Luton boss Graeme Jones: How I learnt from early failure
Watch Luton vs Millwall live on Sky Sports Football from 7pm on Wednesday night; kick-off is at 7.45pm
Last Updated: 02/10/19 7:55pm
Luton manager Graeme Jones was let go by Millwall as a teenager, but will have the opportunity to get revenge on Wednesday when the sides meet at Kenilworth Road, live on Sky Sports Football.
Jones reached the 2018 World Cup semi-finals with Belgium as Roberto Martinez's assistant, but in 1986, as a 16-year-old from the North East, he started his journey to the top in south-east London.
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"I was scouted by Millwall and came down for a trial, but it was too much for me," Jones tells Sky Sports at Luton's training ground.
"It was the 80s, I was 16 and living in New Cross Gate, 15 minutes from the Old Den. I was on £27 a week and went round delivering leaflets in Peckham and Bermondsey to earn an extra £5. Some of the places I went, I don't how I'm alive today!"
Part-time jobs apart, Jones learned valuable lessons during a memorable time for the Lions. "There was Teddy Sheringham, Terry Hurlock, Tony Cascarino, some great players - they changed the face of Millwall in that era," Jones says. "There was a togetherness and a mentality that I've still never seen in the game since."
The 49-year-old looks back fondly on his time at the club, having gone on to a successful playing career before moving into coaching with Martinez and then Darren Moore before taking over at Luton in the summer.
"I failed at Millwall, but I dug in and that was the background I needed. I was a little bit immature, but as a picture of what professional football looked like, I got it clearly. I came back at 23 after a spell in non-league and looked after myself on the pitch - Millwall made me sure of that."
The Den in the 80s - and even the New Den that Jones scored at as a returning opposition player - is a far cry from coaching Eden Hazard and working alongside Thierry Henry with Belgium.
It was a very different time, but Jones developed an interest in coaching while playing and knew early on that he wanted to create an inclusive environment conducive to learning and improvement.
"My playing era was managers bawling at you and telling you you're rubbish with no explanation why," Jones says. "From a learning point of view, you want examples. I learnt that constructive feedback is where you get progress.
"The best thing that ever happened to me was going to Sheffield University to study education when I was 25. I qualified as a lecturer so that helped me understand the learning process.
"While playing, I was very aggressive, emotional. As a player, you're allowed to be. As a manager, you need that emotion but the majority of the time you need perspective.
"I'm still not perfect - 95 per cent of the time I operate in the right manner, but five per cent, I can get angry and emotional about the game. People want to see that, they don't want robots."
Jones had plenty of offers to step into management before taking the plunge with Luton in May. Promoted twice in two years and back in the Championship for the first time in 12 years, the Bedfordshire club seemed the perfect fit for a sought-after coach. But what differences has he noticed from being an assistant?
"As a manager, the gameplan starts with you and the buck stops with you. So if you are irrational and emotional then you are not going to think," he says. "You have to be level-headed and give direction and there is no point in doing that in an emotional state.
"As an assistant, ultimately you are not making the final decision whether a player is selected, but I was ready to be a manager and I have never looked back."
Luton's start to the season has been mixed, with a memorable opening-night 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough - live on Sky - followed by three defeats and a further two losses after the international break. They're still getting used to the division, but a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Blackburn on Saturday calmed nerves.
Jones' opposite number on Wednesday night, Neil Harris, had a very different playing career at Millwall, becoming a club legend before taking over as permanent boss in 2015. Jones knows what to expect.
"We've come up against each other, I really like Neil, what he stands for and what he's done at the club.
"No matter what you do, through good times and bad, you've got to be yourself. That's all you're remembered for in the end. And Neil Harris has done that."
They met several times as players, most notably in the 1999 Auto Windscreens Shield final at the old Wembley. Jones, a striker at Wigan, was desperate to prove a point to the club who let him go a decade earlier. But despite victory, he was left frustrated on the day.
"Millwall had let me go as a kid and I wanted to prove them wrong," Jones says. "I'd gone back with Wigan and scored twice at the New Den, which was great satisfaction. But I was an unused sub at Wembley and it was one of my toughest days in football.
"I remember Neil playing, they were a strong side. There were 60,000 there and Millwall took a lot. But we ended up winning 1-0 - it was satisfying."
Three points would equal satisfaction on Wednesday for Jones, as Luton look to continue their attempt to consolidate their position in their first season back in the Championship. He knows his players will be in for a battle against Millwall though as two former bustling Football League forwards go head to head as managers.
"The Neil Harris on the sidelines is calmer than the Neil Harris I remember on the pitch - but I see the same ferocity. His competitiveness. He understands the culture at Millwall."
It is a culture that formed a lasting impression on Jones, but facing the club for the first time as a manager, he will be keen to get one over on the visitors from a part of south-east London he knows only too well.