He scored for his boyhood club with almost 30,000 watching, took on Manchester United at Old Trafford, and has often demonstrated a finishing touch throughout his 15-year career. Jon Shaw’s most recent move was an unfamiliar step in one sense, as he went part-time with South Shields, but 19 months on, he’s been a Wembley winner and tasted promotion on a climb that feels as if it has only just begun.
In one image of Jon Shaw, he is the 20-year-old Sheffield Wednesday striker sweeping a first-time effort home in front of the Kop at Hillsborough on a day when Ian Holloway’s Queens Park Rangers would celebrate promotion back to the second tier. In the second, he is the assured central defender helping bring further higher-level know-how and an added measure of quality to what has essentially been a South Shields winning machine in recent times.
Two images, almost a full 14 years apart, representing big differences and fundamental similarities. As well as his primary position on the pitch, what has also changed is that he is now married, with two young sons, and he is a coach alongside his playing career. The Sheffield twang has remained – despite the admission that his kids are growing up with Geordie accents – and so too has his affection for football and undoubtedly too for where it all began – his club.
Through his teens, he had made his way up through the ranks at Wednesday, and although the club had slipped out of the top flight and was consistently struggling to keep afloat in Division One (as it was still known) by the time he had the first team in his sights, his Owls bow was every bit as special. Under 1991 League Cup-winning keeper and lifelong Wednesdayite Chris Turner, he debuted in an FA Cup loss at Gillingham before a winter 2003 loan at York City.
With Wednesday blighted by a debt of around £20m and still with some high earners on the books from loftier and more financially-reckless days, what was by now a Division Two Owls side had been tipped for promotion straight back to the second level, but had fallen woefully short over the campaign and would end just three points above the drop. Attendances had remained indicative of a fanbase that, while it was hurting and even protesting during the season against Dave Allen’s running of the club, never turned its back on its team.
Increasingly introduced to the action as the season neared its conclusion, Jon claimed his first goal at Luton in the penultimate game, a 3-2 defeat, before netting again against QPR on the last day in May 2004. For the latter, the West Londoners arrived in S6 needing a win to guarantee them promotion over Bristol City, and while the game had nothing riding on it for Wednesday, 29,313 were there at Hillsborough.
Buoyed by their travelling support, the Rs would win 3-1, but at 2-0, a young Wednesday striker with ‘Shaw’ on his back buried Lewis McMahon’s backheeled pass beyond Lee Camp from the edge of the box. Despite the nine clubs football has led him to since, never has anything quite topped it for the Gleadless lad.
“It’ll always rank at the top of everything I do in the game, to be honest,” the South Shields favourite said. “A Sheffield Wednesday fan, Sheffield lad, scoring at Hillsborough in front of the Kop, 30,000 fans with your family there watching it – it really is a moment that you don’t ever forget.
“It was a shame that we lost the game, it was a season that kind of fizzled out as a club, and obviously on the day QPR were there to win promotion, but that made the atmosphere even bigger. They brought a big following, our fans were always class, but as a moment in isolation, it was amazing.
“It turned out to be a great end to the season personally for me, but my Sheffield Wednesday career almost ended that day really. I came back, had a good pre-season.
“I could have left in the summer; Chris Turner convinced me to stay, telling me that I was a big part of his plans for the year. He went out and brought new forwards in and I never got a look in.
“That was me done, but if that was my last big showing at Hillsborough, I can deal with that.”
With several new signings that summer including two strikers in Rangers youngster Steve MacLean and experienced Bristol City target man Lee Peacock, chances were limited for Jon thereafter, as he mentions. Making his fourth appearance of the campaign in new boss Paul Sturrock’s first match as he came on in a 3-0 win at Wrexham, he left the club with 24 appearances to his name.
Fast-forwarding the tale 13 years, he is with a club which has been flying since local businessman Geoff Thompson became chairman in May 2015, when South Shields were in the Northern League Division Two. Shields were champions the next season and Jon joined ahead of their 2016/17 campaign, which would be one terrific year to say the least.
