DAVE Jones is still revered at Stockport County, more than 10 years after he left for the bright lights of the Premiership, having taken the club through the most exhilarating, exhausting, memorable season in their history.
For any County fan old enough to remember it, 1996/97 was a season never to be forgotten. There was an incredible run to the last four of the League Cup, during which they knocked out three top-flight sides – Blackburn, West Ham and Southampton – and also beat Middlesbrough in the away leg of their semi-final.
It was all topped off with promotion from the Second Division, finally secured, after much nailbiting, on a late April Monday night at Chesterfield, in their 66th match of a marathon season.
And yet, if the legend is to be believed, Jones very nearly didn’t make it through the first couple of months of that season. County didn’t win any of their first six league games at the start of 1996/97, and there were rumours that chairman Brendan Elwood was thinking of sacking Jones when they finally chalked up their first victory, against Plymouth. The rest is history.
And yet Jones’ managerial career since then hasn’t touched the heights that looked achievable when he left Edgeley Park for Southampton 11 years ago. For that, Jones can perhaps feel a little unlucky.
He could certainly feel disappointed at the way his reign at The Dell ended, over a criminal court case in which he would be completely exonerated. Having then taken charge at Wolves and lifted them into the Premiership, he lost his job a few months after relegation from the top flight, not given the chance to try to get them back up. To add insult to injury, in both instances, he was replaced by Glenn Hoddle.
Jones pitched up at Cardiff in 2005, and that’s where he has been ever since. But even here, things have not run smoothly. Last season, Cardiff topped the Championship until late November, only to fall away spectacularly to finish 13th after picking up two points from their final nine matches.
So when the Bluebirds were hovering rather close to the relegation zone three months into this season, the rumblings against Jones started to grow. After all, he had brought in a trio of big names in Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Robbie Fowler and Trevor Sinclair. Bigger things had been expected. It must have taken him all the way back to those nervy days of August and September 1996 at Edgeley Park.
If so, he has responded in the same way. Cardiff have slowly climbed into the top half of the Championship. And although promotion is loking a long shot after costly league defeats against Stoke and Norwich, a repeat of the cup heroics of his Stockport days is looking a more sensible bet.
Last night’s final match: Cardiff 2 Wolves 0
Commentator: Ian Gwyn Hughes
Cardiff progressed to the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1927 yesterday. And to make it all the sweeter for Jones, it came against the club which sacked him in 2004.
There’s nothing to choose between Cardiff and Wolves, really; both mid-table in the Championship, both on 44 points, both capable of causing an upset against a middle-ranking Premier League club. Both would have seen this tie as winnable.
Cardiff won it with two goals in the first 10 minutes; the first a clinical finish by Peter Whittingham, the second a stroke of genius from Hasselbaink. First he sidestepped his marker with an outrageous dummy, then curled an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
Jones is not the sort of manager to get over-excited. For a man who has had so many highs and lows during his managerial career, he maintains a remarkably level demeanour.
Wolves boss Mick McCarthy was rather less willing to contain himself, though.
“Apparently some of the fans on the terraces were singing to the lads at the warm-down that they were a disgrace and the performance was poor and I have to say I’m not going to disagree with that,” McCarthy said.
“We haven’t had a worse performance than that all season. I was embarrased by that today and I’ve said that to the players.”
As for Jones, he may yet get another crack at cup glory. No one who remembers him at Stockport would begrudge him that.
1. Derby: 8 (Gubba difference: +1)
2=. Wigan: 6 (GD: +1)
2=. Fulham: 6 (GD: +1)
4. Birmingham: 6 (GD: 0)
5. Reading: 5 (GD: +1)
6. Bolton: 4 (GD: +1)
7. West Ham: 4 (GD: 0)
8. Gubba: 3
9=. Aston Villa: 3 (GD: 0)
9=. Chelsea: 3 (GD: 0)
11. Portsmouth: 2 (GD: +1)
12=. Sunderland: 2 (GD: 0)
12=. Millwall: 2 (GD: 0)
12=. Walsall: 2 (GD: 0)
15=. Everton: 1
15=. Middlesbrough: 1
15=. Newcastle: 1
15=. Cardiff: 1
15=. Wolves: 1
15=. Bury: 1
15=. Workington: 1
15=. Huddersfield: 1
15=. Grimsby: 1
(NB. Where teams are level, positions are decided by Gubba Difference; the number of times a team is on Match of the Day last with Tony Gubba commentating.)