Jones signs up as County go hunting again

Guy Hodgson talks to the motivator of Stockport, who tackle Middlesbrou gh in tonight's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final
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Anyone would think Stockport County were not ready for the big time. When they met Southampton in the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup last month, the club's souvenir shop was shut while lager had ceased to flow in the bar. The great refuge of the cock-up, technical problems, were blamed.

After waiting 114 years to progress to the latter stages of a major competition, you would have expected them to be better prepared but, with tonight's semi-final first leg against Middlesbrough looming, the prospects were not looking bright. To be in a contractual dispute with your manager on the eve of the biggest match in your history seemed not so much a technical gaffe as total crassness.

Dave Jones is not only Second Division manager of the month (for December and January) but flavour of it as well. With Oldham Athletic rumoured to be interested in tempting him to fill the vacancy at Boundary Park, it will come as a relief to the Stockport supporters, that after two years in charge at Edgeley Park without a contract, Jones finally signed a three- year deal yesterday after protracted talks with his chairman, Brendan Ellwood.

This, it is hoped, will end the uncertainty which had threatened to hinder the progress of Jones' excellent side. Skilful and keen to play the ball through the midfield rather than just hoof it in the direction of the lanky Brett Angell, they are a credit to their manager and a Second Division that is producing more than its fair share of cup shocks this season.

But even Wrexham and Chesterfield would acknowledge the greater conquests of Stockport, with wins at Blackburn and Southampton and another over West Ham at Edgeley Park. The team that Jones has built on top of the solid foundations left by Danny Bergara has produced extravagant results on meagre resources.

The club's record signing and captain, Mike Flynn, cost pounds 150,000, which is less than a month's wages for Fabrizio Ravanelli, whom he will be marking tonight. Yet if any set of giant-killers came swaggering in against Premiership leviathans with little reason to be under-estimated, it is County.

"We have shown against Blackburn, West Ham and Southampton that we can match Premiership teams," Jones said, "and we certainly won't be going out against Middlesbrough with any fear. Anyone saying we were lucky in those previous matches is talking rubbish. There was no luck in it."

There was not much fortune, either, in Jones' playing career, which halted prematurely because of injury. Now 40, he was a defender with Everton in the 1970s when the "School of Science" was going through a less academic period but he had sufficient class to win an England Under-21 cap and played in the League Cup final of 1977. He moved to Coventry City two years later and then on to Preston North End, where his League days ended in 1984 at the age of 28.

From there he took a route into management that is rarely used these days, non-League football, having spells with Morecambe, Southport and Mossley. Even when he joined Stockport as youth-team coach the season they were promoted from the old Fourth Division, 1990-91, the chances of becoming manager seemed remote.

Yet as the club's profile rose with four visits to Wembley - twice in the play-offs and twice in the Autoglass Shield - so did Jones. He became first-team coach, then assistant manager, and, when Bergara's tempestuous relationship with Elwood ended, allegedly, in fisticuffs, he took over in March 1995.

It was an unplanned path and all done without a contract, of course - "I was ready to leave Stockport if I'd got a better offer even a month before Danny left" - and one that looked likely to reach a cul-de-sac as recently as last September when Stockport had two points from six matches. Then the suspicion was that talk of "consolidation" the previous year had been to mask a decline, and Jones' job was in jeopardy.

"We had a shake-up, left a few players out," Jones said. "All I ask for is three things: ability, commitment and the right attitude; I was getting them one or two at a time, we were not putting them all together."

Some of it must have hit home because County are fifth in their division after losing just four League matches since and are also through to the northern semi-finals of the Auto Windscreens Shield.

Tonight Wembley is in sight. "No Premiership side is going to be easy, but I think we can beat them," Jones said. If they can bridge the chasm between the Second Division and the Premiership again, he might just wish he had waited a while and asked for a better deal from Ellwood. However, last night he said: "I am more than happy to stay at Stockport, and it wasn't just a matter of money.

"Obviously, you are going to have speculation if a contract remains unsigned, but there was just a minor detail to sort out, and it has been." For that, everyone at Edgeley Park should be most grateful.