Fire, faith and fastidiousness: Nathan Jones’ road to Southampton

IIt’s hard to argue that Nathan Jones doesn’t deserve the opportunity to make it in the Premier League. Towards the end of his time at Yeovil, where he spent seven years as a marauding left-back in League One, his Sundays would be spent coaching the women’s team and later, while first-team coach at Brighton, he spent a week shadowing the then England Under-21s manager Gareth Southgate in the run-up to Euro 2015. He took charge of Luton when they were 15th in League Two and last season he led to within two games of the Premier League with a modest squad assembled for less than £1.5m. On Saturday, he goes toe to toe with Jürgen Klopp at Anfield.

The common denominator when talking to those who have worked under or alongside him is that the new Southampton manager is meticulous. It’s common for him to give prospective signings in-depth pitches about the plan, where he sees them coming in and, critically, the journey he thinks they might go on. For Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, who Jones signed for Luton on loan from Leicester at the start of 2020-21, it was an hour of Wyscout clips, Venn diagrams and data in a hotel off the M1. For James Collins, it was the training ground and clips from previous matches and goals. “Going into a meeting with a manager who has so much detail about you, it just shows how much he wants to sign you,” says Collins. “He’s really enthusiastic and passionate about what he wants. I signed a few days later.”

It’s unlikely to be long before the neutral takes notice of Jones, a fiery and animated character on the sidelines who sometimes wears Band-Aids on his fingertips to prevent him from biting his nails down to the skin amid the nervous energy. Jones sometimes slept overnight at Luton’s training ground. “He’s very intense but that’s what makes him so unique,” said Collins, the Derby striker who spent four years at Luton. “He makes sure you’re primed and ready to go into the games, leaving no stone unturned. On the pitch, he kicks every ball with you. He lives and breathes his job.”

Nathan Jones celebrates Luton's win in Cardiff in April.
Nathan Jones celebrates Luton’s win in Cardiff in April. Photo: Nathan Munkley/Shutterstock

Jones, a born-again Christian, has several tattoos, including Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam across his back. He makes his players believe. Accrington winger Jordan Clark’s heat maps detailed his engine and ability to get up and down the flank in League One. Jones ran Clark through a few clips when making his sales plan, convinced that energy would allow Clark to excel in the middle, and although the player was initially uncertain, since signing on a free transfer in 2020 he has developed into a capable central midfielder in Championship. .

Southampton’s owners, Sport Republic, whose chief executive, Rasmus Ankersen, was co-director of football at Brentford when they appointed Dean Smith and Thomas Frank, have watched Jones for some years and his track record of developing players, from James Justin to Dewsbury-Hall and Jack Stacey, all now in the Premier League, was a key attraction. At Yeovil, where he became assistant manager after finishing playing, he worked with Andros Townsend, Steven Caulker, Ryan Mason and Southampton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.

Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu and Dan Potts remain at Luton from the team that were promoted from League Two in 2018. “In his first full season at Luton we reached the play-offs but lost in the semi-finals [to Blackpool, in 2017], says Joaquín Gómez, Jones’ former first-team coach at Luton and Stoke and now head coach of SJK Seinäjoki in Finland. “We watched the game back that night, tried to heal and we hurt, but very quickly the next day or two days after we met again to see what things could be better to make sure we didn’t have to go through it again. It there was a conviction that we were doing something the right way and that we had to succeed.”

Nathan Jones pictured at Southampton's stadium.
Nathan Jones, pictured at Southampton’s stadium, “wants to invest time in his playing careers”, says Joaquín Gómez, his former first-team coach at Luton. Photo: Matt Watson/Southampton FC/Getty Images

Jones has been joined by his assistants Chris Cohen, who he played with at Yeovil, and Alan Sheehan, who he managed in his first season at Luton. “He doesn’t just use his players as a tool but he cares about their own individual development,” says Gómez. “He wants to invest time in his playing careers. He shows a lot of empathy.”

Jones has had a very positive couple of years since returning to Luton towards the end of 2019-20, following his “regrets” at leaving Stoke, where he was sacked after nine months with six wins in 38 games. “We moved from a club where the environment was everything we wanted it to be because we had been there for a long time and at Stoke we tried and couldn’t make it work,” says Gómez. – As it has been proven afterwards, it is difficult to make it work. It was a learning curve for all of us… I’m sure the experience he had will help him make it even more successful. I’m sure he’s more ready for the Premier League.

Collins insists Jones is better prepared now “to deal with bigger players and personalities”. Jones, like Eddie Howe, has managed in every division of the Football League. “He has taken every step, worked every hour, every minute that he had to,” says Gómez. “He’s shown he can manage in the Championship and he’s maximized his resources very, very well. I’m sure it will take some time but I hope it works because he fully deserves it. He will be him. He’s not going to change because he’s in the Premier League. In football you have to be yourself or you’ll find out.”

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