Once compared by his manager as ‘another Didier Drogba in the making’ and by former Chelsea captain John Terry as “one of the best players in the air in the Premier League”, it would be understandable if it had all gone to Kenwyne Jones’ head. But for the 6th most capped Trinidadian of all time, the compliments were just another part of the game and reassurance that he was doing his best to take his family name to greater heights. I caught up with the former Soca Warriors striker recently to find out what it was really like to play for Roy Keane, what drove him to leave Stoke, and why he holds a special place in his heart for Sheffield Wednesday.
Back Of The Net: Firstly Kenwyne, thank you for speaking with us. Not many people will have a good understanding of what growing up in Trinidad & Tobago is like and what role sport plays there. How would you describe your childhood, and what did football mean to you as a boy growing up there?
Kenwyne Jones: Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago is like any other Caribbean Island really – warm weather, beaches, sea and sand, but it is also industrious as well. As a young boy growing up, I played every sport and was quite good at all of them. When the school vacation came along, all my friends would come out to play and over the coming days and weeks we would run various competitions for bragging rights amongst our peers. Football is a sport that was a part of my family and it came naturally to me but my first love was athletics. I had a sporting family name to live up to and it was a seamless transition into professional sporting life.
BOTN: In terms of influences in your life, you have spoken in the past about your father, Pamphile, and uncle Philbert who inspired you to play football. But what influence did the likes of Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy have on you as fellow Trinidadian’s playing in Europe? Were they a key driver behind your decision to go to Europe to find a club?
KJ: Dwight And Russell were magnificent players and did tremendously well to have the careers that they did but I wasn’t looking at them as my driving force to get into a European club. Coming up through the ranks at various youth national teams, I just wanted to push as far as I could reach, mainly to fulfil a desire I had to take my family’s name to the greatest heights I could attain.
BOTN: After playing back home with Joe Public and W Connection, you got a move to Southampton. It was here that you were finally converted into a striker having been tested at various other positions including at wing back, as a holding midfielder, and on the wing. How pleasing was it that you finally got your chance in a central position upfront?
KJ: Well firstly I never played a game for Joe Public and spent only one season at W Connection where I played the positions mentioned but at school where our league was pretty big on the island, I played upfront and was quite successful. The other positions I played because coaches thought that I adapted well and read the game brilliantly. So the first opportunity I got at Southampton to do so, I grabbed it with both hands.
BOTN: During a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday early on in your Southampton career you appeared to find your footing and scored seven goals in seven appearances over the course of a month. How important were those early loan spells (at Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke) in your career in terms of helping you adapt to English football?
KJ: I’m grateful for that opportunity to play for Sheffield Wednesday that early on in my career and they will always have a place in my heart, but I didn’t know that the loan period would’ve gone so well. I met a great team and a fantastic fan base that helped me to do as well as I did, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.
BOTN: The following season, you hit 16 goals and were compared by your manager George Burley as another Didier Drogba, making comparisons to your physical attributes, strength and power. When a manager comes out with a statement like that, does it give you encouragement or does it heap pressure on you to live up to that comparison?
KJ: The next season I had a lot of confidence so I always wanted to do better each time. I didn’t pay any attention to the comparison to Didier because I know that I never wanted to be him. He is a fantastic player but I always learned to never be like another man, only be myself, so whilst it can be complimentary to most, I just tried to forge my own pathway.
BOTN: Your form earned you a move to Sunderland with fellow Trinidad & Tobago striker Stern John moving the other way. Moving to your first Premier League at only 23 years old for £6 million must have been a daunting prospect. How difficult was it to settle in at the club and how did you feel working for Roy Keane?
KJ: The following season was another step in my career, I wasn’t concerned with the fee as I had no control over that. Going into the Premier league was a dream come true and I was happy to work with Roy Keane. I think we had a great working relationship and he taught me quite a few things and I’m also grateful to him for that.
BOTN: Over the next three years, you established yourself as a firm favourite at Sunderland but were constantly linked with bigger moves to the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. How did you cope with that speculation? And what made you eventually decide to leave Sunderland for Stoke?
KJ: The speculation was good for me, it was a measuring stick of my progress. Moving to Stoke wasn’t my choice, I was pushed there by Steve Bruce (who took over from Keane at Sunderland), he pushed a lot of players out the door and I guess I wasn’t one of his players. In my last season at Sunderland I was going through a rough time at home and I wasn’t hitting magical heights but Liverpool wanted me, everything was good to go, I was settled in my mind I was going to Liverpool. Steve and I had a few words, then he shipped me to Stoke, I guess he didn’t want me to go on to do better.
