Dave Jones: They killed my father, I honestly believe it

The Wolves' manager talks of the child-abuse charges that almost wrecked his life as he pursues promotion to Premiership
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The past looms large at Molineux, venerable home of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

No sooner are you through the main entrance than you are confronted by sundry reminders of the club's glorious history, from a handsome portrait of Billy Wright, captain of Wolves and England nigh on half a century ago, to the shirt worn by Billy Harrison in the 1908 FA Cup final (Wolves 3 Newcastle United 1).

It is no wonder, therefore, that Dave Jones upset plenty of folk when he arrived as manager in January 2001, and curtly dismissed the past as irrelevant to the present.

"The past was not going to get me out of the division," he says, his Liverpudlian accent as thick as Mersey sewage. "I wanted the past put where it belongs, in a museum. Yes, keep your traditions and remember them, but don't keep dragging them up. The glory days here were a long, long time ago, and the whole club for me was dead, cold, no atmosphere. I changed all that.

Then it was a case of getting the right players in, then changing the attitude of the supporters. I felt their expectation was to fail, not succeed, and I don't like negativity around me." Jones was given a three-year contract, his goal to re-establish Wolves in the top flight for the first time since 1983-84. Able managers, among them Graham Taylor and Mark McGhee, had tried before, backed by the munificence of the club's owner, Sir Jack Hayward, and failed. Indeed, we are in Jones' Molineux office, which he shares with his mumsy secretary Dot, and Dot tells me that in 33 years at the club she has seen 16 managers come and go. "If she ever writes a book she'll have to leave the country, like Salman Rushdie," says Jones. He is blessed with a sharp, if lugubrious, Scouse wit.

He will eventually go too, but not, I fancy, until he is lured by an even bigger job. In the meantime, of course, he has not yet succeeded in this one. He is the first to say so. "The players I've bought – Kennedy, Sturridge, Cameron, Rae – have been brought in with half an eye on stabilising us in the Premiership. But let's get there first. I never stop talking to my players about the Premiership, though. It is the only place to be. I never, ever, stop talking about it."

Despite a wobble in recent weeks which has handed supremacy back to Manchester City, Wolves lie second in the First Division, 11 points clear of the play-off zone. They remain odds-on to gain automatic promotion to the Premiership, less then 15 months after Jones was set his three-year target.

If Wolves go up he will have proved a point, that, at 45, he is one of the finest managers around – "I want to be the best," he tells me. "My heroes are Sir Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish, Brian Clough. I want all that." But his managerial ability is not the most important point he has had to prove these past couple of years. He also had to prove that he was innocent of trumped-up charges of child abuse.

That is a subject I leave until I feel we have established some rapport. I don't even know whether he will wish to discuss it, although as it turns out, he hardly wishes to stop. First, though, I want to learn more about how he has taken Wolves – 12th last season – to the brink of promotion. "At the end of last season I went to a board meeting and said they had three choices. We could carry on as we were, and we'd stay mid-table. Or they could leave me alone and let me build, which would take four years. Or they could spend some money and let me have a go. They decided to spend some money."

He has spent wisely. Dean Sturridge, out of favour at Leicester City, has scored 17 goals in 19 games, not a bad return on £350,000. Jones has, moreover, overhauled the club's decrepit scouting system.

"There were four scouts here when I came," he says. "And three of them lived in the same area. It was crazy for a club of this size. So we brought in George Foster, who'd been Mansfield's manager, as chief scout. I didn't know him, but he came with a good reputation for knowing the players lower down, and he's done a fantastic job. Our scouting system now is second to none. We have 12 scouts, all laptopped, and as soon as the game is done, bang, the report goes in and I can pull it out.

"Anything to give you an advantage I'll look at. Because wherever I go around the world, looking at a player, I guarantee there will be at least 10 others there from England. And that's just England. So you need whatever advantage you can get. We cover every game. One week we cover all the First Division games, then the next week every Second Division game, then the Third, then non-League, then back to the First. Plus all reserve games in the Premiership. We know most of the players now, but it's whether a club has a young one coming through...

