“It was a privilege to play with people like Frank Worthington.

“All Frank ever wanted to do was play five-a-side in training.

“People had this perception of him being eccentric, but he was a dedicated pro – you don’t play until you’re 40 if you’re anything but.”

Jones’ first season at the club coincided with Deepdale laying down its plastic pitch.

“I played in the very first league match on the plastic pitch at Deepdale,” Jones recalls.

“I was a fan of it to begin with. I was used to playing on a plastic pitch because funnily enough the junior team I used to play for – a team called Jubilee, in Newton Heath, north Manchester – used to play on a plastic pitch.

“I was always quite comfortable on the ball so it did not really bother me playing on a plastic pitch.

“The plastic suited your game if you were comfortable on the ball.”

The young centre back also learned a lot playing alongside Allardyce, who was coming towards the end of his football career.

Big Sam has, of course, gone on to become a hugely successful manager and Jones admits he detected signs of managerial ability in Allardyce back then.

“I played alongside Big Sam and that was a great learning experience,” he said.

“You could always see he was a leader and I am sure he learned a lot from the managers he played under.

“Sam left just before me at Preston, but he was doing his coaching badges and you could see that was a road he was going to go down.

“He’s had a tremendous career as a manager. Fair play to him, he’s done brilliant.”

One of the most disappointing moments in Jones’ career was when he missed out on playing at Wembley during his second season at Deepdale.

The team had reached Northern Area final of the Sherpa Van Trophy and were within reach of the Twin Towers.

Drawn against neighbours Burnley, who at the time were still languishing in the Fourth Division, Preston had seemingly done all the hard work by drawing 0-0 at Turf Moor in the first leg.

But, despite being hot favourites to progress to the final where they would have met Wolves, the Clarets shocked North End by earning a 3-1 victory.

Said Jones: “We did the hard job at Burnley by drawing 0-0 and I think everybody thought it was a formality and we would beat them in the home leg.

“It ended up 1-1 after 90 minutes and they beat us in extra-time.

“They went to Wembley and played Wolves in front of 80,000 fans.

“It would have been nice to have played at Wembley.”

Missing out on playing at the home of football is not the only disappointment Jones has from his time at Preston.

His departure from the club at the start of the 1989/90 season is something he looks back on with regret

“When I left I was bit naive,” he said. “I actually asked to leave.

“I had a young family at the time and, at the end, the plastic pitch was taking its toll on me.

“I had a few niggling injuries with my back and thigh strains.

“Football back then wasn’t paid as it is now and I just thought I would see if there was any interest.

“The fans turned on me a little bit because I had asked to leave.

“I ended up signing for Carlisle and, if I look back with the benefit of hind sight, it was a big, big mistake.

“I should have stayed at Preston. I got better wages at Carlisle and when you’re young, sometimes you don’t think straight.

“For me, my time at Preston was the most enjoyable period of my career and when I look back, I wish I had never left.”

After Carlisle, Jones signed for Rochdale, but only spent six months at Spotland before Motherwell swooped and took him to the Scottish Premier League for £40,000.

Appearances at Ibrox and Parkhead followed before Rochdale re-signed him for £30,000.

Jones spent two seasons there before slipping into the semi-professional game where he enjoyed spells at Halifax and Stalybridge Celtic.

He added: “I think I had a half-decent career, but I always feel I should have done better.

“I feel like I never quite fulfilled my potential.

“But I still think I had a career that a lot of people would love to have.”

After his playing career finished, Jones moved into coaching and worked at Bury as reserve team coach.

For the past decade, he worked as an fund-raiser for an epilepsy charity before the recent cuts saw him get laid off. He currently works for a car dealership in Bolton as a driver.

Jones admits he still keeps a close eye on North End’s results and spends lot of his time with his five-year-old grandson Matthew.

“I’m a granddad now,” he said. “I have two daughters, Stephanie who is 23, and Alexandra who is 20.

“The year I got promoted in 1987 with Preston, I got married to my wife Helen in the summer. We celebrate our silver wedding next year. So it was a really good year for me in 1987.”