Ex-Sheffield Wednesday keeper Paul Jones: Five-and-a-half years without league football - but I don't regret leaving Portsmouth for Norwich
King’s Lynn were deprived of a trip to Altrincham in the week following a coronavirus case in the opposition camp.
Having waited an agonising five years, three months and 27 days for his return to league football, none would have been more frustrated at the cancellation than Paul Jones.
The goalkeeper is making up for lost time after enduring a career locked in limbo since negotiating an August 2016 departure from Pompey.
At the height of his powers as a 28-year-old, Jones registered a staggering 173 consecutive appearances in all competitions, an unbroken sequence consisting of service at Pompey, Crawley and Peterborough.
In contrast, during the last five seasons he has totalled five appearances in spells at Norwich, Exeter, Fleetwood and Sheffield Wednesday – with none arriving in the league.
For a candid Jones, there are no regrets over leaving Pompey after 64 games in favour of a fresh challenge at then-Championship Norwich.
Now, for the first time since lining-up for Pompey against AFC Wimbledon in April 2016, he’s savouring regular league action.
And it’s National League side King’s Lynn who have been the unlikely resuscitator.
‘I was always told to never expect anything after the age of 30 in football, it can stop at any point,’ Jones told The News.
‘Looking back, I had just turned 30 when I left Pompey. You can say I then lost my way a bit after that, but it happens in football.
‘Every year ticks by, you are a year older, there is always someone younger, possibly cheaper, and they have a resale value which managers want in their team.
‘I was in my early 30s, had played hundreds of games, and suddenly you’re viewed as a very experienced, very good, back-up keeper. Instead a club’s focus is on bringing through their youngsters to develop.
‘I didn’t have to leave Pompey in August 2016, I could have stayed and seen what happened, but you must go off your gut instinct in the current situation.
‘In my case, I was in the final year of my contract and could see what was coming. You’re not bringing in David Forde to sit on the bench. I wasn’t naive.
‘So what do I do? Do I sit on the bench and, when it gets to Christmas, they turn around and say you’re not going to get a new deal at the season’s end.
‘Then you ask to go out on loan that January and are told “We’ll look into it”, but it doesn’t happen because they actually need you as back up.
‘So, come the end of the season, you haven’t got a club and gone through the whole campaign without playing.
‘I knew Norwich wanted to sign me. It was a no-brainer. Although I was very reluctant to leave Pompey, it’s a short career.
‘Norwich had just come down from the Premier League. If I was going to face a challenge at Pompey to play, then I may as well have that challenge at Norwich.
‘I have no regrets over what happened next. I enjoyed it everywhere I went, apart from Fleetwood.’
Jones arrived at League Two Pompey in June 2014 on a free transfer from Crawley.
His former manager, Richie Barker, had laid the foundations while serving as Blues boss, with replacement Andy Awford keen to maintain pursuit of the then-27-year-old.
Jones received contract offers from Preston and Pompey on the same day. North End had lost in the League One play-off final the previous season and tabled a more lucrative deal – but Fratton Park was the choice.
The Blues had struggled with goalkeepers in 2013-14. John Sullivan and Phil Smith failed to impress, eventually striking third-time lucky with Bury’s Trevor Carson on loan.
With Awford subsequently initiating a summer clear-out, Jones was named number one ahead of fellow newcomer Michael Poke.
The former Exeter man would be ever-present for all 52 of Pompey’s matches as they finished a disappointing 16th in League Two.
Then, in May 2015, Paul Cook arrived as Awford’s replacement, intent on ripping up the playing squad to create a side capable of promotion.
Jones added: ‘As a player, I had recorded 173 consecutive starts, something I really prided myself on.
‘The run had started from February 2012 at Peterborough, through two Crawley seasons and then Pompey. It spanned various managers at three different clubs, so presumably they must have liked what they saw.
‘However, a new manager coming in has a different viewpoint. Paul Cook is entitled to do what he wants with a squad he inherited, but, looking back, I felt a little hard done by.
‘To me, I hadn’t done anything to lose the Pompey shirt at that particular time. The manager had a different opinion.
‘I arrived for the opening day of the season against Dagenham & Redbridge not knowing whether I would be playing.
‘Brian Murphy was given a contract the previous day, which obviously wasn’t a good sign for me. Not that anything was mentioned, Cook never pulled me to one side.
‘Leam Richardson put the team-sheet up at 1.45pm – and that’s how I found out. Murphy was playing, I was on the bench. Add to that Murphy was very late for the game, turning up about 2.15pm, but still played.
‘Coming into the stadium that afternoon, I genuinely had no idea of what was going on. It’s not great preparation for a match. If I was playing, Cook put a lot of doubt into my mind the night before.
