SAM JONES puts his upward career trajectory down to playing Step 5 football for Heanor Town – and travelling in Australia.
The 24-year-old attacker has scored eight goals for Gateshead this season, just a few years after contemplating giving up his professional football dream.
Released by Leeds United, Jones decided to head Down Under where he worked on a farm and in a cheese factory before returning to rediscovering his spark in the Northern Counties East League.
Last season he hit 19 goals for National League North side Alfreton from midfield to earn a move back to full-time football with Neil Aspin’s Heed.
“In my head I’d more or less agreed to pack it in for good and just play for fun,” Jones told The NLP. “I’d been playing all my life and I’d put everything onto succeeding at Leeds. In my mind it was almost definite I was going to get kept on.
“To get released was hard to take. So it was a good way of having something different in my life. I experienced that for a little while and then came back. Obviously the bug was still there and I picked it back up at a lower level.
“I played the last few games of that season at Retford and in one of them we played Heanor Town. They came in and offered me a deal and that got me going.
“I didn’t realise how much I missed it until I got back into it. When Heanor came in for me I thought, ‘I need to have a crack at it again’.
“The next season I went to Alfreton and then in the summer Gateshead came in for me. Lads I used to play with and against are at this level anyway. It’s like they’ve come down, but for me I feel like I’m on my way up. Confidence is high.
“I had a different mentality after Australia, coming back and realising how much I want it. That was a big shift which has pushed me on.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go away and see other things in life. Not many people get the privilege.”
Gateshead’s play-off challenge has stuttered of late. Since an impressive 5-0 demolition of Dagenham & Redbridge, they went seven league games without a win. Jones knows they need to turn out some results over the festive period to get back on track.
His versatility could prove important though, with Aspin playing him around the pitch. The boss recently said up top would be the best use of his talent, but Jones says they’ve had a re-think.
“It’s pointless putting a label on it really,” he said. “I just think of it as an attacking midfielder – some games it will work where I’m up front, other games it will be where I’m dropping deep to get the ball.
“My game has improved a lot since I’ve become full-time again. I feel the transition has happened and I’m fully in it, I feel everything is improving. I feel stronger, fitter, I’m enjoying it more and I want it more. It does feed the beast. The more you do it, the more you want it.”