Football: Jones enjoys summer break

Wales hope their fortune mirrors their keeper's.
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The Independent Online
JUST A short while ago Paul Jones thought that his only chance of seeing Italy this summer was as a holidaymaker, and quite probably while also having to accept the unwelcome prospect of a future in the First Division. That he travels today fit and ready for Wales's important European Championship fixture against the Azurri in Bologna and with his Premiership status preserved says a great deal about the recovery powers of both the goalkeeper and his club.

Jones's last experience of international football was in Switzerland in March and lasted 26 minutes, during which he was forced to fish the ball out of his net and confront the reality that excruciating back pain was urging him to withdraw. He hobbled away in considerable distress. He was taken by ambulance to the team hotel and ferried through Zurich airport the next day in a wheelchair, but nothing, it seemed, could help his season avoid this premature ending.

The slipped disc gave both club and country serious concerns. Approaching the finale of a miserable campaign and with relegation fast closing in, Southampton thought they had lost their security between the posts. Wales had a capable deputy in Mark Crossley but Jones's magnificent performance in Denmark last October was still fresh enough in the memory to remind them of his importance to their chances of qualifying for the European finals.

The implications of his misfortune spread wide, and yet at first the injury had appeared fairly innocuous. "We were warming up as normal and as I took a routine catch I felt a twinge in my back," recalled Jones this week. "Back in the dressing-room I did a few stretches and it felt OK, so I started the game, although it was soon clear that something was wrong."

Two weeks' rest did nothing to alleviate the problem and it was only when a specialist advised an epidural that Jones could begin to move again without discomfort. "It relaxed the muscles and allowed the disc to pop back in. I've been told that it's one of those things that could go at any time."

Then, with two games remaining, he returned to the Southampton side at Wimbledon, a crucial encounter, with the South Coast club having just moved out of the dreaded bottom three in the table for the first time since August. The force was with them now and a win at Selhurst Park left them only needing to beat Everton at home to complete yet another remarkable escape.

It was the first time Jones had been caught up in a relegation scrap and he does not want any repeat. "It felt like we had won the FA Cup after beating Everton, but then you tell yourself we have too many good players to be in that position."

For Wales the possibility of finding cause for similar celebration in Bologna on Saturday requires even more belief in football's pact with the illogical. Italy are clear leaders in Group One and the fact that Belarus gained an unlikely point there in March could work against Bobby Gould's team if it reminds the hosts that there is still work to be done to claim the automatic qualifying ticket.

They took an early hold on the section with a 2-0 win at Anfield in September. Jones says the teams were closer that night than the scoreline suggests and optimistically finds reasons where Wales might profit and repair the Zurich damage, when two defensive aberrations helped the Swiss dislodge them from second place.

"Obviously the Italians are a class outfit but, if we can defend properly and make life difficult, we might be able to sneak something at the other end. That would then set us up for the next game against Denmark four days later. The mood in the squad should be buoyant because, apart from myself and Mark Hughes, who ended the season with Southampton on a high, there are also the Fulham lads who lifted the Second Division championship. And, of course, Ryan Giggs will be flying after completing the treble with Manchester United."