Two phone calls, almost exactly 12 months apart, redefined the career of Paul Jones. One year ago he was heading north to fulfil a boyhood dream to become Liverpool's goalkeeper. Yesterday the 37-year-old made the same journey to try to prevent the team he loves reaching the Carling Cup final. And all this for a man who has become frustratingly accustomed to occupying the bench rather than the penalty area.
Jones will be in goal for Watford tonight and will be there for the return match in two weeks' time at Vicarage Road. But if, somehow, the Championship side make it through to the final next month he may well have returned to the reserves at Wolverhampton Wanderers. His loan spell runs out straight after the second leg and there is no guarantee of an extension.
"Hopefully, Watford will get me a ticket so I can see it," Jones jokes at the prospect of missing out on a major final for the third time. That would be cruel but the Welsh international admits there is "every chance" it could happen. "I know that anyway, so it's not a problem," he says. "I've come here to help the club, as well as help myself get a few games. If that includes getting to a Carling Cup final then great."
His loan to Watford came about after an injury to 22-year-old Richard Lee. With Alec Chamberlain now 40, and more usually a coach, the Watford manager, Ray Lewington, called Jones. "It was the chance for me to get away from Wolves, with not being involved there," Jones explains. He has kept two clean sheets in four games - but Wolves prevented him from playing in the FA Cup against Fulham - and Jones professes to bewilderment at being discarded at Molineux.
"It's frustrating," he says. "We drew six, lost two, won two. So it wasn't a horrendous start to the season. But managers have to make those decisions - they live and die by them - and unfortunately Dave [Jones] got sacked a couple of weeks later."
It was Jones who took him to Wolves from Southampton last January for £250,000 in a two-and-a-half-year deal, having also managed him at Stockport County, where the pair lost out in the last four of the 1997 League Cup. There is no animosity but Paul Jones adds, "I felt hard done by, to be honest". He also struggles to comprehend the expectation at Wolves, especially as he joined in the throes of a dismal relegation battle. "Obviously it didn't work out for both parties, in terms of staying in the Premier League," says Jones who, by making that move, became the first player to appear for three top-flight teams in one season.
What did work out was achieving his dream. Jones confirms he stalled on moving to Wolves to play just two games for Liverpool. "I couldn't turn down the chance to go to a club like that," Jones says. Even though it was only a short-term loan?
"I would have regretted it for the rest of my life, even if it was just for the month," Jones says. "I really felt that strongly about. I supported them as a kid and played there a few times against them but to actually put on the shirt ... I went there to enjoy it and knew that it may be only one game. I knew Jerzy [Dudek] only had a slight pull on his groin so it might have been a week or three weeks. As it was it was just over a week or so and I played two games. We beat Villa 1-0 and I kept a clean sheet and I did OK at Tottenham, even though we lost."
As an opponent he had mixed experiences of Anfield - his first in 1998 ended in a Southampton victory, his second an astonishing 7-1 defeat. "Liverpool are a team capable of doing that," Jones says. Playing for Liverpool was an "absolutely awesome" experience. "I was a kid in the 70s when they were obviously successful," he says. Memories are vivid of "listening to the radio for the European Cup games". Jones, the young fan, never got to see Liverpool live. "We weren't from the wealthiest of families," says the former farm worker from north Wales, which also divides between the red of Liverpool and blue of Everton.
His heroes were the usual: Keegan, Toshack, Dalglish. "I wasn't into goalkeeping when I was young," he says. "I was a striker or centre-half. It wasn't until I was 16 or 17 and then it was Neville Southall who I looked up to, with him being Welsh as well. I know he was a Blue but that was the time I got into goalkeeping."
It was Southall and Everton, of course, who broke Watford hearts the last time they reached a major final - the FA Cup in 1984. That's something Jones, also, has done. Two years ago he kept goal for Southampton when they beat Watford in the semi-finals - only then to be dropped for Antti Niemi in the final. He came on when the Finn got injured but the experience convinced Jones that, after almost six years and 300 games, his future lay away from St Mary's.
"That was a big blow," he admits of not playing, "along with Wales not qualifying for Euro 2004 it's probably the worst it's got. I had played eight of 10 League games and the semi-final in between and I was playing very well. But Gordon Strachan [the then manager] made that decision to put Antti back in when he hadn't played for maybe six weeks and it was very frustrating. He broke down and that gave me half an hour, which was great, but it's not quite the same."
Watford have progressed since that semi-final especially as the Cup run helped stabilise them after the financial disasters of Gianluca Vialli's reign and ITV Digital's collapse. Debts of £15m have shrunk to £4m and the League Cup, in which they have already beaten Southampton and Portsmouth, has provided another £1m. For Jones, also, the motivation is clear. "It's been so near yet so far," he reflects. "I haven't had a bad career but it would just be nice to kick on and get something like that - a major competition or a winner's medal."Reuse content