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Discovering Dean Smith was super for Stan

Walsall | Sport | Published:

Without Stan Jones, things might have turned out very differently for Walsall manager Dean Smith.

Dean Smith as a player for Walsall.

The man who will lead out the Saddlers at Wembley on Saturday was 15-years-old and looking for a break in the game.

He arrived at Rushall Manor School in the summer of 1986, to take part in the first of a series of trials organised by the Saddlers.

Jones, a former defender who made more than 500 appearances for both Walsall and Albion, was in charge.

From the start, he could see there was potential in Smith. "There was something there you couldn't ignore," he said.

"It was the first session we had put on since Tommy Coakley became manager, because the schoolboy training had been stopped by Ken Wheldon and we needed a way to find young players.

"Dean was there with his dad, played on the first night and I told him to come back the next.

"I remember giving Tommy a call and suggesting he have him down at the ground for pre-season training."

There was one significant alteration Jones would make to Smith's game in the meantime.

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"When he first arrived, he fancied himself as a bit of a midfielder but I didn't think he had the build for it," explained Jones.

"Once I put him in the back four it looked much more like his natural position. That was the start of it for him at the club."

Smith would go on to be Saddlers captain at the age of 21 and make more than 600 appearances at centre-back, in a career which lasted nearly two decades.

But he was not the only famous name to benefit from Jones' eye for talent.

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Stan Jones poses for a team picture during his own playing days.

Smith's assistant, Richard O'Kelly, came through the club's youth team which Jones oversaw, along with Craig Shakespeare, David Preece and David Kelly.

With a business in sports merchandise after retiring as a player, Jones was responsible for looking also after the club's reserve team on Saturday mornings.

"You could take young players as far as Nottingham or Mansfield and then get them back to watch the first team play at three," he recalls.

"They would stand in the tunnel, which I always felt was a great grounding for them in the game."

Jones' approach to running the reserves, or the youth team, was not about winning matches but developing players.

"I told Alan Buckley, when he was manager, that as long as I was running the reserve team I didn't care about winning the Central League, or anything like that," he says.

"My job, as far as I was concerned, was to be in a position at some point in the season where I had two players he couldn't afford to leave out of the first team."

Stan Collymore, though he would never go on to appear for the Saddlers first team, was another player uncovered during the successful Rushall Manor trials.

Jones would then leave the club through work commitments in 1987, explaining: "They moved the reserve games from Saturday mornings to midweek, which was no good for me.

He remains in close contact with Smith and O'Kelly, visits the training ground a couple of times and several matches at the Banks's Stadium.

And of course, he will be at Wembley. "I'm getting the coach at 9am on Sunday," he says. "It will be a great day out for Walsall and I hope it will be a good match.

"Bristol City are an outstanding side and I think we will have to be at our best - though in a final, that is what all the players want to be.

"If things go right then it could come down to small margins. It would be wonderful for Dean and Richard if they were able to pull it off."

And after picking out Smith on a playing field nearly 30 years ago, Jones will have played his part.

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