As well as winning promotion to the Evo-Stik North as champions with 108 points, the Mariners were Durham Challenge Cup, Northern League Challenge Cup and FA Vase winners, embarking upon a 32-game winning run along the way. Jon played 55 times and hit 13 goals, and this time around, a tightly-contested promotion race has Shields top by a point from Scarborough Athletic, with a game in hand and with Hyde United and Bamber Bridge close behind.
“As a part-time player, you’re only there a certain amount each week, but in life at the minute, it feels a real, good moment for me.”
Backed by magnificent support at home and on the road, Shields boast some characters of Premier League yesteryear in the form of co-boss (with Lee Picton) Graham Fenton (ex-Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City midfielder), the one-time Newcastle United midfielder and South African international Matty Pattison, and ex-Sunderland and Middlesbrough man Julio Arca.
Also head coach at Monkseaton High School’s Men’s Sixth Form Football Academy, Jon explains how he is enjoying perhaps the best balance he has ever had in his endeavours.
“At the minute, I’ve got a great job that I love away from playing football, my wife’s doing really well at uni, and football for a year-and-a-half’s been the greatest place to be. We play a great brand, we’ve got coaches that take a lot of time and work with everybody individually, we won four trophies and I went to Wembley, so it’s been an amazing time at Shields.
“As a part-time player, you’re only there a certain amount each week, but in life at the minute, it feels a real, good moment for me.”
It is true, however, that the Jon Shaw of today would not be quite the same without the highs and the hardships of his career so far. Joining Burton Albion in the Conference after his Wednesday exit, a near-three-year spell included playing at Old Trafford in an FA Cup replay with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, but it is his time at Halifax Town (in the club’s last season before being dissolved and reforming) in 2007/08 that he remains eternally grateful for.
A former top-flight Wednesday skipper, Peter Atherton, was there as assistant and even came out of retirement to be on the bench that season. In another of those interesting little plot details, Jon was given some priceless guidance from a fellow Sheffielder…the current Sheffield United manager, as it happens.
“This one’s a hard one for a Wednesday fan to hear! But Chris Wilder, I’ve said this before, I think he saved my career.
“Sheffield Wednesday was an amazing place for me, but if somebody had grabbed hold of me and coached me the way that Chris did, I don’t think I would have left as early as I did. I’m not saying the coaches didn’t coach me at all, that would be unfair, but the club was under such pressure that it meant that individual attention couldn’t be there as much.
“When I went to Burton, Nigel Clough wasn’t a man-manager or an individual coach. Obviously great experience, but I didn’t feel like I learned, so when I went to Halifax, the first day I was training, (Wilder) got me doing all this movement and link play.
“I phoned my dad, and I was nearly 24 at the time, and I said, ‘Dad, I don’t think Chris has seen me play. The things he wants me to do, I’ve never done.’
“So within weeks of playing for Chris, I learned all these new things I could do that really shaped my game and taught me about playing in my position. It really did reignite my career.
“I’m not saying he was the perfect manager at the time, and I’m sure there’s players who were at Halifax who would completely disagree with me, but for me personally, he was brilliant.”
His Shaymen form got him back into the Football League with Keith Hill’s Rochdale, and from there he was loaned to Crawley Town, Barrow and Gateshead. There would be a short stint at Mansfield Town but in May 2010 he was heading back to the North East to sign a full deal with Gateshead.
The Heed was a particularly significant stop on his path because his time with the Tynesiders made him feel at home in a part of the country where he remains today. Jon’s teammates included current Shields right-back Craig Baxter (with midfielder Robert Briggs in the ranks too), Newcastle defender Paul Dummett, and ex-Wednesday colleague and recently-appointed Leeds United manager Paul Heckingbottom, as they just missed out on the Conference playoffs under Ian Bogie.
While he scored a shedload (56 in two seasons) in his first spell, Jon also had a run at the back during his second stay from 2014 to 2016, and it is a role he has been increasingly accustomed to over the years.
