Big interview: Rob Jones on Hibs job, RIASA coaching ambitions and Donald Park

Rob Jones
Rob Jones
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Few Hibs fans would have been surprised to learn that Rob Jones’ name was among the 100 or so who applied to become head coach at Easter Road following Neil Lennon’s shock departure.

He is, after all, an iconic figure, the club captain who threw his 6ft 7in frame through the flurries of snow engulfing Hampden to head home the opening goal in that 5-1 CIS Insurance League Cup final triumph over Kilmarnock almost 12 years ago.

But, the 39-year-old has revealed, he was never in the running for a job which went to former Barnsley and Leeds United boss Paul Heckingbottom, content for the time being at least to be head coach at the Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy.

“To be truthful, it was unknown to me,” admitted Jones when it was suggested few on this side of the border would ever have heard of RIASA.

“When I finally decided I was going to retire from playing I was planning to have a year off, spend time with my wife and children and on the golf course.

“Then this dropped onto my lap, a very interesting project.”

Situated on the outskirts of Leeds, RIASA offers international students aged between 18 and 22 the chance to combine studies with paying football across an intense four-year course with Jones currently overseeing 94 youngsters from a total of 21 different nationalities, but primarily American.

Jones said: “It’s been around for nearly ten years, it has grown and done really well. It allows the youngsters to come over to do a degree alongside a professional football environment and it’s big plus factor for them and their parents to know they can come over here and be coached by proper coaches.

“It’s a different way of doing things, a different way of life. I had to start all over again and it took me seven to nine months to get it to where I wanted it to be.

“Now it is moving along as I want. It’s a great environment to work in for me personally, to learn, to teach myself how to do things, how things should be done, working on things for when if, inevitably or eventually, the phone rings and I move in to a different environment.”

That, of course, is an oblique reference to perhaps one day becoming the manager of a club, Jones having enjoyed a 14-year career despite not entering professional football until the age of 23, but nevertheless playing for Stockport, Grimsby, Hibs, Scunthorpe, Sheffield Wednesday, Doncaster Rovers and Hartlepool before hanging up his boots.

It was at Doncaster where he got his first taste of management, where he twice took charge following the sackings of Dean Saunders and then Paul Dickov.

Even so, insisted Jones, now is too soon to contemplate such a post. He said: “There’s always going to be a connection between me and Hibs. I go up from time to time and it’s the first result I look for on a Saturday afternoon.

“But I am still learning, I have some badges to do. A head coach needs to have a Pro Licence as does an assistant, so from that point of view I have to make sure everything is in order.

“That needs to be done sooner rather than later. It’s difficult, I am just incredibly busy but it’s something I want to do, something I have to do. It’s a case of not finding time but making time for it.”

Under Jones’ guidance RIASA has been transformed into an academy at which many English league clubs cast an envious eye but while the youngsters who come out of it with a degree that’s recognised both here and in the United States, it has steered some into the professional game itself.

Nakhi Wells is possibly the best known, the Bermuda-born player helping Huddersfield win promotion to the Premier League before making a £5million move to Burnley, although he is now on a season-long loan to Queens Park Rangers.

But only recently Omar Damba signed a three year deal with Sheffield Wednesday while, revealed Jones, three of his boys – a goalkeeper, a centre-forward and a midfielder – all had trials with Falkirk.

He said: “We’ve got 94 boys so it can sometimes be difficult when you have 60 on the one pitch, being a manager with perhaps 25 players one or two pitches would be much simpler, but it’s my way of understanding and getting used to what each individual wants.”

An academy it may be, but there’s plenty of “work experience” for Jones’ charges. He said: “I took them up to Hibs about three months ago to play the Under 20s, giving them the chance to sample the training ground, giving them an understanding of the professional environment, a bit more experience.

“And in ten days time we are going to Finland to play some games. They’ve been around looking at different places and had some great experiences.”

If the youngsters are learning then so, too, is Jones who revealed that former Hibs coach Donald Park, who has mentored him through his coaching badges thus far, remains ever willing to help.

He said: “It’s nice to go up the road and pick Donald’s brains, he’s someone who is helping me get to where I want to be, his experience is vital. He’s someone who has been there and done it.”

If not directly involved in Hibs’ latest search for a manager, Jones, naturally took a close interest – not least because close friend Robbie Stockdale became new boss Paul Heckingbottom’s assistant.

He said: “I don’t know Paul, although he obviously did well at Barnsley and not so well at Leeds – but these things happen in football. But Robbie and I go back a long, long way. I’ve known him since we were 11 or 12, travelling to Nottingham Forest together. We used to play against each other when we were young. Robbie is a very good coach, very enthusiastic about football and the coaching side of it.”