Dario Gradi's record breaking reign as manager of Crewe Alexandra Football Club is perhaps best recognisable for the amount of talented young players to have emerged through the clubs youth system to play at a higher level. Rob Jones is arguably where it all started;the first of the Gradi era to leave the Alex's youth set up for big money, and the first Alex youth player to represent England.
Born in Wrexham in 1971, Rob signed professionally with Crewe Alexandra in 1988 as a 17-year-old having graduated through the School of Excellence and YTS schemes at Gresty Road. He made his Alex debut on 09 April of that year in a 3-1 home victory over Darlington, starting what was to become an impressive career with the Railwaymen.
The following season Jones, having established himself in the right back position, helped Dario Gradi's side to third place in the old Fourth Division and promotion for the first time in many years. He stepped up to play in the Third Division with ease the following season, helping the Railwaymen finish comfortably in mid-table, and began to attract the scouts to Gresty Road.
With his performances for the Alex, and with England at various youth levels, having selected them ahead of Wales whom he had played schoolboy football for as a youngster, continuing to remain of a high standard, Jones was only at the club for the opening two months of the 1990/91 season when Graeme Souness splashed out 300,000 pounds to take him to Liverpool.
Jones had played twice against the Merseyside giants just one year previously, when the Alex were mauled 9-2 on aggregate in the League Cup, but now he was part of Souness' Anfield revolution and for many was the outstanding signing of the Scotsman's era.
The move was a dream come true for the young Jones, whose grandfather Bill was a former Anfield hero having made 278 appearances for the Reds between 1946-54, and within days of arriving he was thrown into the side to make his high profile debut. After signing on 04 October 1991, his first game in the top flight arrived just two days later in a televised game against Manchester United, at Old Trafford marking Red Devils wonder-kid Ryan Giggs!
At the end of the 90 minutes, having marked Giggs out of the game in a 0-0 draw, it was clear that Souness had signed a gem of a player who had been originally uncovered by Gradi. He adapted to top flight football with apparent ease and within four months of swapping Gresty Road for Anfield he was wearing the Three Lions of England after being called up to the squad by Graham Taylor to face France at Wembley. Jones made his England debut in February 1992, alongside Alan Shearer, whilst another ex-Alex legend Geoff Thomas played his last game for his country that day as Taylor's side ran out 2-0 winners.
Jones returned to Gresty Road in January 1992 and received a superb reception from the Alex faithful as his new club won 4-0 in an FA Cup Third Round tie, and he ended his first season at Anfield by lifting the trophy itself as part of the Reds starting line up which defeated Sunderland 2-0 in the final at Wembley.
Unfortunately an injury during the summer denied Jones the chance to travel with the England squad to the European Championships in Sweden, and his country missed him as they failed to leave the group stages.
After playing twice for England Under-21's the following season he played for the senior side again in September 1993 in a 3-0 World Cup Qualifying win over Poland in Katowice but was consistently overlooked by Taylor in favour of Gary Neville and played no further part as England failed to Qualify for USA '94. He won six more caps, all coming in friendly Internationals, the last coming against Uruguay at Wembley in March 1995.
At club level however, Rob continued to impress the Anfield faithful, establish himself at right back and right wing back under Souness over the next few seasons and played at left back following the arrival of Jason McAteer in the Roy Evans era.
He collected a League Cup Winners medal in 1995 in a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers at Wembley and was at the twin towers again the following season as the Reds were defeated 0-1 against Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.
Unfortunately after that final doctors diagnosed Jones with a cracked vertebrae in his spine which required complete rest. He made just 5 appearances in the 1996/97 season and 27 the following season. Unfortunately, Rob's promising career was cut short in September 1999 by a knee injury. He had undergone four operations on the problem and was released by Liverpool after failing to prove his fitness.
In total Jones made 243 appearances for the Reds and, despite being loved on Anfield, was made famous for not scoring a single goal during that period.
West Ham United took him on for a pre-season trial in 1999 and he made one Intertoto Cup appearance for the Hammers that summer before more injury woe meant that a deal never materialised and Jones announced his retirement aged just 27.
He never returned to the game in either non-league or in management, although he did spend a spell training with the Alex back in 2002.
The fact his career was cut short by injury was devastating for Jones, Liverpool and England but he enjoyed a superb career after his move to Anfield and is remembered by Alex fans as the first genuine 'Gradi youth product' to make it big.
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