“Gateshead was amazing; everybody took me to heart and that’s why I’m still up here. There’s been little bits through my career where I’ve played at the back.
“At Burton Albion under Nigel (Clough), I’d had a bad time where he kind of left me out as a striker and he wanted rid of me a little bit, and during training I used to kind of drift around the pitch, either to the back or up front, so I showed him I could play there. I went to Halifax, and although that was a massive year for me scoring goals, Chris Wilder used me as a centre-half every now and then.
“So it was just something that I was comfortable with, and then I was at Gateshead before I came to Shields, and Gary Mills, he wasn’t using me. I was playing reserve games up front, so I went and asked.
“I said, ‘If I’m not gonna play in the first team then I may as well enjoy the last few months of my season. Can I have a crack at centre-half?’
“We had a few injuries, which kind of forced his hand, and I ended up playing the last ten or 11 games at centre-half. The season after, new manager, back up front, came to Shields, started up front, couple of injuries, put me back at centre-half again!
“I really enjoy it back there now. As you get older, being up front can be frustrating; you can make a lot of runs, and you don’t get any faster as you get older.
“At the back, I can see the game, and organising as you get into coaching is a big thing, so it’s helping out the lads in front of me.”
Sandwiched between Jon’s two Gateshead chapters was a two-year Luton Town career, where he figured alongside current Watford striker Andre Gray and even had to take a stream of phone calls from interested parties at the end of the 2013/14 season asking for a rundown on the future Burnley man. As well as helping them back to League Two in his last season there, Jon’s time with the Hatters also spawned the start of his coaching journey as he looked to lay some foundations.
“…Hirsty was there. I pulled across one of my young forwards and said, ‘this guy was Alan Shearer before Alan Shearer existed,’”
He worked with youngsters at Gateshead College, and while leading the Under-14s at Middlesbrough for over two years, he crossed paths with someone else who knows what it feels like to don the blue and white at Hillsborough.
“I had David Hirst as my idol growing up. Being a Wednesday lad, he was unbelievable.
“I remember talking to Hirsty a few years ago; I was actually in Sheffield with a bunch of Middlesbrough lads, coaching, and Hirsty was there. I pulled across one of my young forwards and said, ‘this guy was Alan Shearer before Alan Shearer existed,’ and Hirsty obviously loved it.
“David Hirst, rolling straight on to Alan Shearer, was very similar to the way that I tried to play myself. I wasn’t technically massively gifted, but I worked hard for my teams, I tried to hold the ball up, win headers – I scored a lot of goals from headers over my career – and if I got a chance I usually tried to just smash the keeper into the goal with it.”
Although you can still see him utilised up front at Shields, the likes of Gavin Cogdon and Carl Finnigan tend to take care of that when available. A little bit deeper is the aforementioned Julio Arca, captain of the Argentina side that won the 2001 FIFA Under-20 World Cup and once a multi-million-pound Premier League signing who played in seven top-flight seasons for Sunderland and Middlesbrough.
Initially retiring in 2013 due to a foot injury, Arca has returned in another football life to help run the show in the Mariners midfield, signing a two-year contract extension last summer. The 37-year-old’s name can be heard in a song from the fans that references the January 2017 FA Vase tie with Morpeth Town, which was abandoned due to floodlight failure at Mariners Park with Morpeth leading 4-2 late on.
Shields won the rearranged game away 4-0 to reach the last 16, and as Arca had been sent off in the original match, Shields fans sing today about how ‘this is how it feels to be huge, this is how it feels when Julio ****s with the fuse!’ For Jon, he reminds him of another left-footed, wise-headed midfielder he once played with at Wednesday – ex-Southampton man Chris Marsden.
“Julio’s got a real touch of class the way he receives it, he’ll have the ball anywhere on the pitch, and for his age, the way that he works so hard, that’s what endears him to people. It’s not just his ability, it’s the fact that we know he’ll put an unbelievable shift in as well, and to say he retired through injury, that’s incredible.”
