Football: Buoyant Jones

Stephen Brenkley talks to an ambitious manager taking stock of his career
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The Independent Online
History is already recording the Nineties as the era of Manchester United. Their achievements, indisputably, have been mountainous but in the foothills below them, and surely worthy of a mention in the footnotes, stand Stockport County.

Edgeley Park is 12 miles and a couple of light years away from Old Trafford but in a more modest, understated fashion County have been nearly as enduring in this decade. Having won promotion from Division Four as the Nineties began they have since played at Wembley four times - twice in play-off finals, twice in the Autoglass Shield - and reached the play-off semi- final on another occasion.

Stockport have sustained the momentum. With a team rebuilt almost entirely from the successful one of five years ago, they are on the threshold of their greatest triumph. This week they will play Middlesbrough in the first leg of the Coca Cup semi-final having already dispatched other Premiership opposition in Blackburn Rovers, West Ham and Southampton. A fifth and most prestigious Wembley appearance awaits (though just in case they have also reached the northern semi-final of the Autoglass again and are on the verge of a play-off position in Division Two).

"Without underestimating Middlesbrough I think we can beat them," said County's manager Dave Jones. "I certainly don't say we haven't got anything to lose. Believe me we've got an awful lot to lose. We're not just turning up to enjoy the occasion. We're professionals and professionals don't do that."

Jones has been with the club since the year they came up, following non- league managerial posts at Southport, Mossley and Morecambe. He went to Stockport as youth coach, became first team coach and two years ago took over from Danny Bergara. "It wasn't particularly planned that way," he said last week, reflecting on an apprenticeship he now appreciates. "If a top club had come in for me as a coach when I had to retire from playing I'd have been there like a shot. They didn't so I had to take another route.

"But there's no doubt it works, if you're ever ready to be a manager. Look at the Premiership now, at managers like Joe Kinnear, Joe Royle, Brian Little, men who've learned at smaller clubs. I know there are the Kenny Dalglishes as well but when he took over at Liverpool he had a tremendous backroom staff. In other countries you've got to learn your trade before you can ply it."

Any Premiership chairman in need of experience, devotion and the baggage of success can probably take that as a job application. While Jones wants to take Stockport as far as possible he has also admitted his ambition. He is not under contract. "I want to be at the top. I want to take Stockport as high as I can but with the best will in the world there's got to be a limit."

Jones, 40, is a chirpy Liverpudlian who spent the first three seasons of his career as an Everton defender. Some of his time at Goodison Park was under Gordon Lee when the Academy of Science seemed to be going up in smoke but Jones was still imbued with Evertonian traditions. Stockport have won justified plaudits for their sturdy will and often elegant way this season and are unlikely to be deterred by a couple of fancy Brazilians and an Italian.