While there have been seven summer signings so far for Harrogate Town, it is fair to say the acquisition of one-time Premier League striker Jon Stead was especially eye-catching. A second successive promotion last season would have seen the club reach the EFL for the first time. As it was, a quarter-final loss in the National League play-offs meant a case of ‘not just yet’ for the ambitious and rapidly-moving North Yorkshire outfit, but Simon Weaver’s side have been strengthening impressively since.
Going full-time two years ago, Town have been continuing to put the pieces in place for a future in the top four divisions of English football, bringing in a man with over 600 professional games with the signing of ex-Blackburn Rovers forward Stead. The former England Under-21 international featured in four separate Premier League seasons, and though 2019/20 will be his first in non-league, the 36-year-old is raring to get going, not shy of rolling his sleeves up, and most definitely not out to wind down yet.
You signed last month, what have your impressions of the management and the club overall been so far? It hasn’t been any easier with the pre-season intensity by the sounds of it!
No, well first impressions are fantastic. It’s a really well-run club, it’s a very close-knit club, which is nice to see. There’s a lot of people doing multiple jobs and everybody’s mucking in. The group of players as well, we all help each other out, help with washing our own kit and cleaning the changing room. Just little bits and pieces like that, which have been a big part of my career from my early days, with the YT system. We had to do everything, all the jobs and stuff, so that’s not an issue for me whatsoever. So yeah, impressions have been really good and I’m really enjoying it, but it’s up there with one of the toughest pre-seasons I’ve experienced so far. We’re only three days in, we’ve got another two double sessions and then the weekend off, then I’m sure it’ll carry on into next week.
From your conversations with Simon (Weaver) and whoever else at the club, besides the impact you can have up front, are they also looking for you to have input in terms of raising the standards of the club even further? You’ve spent all your career in the top four divisions, and the club is getting ever closer to that now of course.
I think that’s probably a big thing as well. Obviously, the experience that I’ve got, I like to think I can help players around me, the other strikers, any little tips or pointers, and obviously work together as a group to try and get better. We’ve brought in a couple of experienced lads who’ve played a lot of League football, so it’s about getting that balance right, and the one thing that I do notice straight away is how technically gifted the players are there; they’re really comfortable on the ball and I think that showed in the last couple of seasons with the way that they play their football. That’s very plain to see, even after three days of training, so I think I’ve got to add that calm head, add a little bit more quality, which we’ve done with the signings we’ve made so far, and I think we’re in touching distance. I think the club as a whole is really trying to reach out and get to that next level, and it’s nice that they’ve seen me as a part of trying to take it that next step.
You made your name at Huddersfield, got the move to Blackburn and set off superbly in the Premier League. You’ve also done well for teams like Ipswich and Bristol City, but where do you think has been the happiest spell overall?
Do you know what? There’s not many where I’ve not been that happy. I’ve enjoyed really good spells with most of the clubs I’ve been at. I had a difficult time at Sunderland, and I think that was probably the most difficult spell, coming off the back of two fantastic seasons, with Huddersfield and then going straight to Blackburn. I was on a real high and then you go to Sunderland and have a disappointing spell and it was a bit of a shock to the system. It probably took me a little while to get over that and work through it. Since then, my spells at Sheff United, Ipswich, Bristol City, all fantastic clubs, great people, and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Even looking back to Notts County, the way it finished was obviously a huge disappointment, and a lot of things went on at the club in the four years that I wasn’t expecting to happen, and stuff that came up which wasn’t in the script when I signed there, but even in those four years I had some fantastic times there and made some really strong connections with the fans, the people of Nottingham, the ground staff, the office staff. It was still a very, very good club, and I loved working there, it was just such a shame that I had to leave at a time when it was a real low point. So across my career, I think I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people, some great managers, and good staff as well.
You’ve talked before about that spell at Sunderland, and of course it was a collective struggle for the team, with Mick McCarthy working with a very limited budget for the Premier League. At the time, were you thinking a lot – ‘Why am I not scoring? Am I good enough? What can I do to change it?’ – or were you able to cope alright? Because you were still only young then as well, signing at 22.
It was a bit of a shock, because I’d come from playing regularly and scoring regularly, then gone straight to the Premier League and done the same, and then had a difficult probably last six months at Blackburn, in and out of the side and not really sure what was going on. Then the move on to Sunderland, obviously it’s a massive football city, the demands are high, 45,000 fans there every week. I don’t know. I don’t know whether it all just caught up with me a little bit; although I wasn’t disappointed with how I was playing, I just wasn’t getting the goals that were expected of me. That was the difficult bit, and then you go through the different stages of, ‘Am I doing the right things in training? Do I need to do more? Am I in the mindset where I think I’ve made it and I’m a Premier League player now, I don’t need to work as hard? Am I going out too much?’ You kind of run through everything, and it got to a point where I just felt I needed to be away from there and have a fresh start, and luckily, I jumped straight into the Premier League again with Sheffield United, and to kind of hit the ground running with them was a real sort of lifesaver for me. If I’d have gone to Sheff United and had another barren spell I don’t know how they would have reacted to that, and my career could have took a downward spiral quite quickly. To go there and score and have the backing of (Neil) Warnock, a fantastic manager, a good club and scoring regularly again, it really kick-started me off. Then the Ipswich and Bristol City spells that followed were really good for me.