‘Maybe he didn’t see stuff in me which he liked or thought there were better options out there which suited the way he wanted to play. It has happened to me plenty of times throughout my career – and to other players. It’s football.
‘But I don’t believe I did anything to warrant losing the shirt at that particular time.
‘What’s the point of knocking on a manager’s door? He just lies to your face. Ultimately, it’s about how you react – going out and training even harder.’
However, it wouldn’t signal the end of Jones’ first-team presence, with Cook’s goalkeeping selection proving chaotic during his maiden season as boss.
Murphy struggled to convince, making 25 appearances, while Aaron McCarey (Wolves) and Ryan Fulton (Liverpool) had spells on loan with the Blues.
Jones himself suffered knee ligament damage at Oxford United in September 2015, before being packed off on loan to former club Crawley upon Cook’s instance.
Then, in March 2016, he re-established himself in Pompey’s side having been recalled from the Broadfield Stadium following four clean sheets in eight matches.
With the Blues positioned sixth in League Two and armed with promotion aspirations, Jones started seven consecutive matches – only to sustain a quad injury while taking a goal kick at Wimbledon.
Deprived on any fit keepers, Ryan Allsop was recruited from Bournemouth on loan for the ill-fated League Two play-off semi-final against Plymouth – and Jones never played for Pompey again.
Leaving by mutual consent for Norwich in August 2016, over the next five seasons he also saw service with Exeter (loan), Fleetwood and Sheffield Wednesday, totalling five first-team appearances, all in cup competition.
Jones said: ‘I was fully aware I’d be arriving at Carrow Road as third choice.
‘John Ruddy was playing at the time, while Michael McGovern had joined off the back of a ridiculously good Euro 2016 for Northern Ireland.
‘Then there was me entering that group, coming off the back of two injuries, a loan spell at Crawley, and a bit of an indifferent season.
‘The role of a third-choice keeper at those clubs is so different. You’re almost like a training ground keeper, there to do the shooting drills and small-sided games, helping out as much as possible.
‘But it was also to compete and add value to the goalkeeping department, which was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
‘Towards the end of that first season they pulled me about extending my deal because I’d done well. Then, as it goes in football, the manager Alex Neil got the sack and a new boss overhauled the squad.
‘I get so frustrated when I don’t play, I feel I don’t have any purpose. You go into training Monday to Friday knowing you’re not going to be involved on the Saturday, it’s very difficult.
‘Come Christmas 2017, I was getting very fidgety. I wanted to play, my contract was up that summer, but was also very appreciative of where I was.
‘I had the choice of Stevenage and Exeter on loan for the rest of the season. I chose my old club Exeter purely because the manager and goalkeeping coach were the ones that were there previously, during enjoyable promotion times.
‘I probably should have gone to Stevenage. Looking back, returning to Exeter was a mistake. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but I shouldn’t have done it.
‘At Exeter, Christy Pym was having a bit of a rough patch and if that continued I would be in. Then he turned it around and ended up player of the season. I never played.
‘I moved to Fleetwood for a year, but struggled being away from the family. You can’t take kids out of school and get your missus to give up the job she’s done for years to move them up there on the basis of a 12-month contract.
‘That was a tough year for me. Probably one of the toughest in my career.’
In July, Jones returned to football at National League side King’s Lynn.
Signing a one-year deal, it was a return to the level he credits with providing his big break as a youngster, during a loan spell at Exeter from Leyton Orient in 2004-05.
Last month’s debut against Southend marked 1,944 days since his previous outing in league football – for Pompey at Wimbledon in April 2016.
And with five appearances so far for the 19th-placed Linnets, Jones is revelling being back in regular first-team football.
The 35-year-old added: ‘After leaving Sheffield Wednesday, I had a year off.
‘We had a boy born in April 2020, during the first lockdown, and I was very conscious about leaving the missus at home on her own and feeling like a single mum.
‘I received a couple of offers, a few in Scotland, but nothing was close enough to us. I didn’t want to go through my Fleetwood experience again, so was happy not to sign anywhere unless it really suited me.
‘Then my former youth-team manager at Leyton Orient, Ian Culverhouse, got in touch and asked about joining King’s Lynn.
‘It ticked a lot of boxes, particularly being close to our home just outside Norwich.
‘Not many people come back into the game after a year off, so I’m very grateful to King’s Lynn for giving me the opportunity – now I have to back that up with performances.
‘I love football, playing is enormous for me. I have never understood that desire or motivation to be happy sitting on the bench or in the stand.
‘I want to play, to be out there winning matches and keeping clean sheets. It has been hard in recent years since leaving Pompey, but I’m determined to make up for lost time.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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