Defender has established himself as a regular
Darren Jones has featured in 13 out of 15 games since signing for AFC Wimbledon in January and the experienced defender says that joining the Dons has reignited a career that turned sour at Shrewsbury.
For those who may have missed it, the in-depth interview with Darren that featured in the Bristol Rovers programme is reproduced below.
Darren (pictured receiving the congratulations of his team-mates after his last-gasp equaliser at Burton) was left battered and bruised by a nasty challenge at Mansfield recently, but there’s no stopping the tough defender from getting back out there and making the most of a career that almost hit the buffers.
Now one of the senior players at AFC Wimbledon, the 30-year-old defender is certainly not one of those footballers who would ever take his career for granted. The defender admits that he learned from his mistakes the hard way as a young footballer after a spell in prison for assault that cut short his stint with hometown club Newport County.
“I went down the wrong path when I was living back in Newport,” said Darren. “It was an experience, and you learn from it. It made me stronger and it made me want to play football again. I’m here today, 10 years down the line, and I’m still playing. I was part-time at Newport, and the things that happened stopped me playing for a while.
“I was lucky to get straight back into full-time football after that with Forest Green. The club went full-time the season before I joined in 2006, and had just built a new stadium. They were geared to being professional and I had a good time there.
“There’s a lot of talent in non-league and I think that’s sometimes underestimated. Luton Town are a massive club to be at that level for so long and Cambridge United are a big club. The Conference is a tough league and most of the teams in it now are full-time. I think the big difference between non league and the Football League is more to do with the day-to-day running of clubs.”
Having developed as a player in non-league, Darren was fully aware of the AFC Wimbledon story when he joined the Dons in January, and he’s determined to reignite a career that turned sour at Shrewsbury. After being frozen out at the League One club, Darren wasted no time making his move to Wimbledon a reality – and he certainly hasn’t regretted it.
“I remember Wimbledon getting into the Conference, and it’s a great achievement to come so far after what happened to the club. Once I knew of Wimbledon’s interest I knocked on the door at Shrewsbury and said I wanted to leave. I’ve loved it here since I joined. I’m still adapting to the way that we play, because for the first eight games I was playing on the right of a back three. I hadn’t played at right-back for 10 years, so it was a bit of a shock!
“But the manager here is first-class. I don’t think I’ve had as good a manager in my career in terms of how he deals with the players. He’s brilliant at talking to us. He understands us because he’s a young manager. And he understands the other things away from football too, such as family considerations, and I think that’s important. Once some managers get to a certain age they seem to forget what it was like when they were playing.
“I knew my time was up at Shrewsbury. I’d had such a good first season there and was nominated for a Player of the Year award. But I suffered a shoulder injury towards the end of that season, and when I was trying to get back to fitness I never featured in pre-season matches. As an experienced professional footballer, you realise if you’re not going to be given a chance to get fit in games, then something isn’t right. But then a centre-back got injured, so I played the first 10 games of the season and did really well. However, I was dropped again when he got fit and I knew I was on the way out.
“It was difficult leaving Shrewsbury because I got married there and one of my children was born when I was there, but you have to go and play where you will get an opportunity.”
Darren certainly made the most of his opportunity when he scored a dramatic equalising goal at Burton Albion last month in the seventh minute of injury-time. Wimbledon’s results in March put some welcome provided distance from the sides in the relegation zone, but Darren believes Wimbledon’s fortunes can be about more than just survival in the near future.
“This season is about survival first and foremost. But the manager said two weeks ago that he’s got the best squad since he’s been here. It’s about building for next season. Players will leave because that’s the nature of the game. However, if we can bring in players and improve the squad then we have to be looking at the play-offs next season.
“This is a very well-run football club. We have a handful of staff, along with masseurs and a fitness coach at the training ground every day. We never had this at Shrewsbury and I think Wimbledon is one of the better clubs for this in the Football League.”
Football runs in the family for Darren. His father Stephen played the game professionally, and his uncle Glyn was a goalkeeper for Bristol Rovers and is currently Director of the successful Newport County Academy. Darren joined Bristol City as a teenager and he later went onto make five first-team appearances before leaving the club. It was at Bristol City where Darren served an apprenticeship that makes him realise how lucky he is today.
“Bristol City took me on as a YTS when I was 12 or 13 and I signed a couple of professional contracts there before leaving when I was 21. When I was a young footballer you would be scrubbing toilets out with toothbrushes and cleaning changing rooms and boot rooms. It felt like you were doing more cleaning than playing football!
“That made you enjoy football when you were actually playing it and made you tougher. It’s all changed with young kids these days. It’s completely different now because the young lads go to college these days and you don’t see them as much.”
Darren, who was brought up in a tough area of Cardiff called Maesglas, has also had spells during his career at Cheltenham Town, Hereford United and Aldershot Town, where his two seasons included playing alongside current team-mates Ross Worner, Aaron Morris and Danny Hylton.
That’s certainly helped Darren settle into the squad quickly and he’s become a regular in Neal Ardley’s starting line-up since joining in January. Darren made his debut in the 2-1 win against Exeter City in January and has started 12 out of 14 games since joining the Dons. Injuries like the one Darren suffered at Mansfield will not keep him down, and it’s fair to say that he’s still got that old-fashioned mentality of battling through the pain barrier.
“I was nearly unconscious after that challenge at Mansfield. I was a bit dazed after it, but I had the wound bandaged up and trained again on the Tuesday after. I’m ready to go again.”
It’s a never-say-die mentality that Wimbledon supporters have certainly appreciated in their players over the years.