You’d started off with Huddersfield but really came to everyone’s attention in that half-season at Blackburn (scoring six in his first 13, including winners against Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Fulham and Everton). Going back to that 2004 Jon, how’s he different to 2019 Jon?!
(Laughs) Well I like to think I’ve learned a lot more. I’m still nowhere near the complete player and I think you realise every year that goes past that you’re still learning. You’re still making mistakes and meeting new people. I think my hunger for it hasn’t changed. I still love going in every morning; I think that’s why I’m still playing at this age after playing for so many different clubs. I still love it, my body’s fine, so I think it was always going to be a point where I’ll stop when I’m not enjoying it, and I just really don’t think that point’s come yet. Although I might be a little bit slower, I make up for it in my appetite for football. I always give 100 percent and I think as long as you’re doing that then you always get the respect of your players and people around you.
You’ve never seemed to be one to lose sight of where you’ve come from, but having earned that status of young Premier League footballer, did you ever really bask in that? Any extravagant purchases at the time?!
Well I’ve been brought up that way (grounded) really. I don’t think my parents or the people around me, my friends who I’m still mates with now from before I even started playing football, they wouldn’t allow that. Obviously, you live to your means, don’t you? If you’ve got some good money coming in then you treat yourself now and then and the people around you. You make some purchases in your younger years, whether it’s daft watches or expensive cars, but those things come and go very quickly. I think once you start your family – I’ve got two kids and people that depend on me – then the tight Yorkshireman comes out more and more often now! I’m just making sure that we’re set so I can do my bits of coaching and enjoy myself and look forward to semi-retirement really. Those days still feel like a lifetime away and it’s not something that I’m even contemplating yet.
With the managers you’ve worked with, which ones have known how to get the best out of you? What kind of approach have you preferred – someone who generally leaves you alone, or someone who communicates with you a lot?
The managers who’ve got the best out of me, I’ve had a good relationship with, and an honest one as well. That’s the biggest thing; as a player you just need a manager to be honest with you. If you’re not in their plans then you need to know as soon as possible. I think I’ve had a few that have left me hanging on a little bit, but the ones who’ve been straight with me I’ve had a good connection with. The ones who’ve given me a good kick up the arse when I’ve needed it. I think I’m one of them where I don’t need to be praised often. I need someone who’s not on me for the wrong reasons, but someone who can spot if I’m off it or there’s things I need to improve on, and that gives me the emphasis to go and work on it straight away. People like Peter Jackson, Kevin Nolan, we mentioned Warnock, they were all those kind of characters that had demands but were down-to-earth people, and you could have an honest conversation with them as well.
Having a real varied selection of teammates as well, were there any who taught you something new, or were just total free spirits and did their own thing? Tugay springs to mind on that one.
Yeah, I’ve mentioned him before, Tugay – I think one of, if not the best player I’ve played with. I wouldn’t say he kept himself to himself, but he went about his business, did what he needed to do, loved the game and played really freely, whether it was just little boxes in training or anything, there was such a relaxed spirit around him. The other one is Dwight Yorke. He was the same; always had a smile on his face and enjoyed his football. Did what he wanted, had that experience, had that confidence and an air around him. He was another one who was great to play with and work with, just to try and get that calmness from him; as a young player, you seize up sometimes when things aren’t going right and get nervous and wonder if the older lads are going to have a pop at you and stuff. He was such a ‘free spirit’ player; he just enjoyed every minute of it. The players I looked up to before I was even kicking a ball were the likes of Ian Wright who just played with a smile on their face; every game, loved their football, really expressive in what they did. I always thought if I ever made it as a footballer, I wanted to enjoy every second of it, because I know how privileged a career it is.
Finally, looking back over this time in football up to now, what have you learned the most? About yourself, the game, other people?
That’s one to spring on me! Learning about myself, I’m a lot more patient now. I don’t react to things instantly as much as I used to. The other thing is you learn to try and trust people a bit more; it’s the type of industry where that can be really difficult, whether it’s teammates or coaches or staff. You’ve got to kind of leave yourself out on the line a little bit to try and get honesty from people. I know it’s a cutthroat business, I think I’ve learned that more and more as years have gone on. I think probably look after yourself a bit more, to a certain extent, and in that I mean making sure you’re looked after before you’re going looking after other people, because clubs are the same, at the end of the day, they look after themselves rather than sticking their neck out for players. I think I’ve learned to be a little bit cautious but at the same time give everything back, because the clubs pay your wages and they’re the ones that fork out and show that passion to try and get you to the club, so it’s only respectful that you give 100 percent every day to warrant that kind of contract.
Interview by @chris_brookes