Steve Jones proud to have played for Northern Ireland

An international debut doesn’t come much tougher than having to figure out how to get the better of Fabio Cannavaro – but that was the reality for Steve Jones.
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Jones was in the process of helping Crewe Alexandra seal promotion to England’s First Division in June 2003 when manager Dario Gradi pulled him into his office to let him know he had been selected for Northern Ireland.

After the initial shock and emotion subsided, the striker rushed to the airport to join up with his new team-mates and Jones’ first assignment was coming off the bench to replace Paul McVeigh during a friendly against Italy in Campobasso, which Sammy McIlroy’s side ultimately lost 2-0.

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If that wasn’t enough, fast forward eight days later and he was making his first start – and first appearance at Windsor Park – in a memorable draw against Spain and legendary Barcelona defender Carles Puyol.

Steve Jones in action against SpainSteve Jones in action against Spain
Steve Jones in action against Spain

“I couldn’t believe it – I was so proud and there were so many emotions,” he reflected.

“I rushed home, packed my bags and was over to Belfast to meet up with the squad.

“Just standing next to them on the pitch and trying to battle against them was unbelievable.

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“They are probably some of the best defenders ever so just to be on the pitch was amazing.

“No words can describe what you’re feeling when pulling on that green jersey and your family are in the stands watching at Windsor Park.

“You’re so full of emotion and those are the memories that you cherish.”

Cannavaro – who lifted the World Cup and won the Ballon d’Or a few years later - and Puyol weren’t the only superstars that Jones encountered while earning 29 caps for his country.

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There was an evening in November 2005 when Portugal visited Belfast and a young Cristiano Ronaldo played 68 minutes on the right wing.

“I remember standing in the tunnel looking at him and he was a machine,” recalled Jones.

“He was built with big broad shoulders and I was just thinking what an athlete he was.

“You tried to take the ball off him and you just bounced off him.

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“He was composed, made it look like he had loads of time, was skilful, quick and you thought you were near him but then he was gone. It was honestly crazy.

“It’s incredible to look at what he has done. He’s not even a human being for me – he’s out of this world.

“You could see at such a young age what he had in the locker and I knew he would prove himself to be one of the best.”

Scoring a first international goal against Saint Kitts & Nevis at Warner Park was the highlight for a player who was “more involved in playing the drums in a pipe band” than football while growing up in Londonderry and Ballymena before moving to Manchester as a teenager.

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His ability on the pitch only became apparent during PE lessons in secondary school and from there Jones has went on to play for more than 20 clubs across the United Kingdom.

“My PE teacher used to say that I was pretty good and asked me what position I played, and I said I don’t know what you mean!” he said.

“I remember playing at centre-back one day and I ran the pitch and scored and that was the end of my defending days.

“The only regret is that I didn’t start younger.

“You look at today with so many academies and there are so many doors that can be opened for you at a young age.

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“Times have changed but I would say my biggest regret is not getting into the sport younger.”

Jones, who will turn 45 later this year, is still going strong and has no intentions of hanging up his boots just yet.

He’s currently on the books of North West Counties First Division South side Sandbach United and Jones will be coming back for another season after the current one was cancelled with his club sitting third in the table.

“I’m still playing and still scoring,” he added.

“I love the game and it keeps me fit. You need one main ingredient – hunger.

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“When that fire in your belly goes then that’s it. I’ve always had it and always been determined.

“I still contribute and if there comes a day where I stop running and stop enjoying the game, then that’ll be the time to hang my boots up.

“I have a bit of speed in me still which is good and I’m still scoring which is the main thing.

“I take it by every season and see how it goes. I start pre-season and if I feel like I can’t get through pre-season that’ll probably be it.”


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