BOTN: It’s probably fair to say that your time at Stoke was a mixed bag. Things started well there but a series of personal problems off the field, the arrival of Peter Crouch in the summer of 2011, and further transfer rumours made your latter years more difficult. How would you categorize your time at Stoke and was Pulis’ direct style of football problematic for you?
KJ: To be truthful I was having a good time at Stoke the first season, then my agent being greedy brought Peter to Stoke without telling me first and then I just got sidelined for a new player. It was frustrating with the manager as the team in that season was separated; a team for the league and a team for Europe. Then at the end a pretty bad incident happened without cause, my locker was broken into and a pig’s head was placed in my locker. I reacted and got fined for it, while the perpetrators got away freely. No one at the club cared how I felt, no one bothered to find out. It was all brushed aside and I was made to look like a crazy person when at no time in my career I’ve ever fallen out with a teammate at any club, but I guess that’s how it is when you’re not from that country.
BOTN: That was a really unfortunate situation and no player should have to go through that. I’m sorry that it happened to you.
As a 6ft+ striker, there must be a lot of coaches who believe that the best way to play with you in the side is to go direct and long. But given your work rate and ability on the ball, playing the ball into your feet with a view to you turning to goal seems like a stronger approach. Do you agree?
KJ: I think that they saw an ability I had and decided to use it to their advantage, but I think it’s what people remember most: the ‘air balls’ – it was a storyline , so they stuck to their ways the best they knew how and didn’t change.
BOTN: Moves to Cardiff, Bournemouth and Al Jazira followed before you ended up in the MLS with Atlanta. At the time, you said that you thought you could play for another three to four years but ended up retiring a year and a half later. What brought about that decision, and now looking back was the switch to Atlanta the wrong move?
KJ: Well before I ended up at Cardiff, I was set to go to Everton and the hierarchy at Stoke didn’t want that to happen, so along with agents the plan was hatched and I ended up at Cardiff. At that point I wanted to leave Stoke after the previous situation. I felt that I was not comfortable in my work environment and that it wouldn’t be safe for anybody. I felt at that point that I had to watch over my shoulder so that I wouldn’t be a prop in another “bad joke” so I went to Cardiff and had a fantastic 2 1/2 years.
I made a decision to try something new as I was in England for 12 1/2 years at that point and I need to be in a different situation, so I went to UAE for 6 months, then onward to Atlanta. I loved the moved to Atlanta and was happy, but unfortunately, I got an injury during the season that if I need to continue to play professionally after the first year it was impossible, as I would’ve never passed a medical, so I made a decision to retire.
BOTN: Following in your uncle’s footsteps by representing your country it must have been one of the proudest moments of your life. How did it feel when you found out that you were going to make your full national debut against Finland in 2003? Do you remember much about that game?
KJ: I didn’t know much about it really. I returned from a trial with Glasgow Rangers and came back to a situation where the senior team was on strike due to money issues and was given the opportunity to play as we were about to play Finland, so I grabbed it with both hands. I knew my family would’ve been proud at that time.
BOTN: You played at the 2001 under 17’s World Cup in Trinidad, at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and captained your country on several occasions. What is your most memorable game/moment for Trinidad & Tobago?
KJ: My most memorable moment would always be representing my family and my country at that World Cup, being able to fulfil a dream of so many, being able to go down in my country’s history and world history.
BOTN: Finally, some quick hits. Your acrobatic goal celebration was a replica of your uncle’s. It’s spectacular to watch but did it ever not come off, leaving you flat out on the grass?
KJ: I’ve never failed at my celebration and will never.
BOTN: What would you say is your best ever goal scored for club or country?
KJ: The best goal I’ve scored for a club would be my FA cup semi-final goal at Wembley (Stoke vs Bolton, 2011)
BOTN: Who is the most under rated player you played with?
KJ: The most underrated player I played with is Djamel Belmadi at Southampton.
BOTN: What does the future look like for you now that you have retired? A move into coaching perhaps?
KJ: Now I’m enjoying retirement, but I’ll slowly move into coaching and punditry.
BOTN: Thank you Kenwyne and good luck for the future!