Fond memories of Cambridge City days for wing wizard Cliff Jones
Ex-Spurs and Wales winger on his career
The stories of Jamie Vardy and Conor Washington rising from the non-League ranks to international football strike a chord with fans the country over.
The step up from deep in the football pyramid to the top level is the ultimate fairy tale, the hope that dreams still exist outside of academies or unsuccessful scholarships.
It is why a rapid rise is latched upon and heralded as such, although the route has never been a huge production line, with many trotting out the same names of Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand and Stuart Pearce.
But what is far more uncommon these days is the star names appearing on the non-League scene at the other end of their careers.
The modern era brings with it the riches that mean players can stop at the top of their games, with few choosing to turn up in front of a couple of hundred in their twilight years.
Go back even two decades and this was much more of the norm and it could mean that grassroots supporters got to see some greats grace the circuit.
And Cambridge City were one such club back in the early 70s.
Cliff Jones will always be fondly remembered as one of the great wing wizards, the marauding Welshman being part of Bill Nicholson’s famous double-winning Tottenham Hotspur side of 1961.
But after making his way out of the Football League, it was far from the end as he graced many non-League venues with Wealdstone and King’s Lynn before arriving at Milton Road.
“Tommy Bickerstaff came and asked me to sign for Cambridge City,” said Jones, who is now 81.
“It was much nearer home because I was in London, so it was not much of a journey and I used to get up for the games.
“Tommy was very accommodating as well with regards to my training and left me to do it in London.
“I was there for a couple of seasons and I really enjoyed the football. They had a terrific ground and the conditions were so good that in some ways you upped your game a little bit.
“Other teams in the league saw the Cambridge ground and it really inspired them to go out and play a bit of football. It was always very competitive matches there, and I really enjoyed the Southern League.
“It was very competitive in the Southern League and a number of players who came out of League football thought they could come and swan about a bit. It was a rude awakening and some of those players got found out.
“I was pleased to say I was never found out and I had a great respect for Cambridge City and the Southern League itself.
“The only unfortunate thing for me was that I got a serious injury playing against Barnet.
“I had gone up for a corner kick and I collided, and finished up in Addenbrooke’s Hospital with a depressed fracture of the cheekbone and a broken jaw.”
Jones, whose grandson Scott Neilson went on to play 48 games for City in 2008 and 2009, remembers a couple of players in particular from his time at the Lilywhites, and admits he was always surprised that more were not given a chance to shine in the League.
“There was a wing-half called Mel Slack and there was Stan Marshall, a centre forward who would get his 20 to 30 goals every season,” said Jones.
“I don’t know why some League clubs didn’t come along and get hold of Stan. At that level of football, I saw players who were good enough to be in any League team.
“They were enjoyable days at Cambridge City, I enjoyed the football, the competitive nature of that league and the players that I played with.”
Jones is still actively involved in the game at League level again nowadays, working as an ambassador for Spurs.
And while there is currently a sparsity of wingers, Jones believes that just as the modern game has evolved so too has the position.
“I have seen a change in the game, you don’t seem to have wingers now, we seem to have attacking full-backs,” he said.
“At Tottenham, we’ve got Danny Rose and Kyle Walker and they were the most attacking people, but they are the full-backs.
“When I was playing, the full-back was a defender, they used to mark the winger and that was it. These days, they are like overlapping wingers – it is totally different.
“I always say that what defenders don’t like above anything else is someone coming at them with pace who can control the ball.
“You don’t see it so much with the forward players these days but you’re getting it from the overlapping full-backs now, in Spurs case in Danny Rose and Kyle Walker.”
With regards to the modern game, Jones offers an interesting insight into the way in which he feels the sport has developed.
He admits that he is constantly faced with the question as to how he would fare if he was currently playing.
“And I always say I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “What I do say is how would today’s footballers fare or adjust to the style of football which we played back in the 60s, which was a more physical game.
“You see the pitches that these players play on, they are absolutely fantastic. We never played on pitches like that. How would they adjust to the conditions in which we played under?
“You had good pitches, you had muddy pitches, you had frozen pitches, you had all types of pitches and you had to adjust to those conditions – how would they adjust to those conditions?
“The equipment is totally different, you see the football boot and other stuff, and I don’t think they’d be very impressed with the money either, would they? £20 a week, you’re having a laugh.
“Today’s football, yes I love watching it.
“The professional game is quicker, but I think it would be more difficult for teams playing today’s football to adjust to the style of football we played back in the 60s and conditions, and they wouldn’t be too impressed with the money either.”
Talking of the current day, Jones bristles with pride at the heroics of Wales at Euro 2016.
It was Jones’ crop of the national team that last made it to a major tournament, the World Cup in Sweden in 1958.
So he was delighted when the long wait for Wales to grace the biggest stage was finally over.
“To see Wales performing the way they did in the Euros was just terrific,” he said. “And it put to rest the spirit of 1958, when I was playing, getting to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
“Chris Coleman has done a fantastic job. He has brought a desire and commitment into the side and pulling on that Welsh shirt is very important to these players.
“And of course you’ve got Gareth Bale, he’s the helmsman if you like, and the rest off the team bounce off him.
“The average age is something like 25 and I can see them pushing on.
“They will always be a team that other teams will not like to play against because the chemistry there is very strong, with the likes of Ashley Williams and Ben Davies.”
In Jones’ own words, that progress for the current vintage put to rest the spirit of 1958, but unsurprisingly the achievements of 58 years ago remain one of his highlights.
That is particularly the case for quarter-final match against Brazil, and Jones still feels that to a certain extent fortune favoured the eventual World Cup winners.
“John Charles, who was our main man, could not play as he was injured, and if he had played it could have been a different story, we feel,” said Jones.
“We were also privileged to be on the field of play to see the emergence of possibly the greatest player the game has ever seen, Pele.
“He was 17 years of age, it was his first goal for Brazil, against Wales in the quarter-finals.
“He was just sensational, the young lad. The rest is history as they would say as to regards his career, but to see him at the very start of that was a privilege.
“You could see it [what he was capable of], you didn’t have to be a football expert to realise that it was just sensational.”
But the impression that the Welsh team made on June 19, 1958 made a lasting memory on Brazil, and meant they earned an invite to help prepare the reigning World Cup winners for the tournament in 1962.
“Strangely enough, when Brazil defended the World Cup in Chile four years later, the game they had against Wales in ‘58 was the hardest game they had and so to prepare for the World Cup in Chile, they invited Wales over to South America to play two warm-up games,” said Jones.
“One was in Sao Paulo where we got beaten 3-1, Pele got two, and the other one was in the Maracana Stadium, 130,000 people there, it was an amazing experience.
“They beat us 3-1 again and Pele got another two.
“He is 21 years of age now and he has developed physically and mentally, he was just sensational.
“That was an experience going over to Brazil and playing there. It’s a treasured memory, but I do have treasured memories of playing for Cambridge City.”
■ Jones’ autobiography It’s A Wonderful Life is available now from Vision Sports Publishing. As well as his triumphant football career for Swansea, Spurs, Fulham and King’s Lynn and the glory, glory days of the 1960s, the book covers reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup with Wales in 1958 as well as the tough times that he faced after hanging up his boots.
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More by this authorMark Taylor