"We did the same at Southampton, and when I came I asked Jez [Moxey, the chief executive] if we could do it here. We get George out all over the world, and use the contacts I've made over the years with agents, scouts, friends... "When I found Marian Pahars for Southampton, it was from a good friend, [Latvia's coach] Gary Johnson. I'll go anywhere if I think there's a player.

"I've been on loads of scouting missions where there's been nothing, and people say it's a wasted trip. But a trip is never wasted, because if you don't see anything you know there's nothing there. I try to turn everything into a positive. And of course, sometimes you go to look at one lad and find someone else. That's how I found [Hassan] Kachloul." Jones was himself spotted, by an Everton scout, while playing for Woolton Boys Youth Club.

"And my career suddenly took off. It was if I went in one day and sprouted a few inches, got stronger, and somebody dropped a confidence tablet in my water. I became England youth captain with the likes of Ray Wilkins in the team, Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson, Alan Curbishley. And at 17 I was in the first team at Everton."

Jones was a clever, versatile defender, although his versatility backfired, because at Everton he was constantly shuffled around the back four. If he had settled in one position, it might have propelled him from the England Under-21s to the senior side. So, seeking to play at centre-half, he joined Coventry City.

"But I hated it there. And I picked up a bad knee injury." Does he wish he had stayed at Everton, the club he had supported from boyhood? Just think, he might have featured in Howard Kendall's all-conquering teams of the mid-1980s. "Which would have been brilliant. I was a good defender who could pass, and I look at Howard's teams... Ratcliffe, Mountfield, good defensive teams. But then I might not be on the road I'm on now."

After Coventry, Jones spent a lucrative 18 months in Hong Kong playing for Seiko, the team owned by the watch manufacturer. "We travelled all over Asia," he recalls. "Whenever anyone had a new Seiko scoreboard we had to go and open it." But his knee got worse, so he returned to England in 1984, and eked out a couple more seasons at Preston North End.

"Then they went to Astroturf and that finished me. I basically retired at 29. But I joined Southport part-time and did a bit of coaching there. They had a pretty good team, the likes of Shaun Teale and Andy Mutch. In fact I came down here with Mutchy when Wolves wanted him. The deal wasn't going through because he was looking for assurances and this and that. I said 'Mutchy, you're a carpet-fitter! Don't be looking for assurances. Just go!' "

His own career choices were less clear-cut. He wanted a full-time football job, but he had a young family and needed an income, so he applied for a job back on Merseyside, as a care worker in a school for children with educational and behavioural problems.

As we now know, it was a job that came back to haunt him. But at the time it was just a job, which he left when Stockport County offered to make him youth-team coach. He subsequently became manager, and studied his trade with uncommon diligence. The proximity of the Manchester United manager, for instance, was not an opportunity he could let pass.

"I used to visit Sir Alex, have a cup of tea with him, listen to what he had to say. He was fascinating, and never the slightest bit stand-offish." After steering Stockport from the Second Division to the First, not to mention to the fifth round of the FA Cup and the semi-final of the Worthington Cup – "to see the way they are now," he says, forlornly – Jones was given the chance he craved, to manage in the Premiership. "And I had three good years at Southampton. We built some good young players, Beattie, Pahars, Kachloul..."

Then his world caved in."We were coming back off holiday. My brother-in-law, who worked on the railways, had been hit by a train he didn't hear coming. We were on our way from Heathrow to Southampton to get gear for the funeral, and I phoned my secretary, Daphne, to see if there'd been any calls. She said a DC Curran had been on the line from Liverpool. I already knew there was an investigation [into alleged sexual abuse at the school] going on. I had signed a document saying I'd never seen or heard anything.

