The former Liverpool right-back on stifling Ryan Giggs on his debut and why he is not bitter that injury cut his career short
Whether it be Hunt or Hyypia, Barnes or Berger, Rush or Reina, there is no greater test for a Liverpool player than facing Manchester United on their own patch and for some of Brendan Rodgers' raw side it is a challenge they must prepare to tackle for the first time on Sunday afternoon.
If players such as Andre Wisdom and Raheem Sterling are looking for advice on how to cope, they could do no better than turn to Rob Jones, who a little over 21 years ago not only made his full Liverpool debut at Old Trafford but did so two days after signing for his boyhood club from Fourth Division Crewe Alexandra. Adding to the sense of fantasy, Jones went on to be named man of the match after marking an exciting 17-year-old winger called Ryan Giggs out of the game.
Indeed, such was the job Jones did on Giggs during that goalless draw in October 1991, that the Welshman took time out to pay tribute to him in Jones's recently released autobiography, Robbed, describing him as one of the best full-backs he has ever faced.
"For someone like Ryan Giggs to say that means a lot," says Jones, who like Giggs was born in Wales but raised in the north of England. "I've spoken about the United game lots of times but it still feels like a blur. I just remember getting a good few touches early on and covering Ryan whenever he knocked the ball past me. That gave me confidence and from there I grew into the game.
"The main thing I wanted to do was concentrate on stopping Ryan Giggs. He was incredible, not just at running at pace but running at pace with the ball; he went at the same speed, which is an amazing thing for a player to be able to do. The only other person I came across in my career who was able to do that was Steve McManaman."
McManaman's name crops up regularly in Robbed, the team-mate who became a close friend and subsequent shoulder to lean on after Jones was forced to retire in 1999 due to a chronic knee injury, aged 27.
His was a career that burnt brightly and quickly at club and international level – he made his England debut in a friendly against France in February 1992, four months after his impressive step up into the top flight – before being cut off in its prime. The title of his book would suggest Jones has been left feeling bitter by the entire experience but he insists this is not the case.
"I wasn't 100% sure about Robbed but went with it because that is what Liverpool fans often say whenever they bump into me – 'You were robbed of your career,'" Jones says. "But I had a great career; I got to play for the club I'd supported since I was a kid, won trophies with them and also got to play for my country. Yes, I could have achieved a lot more but there is no bitterness there."
The sincerity and warmth in Jones's voice suggests he means what he says but there is no denying that this was a player who with better fortune could have hit the heights at domestic and international level. Having broken into Crewe's first team at 16, Jones was signed by Liverpool on the back of the club's then manager, Graeme Souness, watching him play against Newcastle United on a cold Wednesday evening at Gresty Road.
The following day Jones got a call from Crewe's manager Dario Gradi telling him that Liverpool, the club his late grandfather Bill had represented immediately after the second world war, wanted to sign him for £300,000. The day after that Jones was at Anfield meeting Souness face to face.
"After signing, Graeme drove me to Melwood [Liverpool's training ground] to meet the rest of the squad and on the way he asked if I felt I could handle playing against Manchester United on the Sunday. I told him 'Of course I could,'" Jones remembers. "Liverpool had a lot of injuries in defence at the time and Graeme obviously saw something in me that he fancied and decided to take a gamble.
"Nowadays you would never see a Fourth Division player sign for Liverpool and go straight into their first team but it was rare even back then. What made it even more amazing was that I was going from being someone who cheered the team on from the Kop to suddenly playing alongside them, alongside my heroes. It felt like a dream that shouldn't have come true."
Quick, defensively astute and a threat going forward, Jones was the complete full-back and it was no surprise that following his outstanding display at Old Trafford he instantly became a mainstay of the Liverpool team during a difficult time for the club, with Souness, having replaced Kenny Dalglish as manager, struggling with the process of refreshing an all-conquering team that was reaching its end.
"I saw Graeme in Dubai last year for the first time since he was sacked [in 1994] and he admitted he would have done things differently at Liverpool," says Jones. "He knows now that he should have asked the older players for help instead of trying to move so many of them on – and that it probably wasn't a good idea making Mark Wright his captain given he'd just signed for the club.
"He tried to change things too quickly but it should be remembered that it was Graeme who brought through the likes of Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler. He was trying to build a young, exciting team and some of the football we played was great. We just weren't consistent enough."
That was a theme that continued after Roy Evans became manager, a period which saw Jones switch from right-back to left wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation. Again he excelled but by now the player's career was beginning to be blighted by injuries. He had been forced to miss out on Euro 92 due to shin splints before having to sit out Euro 96 due to a cracked vertebra.
"That was hard to take," admits Jones. "I had done well the season leading up to the tournament and Terry Venables [the then England manager] told me I was in his thoughts as far as his final squad was concerned. But I cracked my back after the '96 FA Cup Final [which Liverpool lost to Man United] and that was that. I had no chance of making it."
Jones made only eight appearances for England and, as Liverpool supporters never tire of saying, if he had stayed fit, then Gary Neville would not have won the 85 caps he ultimately achieved, a view shared by Jamie Carragher. Jones is more diplomatic in his outlook. "You can say 'if this' and 'if that' but Gary Neville was a consistent player and, whatever happened, he would have played for England many times," he says. "What's for sure is that, had I stayed fit, then Gary and I would have provided strong competition for the right-back slot, which would have only been good for the country."
It was eventually patella tendinitis, otherwise known as jumper's knee, that did for Jones, forcing him after numerous operations to call it a day shortly after a brief spell at West Ham, whom he joined after leaving Anfield. A career that promised so much ended with Jones making 243 appearances for Liverpool, winning the FA Cup and League Cup and, famously, not scoring a single goal for the club.
Life for Jones is now based around being a father to three children and running a hugely successful nursery and care-home company with his wife Sue. He remains in touch with a number of figures from his Liverpool days, in particular McManaman, who claims that he enjoyed playing with Jones at Liverpool even more than he did with Michel Salgado at Real Madrid.
"In some ways the Liverpool of today is similar to the team I played for, in that Kenny Dalglish has just left and those that remain are finding it tough to get back to the top," says Jones. "I'm confident they can get back there in the next two or three years and winning on Sunday would definitely give the players a huge boost. I'll be watching and hoping they can do just that."
To order Robbed visit www.robjonesbook.co.uk