As world football turns to Red Square, there is an Englishman from Blue Star plotting an assault on Russia.
Not Gareth Southgate. Or Steve Holland for that matter. But Graeme Jones, a Geordie at the heart of Belgium’s multi-national coaching team with Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry.
They are unbeaten in 15 games, scoring 53 goals since the Martinez era began with defeat by Spain.
Graeme Jones is part of Belgium’s coaching team with Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry
The 47-year-old Belgium coach is plotting an assault on the 2018 World Cup in Russia
With players such as Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, they boast one of the strongest squads at the World Cup and go in with the top seeds in today’s draw at the Kremlin.
Jones, in fact, may well represent England’s best hope of returning from Moscow with the golden trophy in his grasp.
‘It will all become clearer after the draw and a little bit more real,’ says the 47-year-old. ‘It will give us a thirst for what’s coming and we can start to analyse opponents and plan our friendlies and I’m looking forward to that process.’
All of which marks a personal triumph for someone who has grafted his way up from non-League. Jones was released at 18 after an apprenticeship at Millwall, where he cleaned boots for Teddy Sheringham and was educated by Tony Cascarino and Terry Hurlock. Back on Tyneside, he joined Newcastle Blue Star, a famous amateur team in the North East for 79 years until it was wound-up in 2009.
He worked with his father, Ray, lagging pipes with insulation and sheet-metal in the factories, docks and refineries and there were shifts as a postman.
Jones may represent England’s best hope of returning from Moscow with the golden trophy
Jones is working with one of the strongest squads in international football at the moment
‘It was a great lesson,’ says Jones. ‘I realised I didn’t want to be a sheet-metal worker or a postman or a lagger and the only way was football or education.’
At 20, Jones lost his mother, Rita, to cancer and realised it was time to get serious about his football.
‘There was a defining moment, when Dad kept me at it,’ he says. ‘I’d put on weight and wasn’t going in any particular direction but he made me promise to train every night. He always thought I had enough ability to do something. It was a huge shock losing my Mam. She’d always looked out for me and I knew I’d have to start looking after myself. That gave me maturity I didn’t have at Millwall.’
Jones scored goals for Blue Star, North Shields and Bridlington Town, playing at all three clubs under manager Colin Richardson, a legend of the North East’s amateur football circuit. He helped Bridlington win the FA Vase in 1993, and when their controversial chairman Ken Richardson left the seaside club to buy Doncaster, he returned to pay £10,000 for the centre forward.
‘Ken believed in getting an advantage over anyone, even if it’s one per cent he’d take it,’ says Jones. ‘He was controversial but you take many things from many people and I took things from Ken. He was a big influence on me.’
Jones speaks to Chelsea striker Michy Bathsuayi and Henry while on duty with Belgium
Jones speaks to former Arsenal and France striker Henry and Belgium boss Martinez
Wigan, wealthy and ambitious after Dave Whelan’s takeover, paid £150,000 for Jones in 1996 and he scored 31 goals, taking the Golden Boot as they won Division Three, then the fourth tier.
Jones and Martinez struck up a friendship when they paired up for stretching exercises in pre-season. ‘There was an instant connection between a guy from Catalonia and a guy from Newcastle,’ he recalls.
‘We became good friends and, on the pitch, he had a forward pass and he’d pick me out. He made a lot of goals for me that season. Twenty-one years later and we’re still together.’
His first coaching role came at Hamilton Academical but Martinez appointed Jones as his assistant when he became Swansea manager in 2007.
From south Wales they returned to Wigan, winning the FA Cup in 2013, and moved to Everton before taking over at Belgium. ‘Wigan was our football home,’ says Jones. ‘We stayed up for three years on the trot and hardly spent any money. We were relegated because we tried to win the FA Cup.
Jones describes Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne as ‘intelligent and thoughtful’
Jones insists Chelsea winger Eden Hazard is a ‘pure talent and gets you off your seat’
‘We could have been like other managers who decide to go out at the first opportunity but we actually achieved something. We got 36 points and won an FA Cup and that wasn’t easy at a club like Wigan. I’m proud of that season.’
Jones has rejected managerial offers but will make that step when the time feels right. ‘I’m about to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and go to the World Cup. I can’t look beyond that,’ he says.
Belgium hope this will be their year to make a big impact. Jones says: ‘We had a golden generation in England and this is the golden generation in Belgium, a group of players who are fully aware they are at the now-or-never stage.’
Hazard and De Bruyne will carry much of the expectation.
‘They are two exceptional talents,’ he added. ‘One’s a passer and one’s a dribbler. Kevin sees things, makes passes. He’s intelligent and thoughtful. Eden is pure talent and gets you off your seat. He knows his own mind and can be a bit of a cheeky chappie but he’s never disrespectful.’
Jones admits that striker Romelu Lukaku wants to ‘perfect’ things he is already good at
There is a close bond with Romelu Lukaku nurtured during their time together at Everton.
‘Rom is obsessed,’ said Jones. ‘Things he’s good at he wants to perfect and things he’s not so good at he’s prepared to work at.
‘At the last camp I said, “I’ve been watching you and there’s a couple of things I’d like to work on” and he wants to do it. As a coach, you want to work with players of that ilk.’
Jones believes this golden generation of Belgian footballers is a product of the country’s Pro League where talented youngsters are exposed to serious football at the right time, reminding him of his early playing days.
‘Non-League was the making of me,’ he says. ‘It was tough but I was used to winning and nothing else. I’m grateful to the game, really. I’ve worked hard and I could easily have missed the boat.’
From Blue Star to Red Square without looking back.