As well as how Shields often achieve results whether they have played a team off the park or had to grind it out, the spirit that seems to surround them is a shining characteristic. The team broke new ground for the club in the FA Cup this season, beating National League North Darlington away before dramatically seeing off another from that division, York City, at home in the third qualifying round.
“We’ve got some great ability and the main thing that holds them together I suppose, Lee (Picton) and Graham (Fenton).”
One step from the first round proper, they led National League Hartlepool United in front of another packed Mariners Park before a 2-1 loss, but the progress in the competition had created more great memories for all involved and further whetted the appetite for success. Given Shields’ part-time squad, how much opportunity does it leave for Jon and the others to get together away from football through the season, and how does that overall team dynamic work?
“It is a little bit difficult with it being part-time, because everybody’s got jobs, everybody’s got families, and football becomes secondary to your life almost. It’s always been my first thing, so my family and everybody have moved around and followed me because I’ve always been full-time and it’s been my main source of income.
“So seeing each other away from the ground is a little bit harder. We do things through the year; we have the odd night out, if we have a good run in the league we have a meal together, which is great.
“Regarding the dynamic of the changing room, you’ve got a few old heads like myself, Julio, there’s actually quite a few, Carl Finnigan, Craig Baxter, Matty Pattison, Gav Cogdon, Liam Connell. They’ve all been in and around these levels and slightly higher and are a little bit older, and then you’ve got a good blend in between with Robbie Briggs, Darren Lough, and then some younger lads.
“We’ve got some great ability and the main thing that holds them together I suppose, Lee (Picton) and Graham (Fenton); you can have the best team in the country on paper but if you don’t know how to put them out on the pitch, don’t know how to coach and train them, then you won’t get anywhere. With the older heads on the pitch and those two guys off the pitch, it’s worked so far.
“We had the odd little blip over Christmas, but every team has that. I don’t make a big deal out of things like that; you can’t have it your own way every week, no matter what standard you play at.
“As a club and as a dynamic, they’ve got a real, good mix at the minute.”
It has been an interesting road that has led Jon here, and as well as discussing how his first club shaped that, he also responds to the question of whether Wednesday’s continually troubled plight through those years showed around the place each week.
“Do you know what? It was brilliant.
“As soon as I stepped in the first team, we’d still got players like Andy Hinchcliffe, Des Walker, Carlton Palmer came back, Bugsy – David Burrows – was playing and then in (joint-caretaker) charge, Ian Hendon, Kevin Pressman was an absolute legend really at the club, but he was also a lovely bloke who helped me loads. Then we brought in Chris Marsden.
“Nobody was big-time and they accepted me brilliantly when I was stepping up, so I had some great days on the training pitch. When I trained with them, they probably thought I was a bit of a pain in the arse, because I was a hundred mile an hour every second!
“If we were doing running sessions, I wanted to outrun them, because they were like legends in my eyes. Obviously, the fans were talking about how much people were earning and poor performances, but there was nobody there who I would say was trying to play bad or not putting the effort in.
“It’s just sometimes it doesn’t work. The amount of times we changed manager back then, I suppose that had a bit of an effect with the disruption on the pitch.
“I think more than the club I was at, my kind of home life prepared me for having to work hard and not having the glories and big, massive money. The years before I got there, young players were being handed contracts like they get now at the big clubs, and with the club on the slide when I was coming through, that kind of wasn’t happening.
“I was having to prove myself, week on week, month on month, year on year. It’s a strange thing because when you’re in the club, you don’t really notice the outside world as much, even though as a Wednesday fan I was getting a bit of stick, but everyone I knew was so happy for me that I was at a club like that.
“You don’t really notice that you’re not being classed as a big club now, because for me, the only thing I wanted to do was play for Sheffield Wednesday. Even if we’d have been in League Two, Conference football or going out of business and not getting paid, I probably would have stayed, because I loved the club.
“The hardest thing for me was leaving. That’s when the realism hits you, because you leave Sheffield Wednesday and think, ‘Oh well that’s fine, I’ll get another club,’ but that’s when you realise it’s a harder world out there.
