Jodi Jones grew up in east London and played for the same team that produced the likes of David Beckham, Sol Campbell and Jermain Defoe. He was a typical teenager who dreamed of playing for England.
Tomorrow, he will turn out at Wembley, gracing the same pitch as some of the idols of the modern Premier League era, in a European Championship qualifier.
He will do so in the colours of Malta, which was not plan A.
But talking to Jones, it is clear that the 26-year-old Notts County winger could not be prouder. He talks like every one of us would, about the prospect of playing against the likes of Harry Kane, Declan Rice, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka.
He collected shirts from Rice and Saka from the meeting in Malta, where England won 4-0 in June, and has Trent Alexander-Arnold and James Maddison’s in a growing collection, which includes shirts from Italy’s Marco Verratti and Andriy Yarmolenko, the Ukraine international.
“I will hold onto them forever and hopefully be able to show the grandkids,” says Jones. “I shared a pitch with some of the best players in the world and, in years to come, I will be able to look at those shirts and think, ‘Wow’.”
Jones believes it is an England side that will go on to win a major trophy in the near future.
“It is easy to say they have an unbelievable team but they do — the team is ridiculous,” says Jones.” When you look at the players they have now, they should be winning things. It would be criminal if they did not go on to win a major trophy.”
But as he returns to Wembley — where he helped Notts County win promotion back to the Football League last spring, when they beat Chesterfield in the National League play-off final — he is ready to make his mark.
And, given what he has been through to get to this point, you can forgive him for believing that nothing is impossible.
Jones — who began his professional career at Dagenham & Redbridge, before moving to Coventry City, Oxford United and, last season, to Meadow Lane — has suffered three serious knee injuries in his career. One of which thwarted a potential move to Leeds United. He has found his feet with County, where he has scored three goals and provided eight assists in 15 League Two appearances.
When he first began receiving Instagram messages from somebody claiming to be the president of the Maltese Football Association, when he was still with Oxford, he was initially sceptical.
THE NATIONAL LEAGUE DELIVERS AGAIN! ❤️
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But once Bjorn Vassallo finally got hold of Jones’ number and persuaded him that his invitation to play for the country was genuine, the player did not take much convincing. His family are Maltese on his father’s side and he was encouraged to take the opportunity. He made his debut in a 2-1 defeat to Estonia in September 2022 and has collected 10 international caps.
One of those saw him start in the 4-0 defeat to England at the Ta’Qali National Stadium.
“The best thing about it; the thing that stood out when we last played was that there was no arrogance,” says Jones. “When I did the ACL in my knee for the second time, someone at Coventry got (England and Newcastle United striker) Callum Wilson to message me. He had come back from two ACL injuries.
“It was so nice that he took the time to encourage me. That gave me more belief that I could do it. When I saw him at the (England) game he came straight up to me and said, ‘Look at you now, you are an international’. He made a little joke, he made a bit of a fuss and told me I was doing well. The fact that he remembered that he had messaged me and was nice enough to mention it again when we met… that is something I will hold onto forever.
“The England players treated us with respect.”
Jones counts England and Tottenham’s Maddison among his friends. They both remain in a WhatsApp group of former Coventry players and are in regular contact, although Maddison’s ankle injury will prevent a reunion on the pitch on Friday.
“He is a good guy,” says Jones. “I say that to everyone. Some people might see him as arrogant. But when you know him, you understand that he just believes in his ability. He backs himself. He is confident. Without that, I don’t think he would be where he is now. I still don’t think I have seen anyone with a better first touch than him, which takes him into another position — it might take him past a player; it might give him space for a shot.”
Even without Maddison, it will be an uphill task for Jones’ side. Malta is a country with a population of about 500,000. In comparison, Nottingham, where Jones plays, is home to around 350,000. But despite their underdog status, Malta are steadily becoming competitive.
In June they were only narrowly beaten 1-0 by Ukraine, they lost by the same score to Ireland in November and drew 2-2 with Greece in the same week. Last year, they notched up wins over Azerbaijan (1-0), Kuwait (2-0), San Marino (1-0 and 2-0) and Israel (2-1). They have lost all seven games in qualifying Group C but, while a win over England is unlikely, Jones sees hope for the longer term.
“When you look at us, Malta is not the biggest nation. People automatically think we might not be very good,” says Jones. “We have showed that we can win games. We just try to make it difficult for the opposition. But on the other side, when we attack, we believe that we can hurt teams. I play up top and I believe I can drop off and make something happen.
“In my wildest dreams, I believe I can score against England.”
Jones will have a special reason for wanting to do so. At Wembley, he will be supported by most of his family, including his elderly grandmother, Irene, who is part-Maltese.
“It’s going to be a very special,” says Jones. “She stays up to watch the Football League (highlights) show to watch out for me. But she is old, so it is hard for her to get to many games. I would not want her to put herself through it. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and having her there will make it something special for me.
“My biggest aim in life is to make my family proud, because they have supported me through all the bad times and the good. They have watched me grow from being the little kid who just loved football; who supported Arsenal. I am always excited for myself, but this will give my little brothers and my children something to look up to. It shows them that, if you put your mind to something, it can be achieved.
“I do support England. But this will be a little bit different. When you are playing, everything else goes out the window. When people talk about having problems off the pitch — when you are on it, playing, it can take all your worries away. It is such a beautiful place to be.”
(Top photo: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP via Getty Images)