"Anyway, I went to the police station, the big one, in Wavertree Road, with my wife. I thought I'd only be there 10 minutes. And then they told me I'd been accused. My exact words were: 'is this some kind of joke?' I expected Jeremy Beadle to jump out. I told them they were making a big mistake, but from there it just snowballed. The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] lady thought she could earn herself a few stripes. And the police paraded me around the station as if I was a trophy. The desk sergeant was brilliant. I think he just felt embarrassed. But the others, I wouldn't pee on them if they were on fire. I'll never forgive them, or the CPS, because they took my children's innocence away. My youngster, Georgia, is only seven now, and knows nothing about it. But my son, and my two older girls, even I don't know half the things they had to endure. I would rather have been up for murder. And the police knew that I hadn't done anything. They knew. That's what hurts me most. If they and the CPS were in football, they'd be Sunday league.

"They killed my father, too. I honestly believe that. He went ill when the news broke. He was on holiday and he saw it on Sky News. They promised me they'd keep it quiet, so I could at least tell my family, but when I walked out the door the Press were all there. One of the police must have made himself 50 quid. I couldn't even tell my son, who was working in a sports shop. He heard it on the radio."

Jones was formally questioned on 15 June 1999. That November he was charged. "Then, in January, once I'd actually been charged, Rupert Lowe [the Southampton chairman] said he didn't think I could run the football club. I was go-karting with the players when he rang me. He said 'I need to see you, I want to put something to you'. He said it wasn't bad news, that he was giving me 12 months to fight the case, and Glenn Hoddle would be coming in.

"I said if that was the good news I didn't want to hear the bad. I think he genuinely thought he was doing me a favour. But football was my sanity." Later, Jones resolved never to speak to a club about a managerial position if it had a manager still in place, which I take as an implicit criticism of Hoddle, as much as of Lowe, who is "still a friend".

At the time, he must have felt as if he was being assailed from all sides. His accusers were in jail, trying to cash in the price of a decent man's reputation. And although those who knew him had no doubt about his innocence – "my mate Les Sealey, God bless him, I miss him, I wish I could have taped his phone call because he effed and jeffed, he was livid" – some of those who didn't know him weren't sure.

Meanwhile, amid the trauma, there were moments of pure comedy. Jones was persuaded to see Ray Wyre, a distinguished sexual crime consultant who had worked extensively with the police. Wyre invited him to reveal his fantasies. "I started going on about managing England, and living in a massive big mansion on the French Riviera. He stopped me after 10 minutes.

"It turned out he was after my sexual fantasies. If he'd asked for them, I would have told him, but he just said fantasies." Wyre knew Jones was no paedophile, and joined the defence team. "He's since become a very good friend," Jones says, "in fact we've turned him into a Wolves fan." But still the police and the CPS refused to drop the case.

Jones was stuck on gardening leave. He was asked to scout for several Premiership clubs, but couldn't because he was still on the Southampton payroll."That August [2000] was the first time in my football life, as player, coach, manager, league and non-League, that I hadn't kicked off the season.

"And the first day of the season was my birthday, 17 August. My wife took me paintballing that day, and I shot everybody. I even shot my own team. My friend's wife ran up behind me and I turned round and shot her. She said 'but I'm in your team'. And I shot her again. I must have gone through about 3,000 of those paint bullets. I was like a man possessed."

By now, Jones, Dot and I are laughing uproariously. The trauma continued, however. And on 1 December 2000, at Liverpool Crown Court, the case began. It was due to last three weeks. But on 5 December Jones was cleared. The case, said the judge, should never have been brought. "If the football world hadn't believed me, it would have killed me. I would never have come back. But everyone was fantastic. After I'd been charged, I walked out with Southampton against Derby County, and that was quite scary.

"I didn't know what reaction I would get. But I got a standing ovation. That will live with me for the rest of my life. And at Old Trafford, with 60,000 Mancunians there, again it was unbelievable. There was only one club where I got a torrid time, and when the time comes I'll say who. Of course there are still the doubters. That's human nature. And I don't mind talking about it because it's part of my life, and it will all rear its head again if we achieve what we're going to here. But I don't get involved in support groups. They've tried to use me as their shining light and I don't want to be their shining light. I don't know them, and I'd hate to help somebody who was guilty."

He pauses. "But there is one phrase I will never, ever use again. And that's 'no smoke without fire'."