“You have a few trials and people are saying ‘yeah, you’re too similar to what we’ve got,’ or ‘we can’t afford to bring somebody else in,’ and obviously then I ended up in the Conference. It’s strange going from being at such a big club, but the preparation it gave me, I’ve never been nervous since I left Sheffield Wednesday.
“How could I have been nervous playing in front of, no disrespect to my other clubs, but a thousand fans or a few hundred, when I’d grown up playing in front of 25,000? I never earned massive money when I was at Wednesday, it wasn’t about the money or being massively prestigious, it was just about pulling on a Wednesday shirt and going playing at Hillsborough.
“When I left, I was realistic; I knew that I probably overshot by even getting a game for Wednesday, I counted myself lucky. Then to go out there and play for other clubs and to play for the length of time that I have, I’ve just been extremely fortunate.”
That perspective is now being passed on at Monkseaton, the job he took on after Shields managers Fenton and Picton gave up the role when going full-time and running Shields’ new academy. Rather than a fall-back plan, coaching is an area Jon derives real vigour from, and he wants to pursue a future in management.
At Monkseaton, he has been working to try and give the players experience of being young pros, with the hope that they can carve a route in the game, while they receive their education at the school. Jon and his young family, with two young sons, Jack and Max, are more than content in the North East, though he is all too well acquainted with the game to think you can ever be set in one place.
“Shields took down about 16/17,000 fans. Just an amazing day at this stage of my career.”
For now, this is where they are, and with Shields moving at a menacing pace, he believes completely that they will go on to win promotion this season. After that would come the task of breaking into the National League North, and the sixth level is when Jon stresses it becomes a very different challenge, given the budgets and club sizes.
At that point he thinks they will have a decision to make on whether to go full-time, but he says ‘without doubt’ that he believes you will find South Shield in amongst the EFL in the future. As we speak today, he is anything but winding down his career quietly, and last May he was a Wembley winner.
That one completed the quadruple, as the Mariners triumphed 4-0 over Cleethorpes Town in the FA Vase final with 38,224 there to see it. The question is, how high does it rank in Jon’s footballing moments?
“I don’t know how to explain it; is it right alongside scoring at Hillsborough or is it slightly below?! I reckon ever so slightly below, but if I’d have gone to Wembley as a young player, I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do now.
“It was everything that I wanted it to be; my kids were there, my wife, all my family came down, my son was one of the mascots. I really appreciated the time on the pitch before the game.
“I went out there and fully enjoyed the game, for us to win 4-0, and again, the following we had. If it had been with a smaller club and only a couple of thousand there, would it have been as special?
“Shields took down about 16/17,000 fans. Just an amazing day at this stage of my career.
“It’s right up there…but I just can’t quite put it above scoring at Hillsborough!”
As we conclude, it seems fitting to revisit that first career goal one last time, to ask what the Jon Shaw of today has learned since he was the youngster with the number 18 on his back, the Owl over his chest, and Wednesdayite pride pulsing as he quite simply lived out a dream.
“The only thing that I will say is that you don’t get anywhere without hard work, especially in this game, and if I could put honesty and integrity into the lads that I coach then they won’t go far wrong. It’s a ruthless game, and it’s not always going to be what you want it to be, but if you stay who you are and work as hard as you can, an opportunity will often come around.
“Listen, Sheffield Wednesday for me will always be the best part of my career. I used to go in early, have breakfast, go in the gym, I always loved training and I stayed behind because I lived across the city and didn’t have to be anywhere.
“I made some great friends and got to play in front of my own family and friends, and do what we all dreamt of in Sheffield. I’ve just always appreciated the fact that I’m a footballer and always tried to make the best of every club I’ve been at.
“I suppose the beginning and the end of my career have been the best, but I’ve had some great times in between. I’ve just enjoyed thoroughly my ride in the game, and whenever it comes to an end, I can look back and say how fortunate I was to have played.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes