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Football:Pulling on the red jersey is still my dream.

Byline: Delme Parfitt

HE'S had a career-threatening injury, fought depression and the temptations of drink and even been through a financial crisis that put his livelihood on the line.

Not Paul Gascoigne, George Best or any other maverick old pro who's hogged headlines on the front as well as back pages - but Matthew Jones, aged 22, a Welsh international who just wants to let his football do the talking.

And while Mark Hughes and his stars have spent the week being lauded after their resurgence saw them clean up at the BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year bash last Monday, Jones could only watch his teammates with envy and reflect on his year of hell.

But now it's different. The despair's over, the fitness is back, the positive mental attitude once again in harness - and his financial future at his club Leicester is safe thanks to Gary Lineker.

All Jones needs now is the ultimate - a recall to Welsh colours for the friendly against Bosnia on February 12.

"It was in the back of my mind, but now having come back so well with Leicester and played a few first team games it has moved to the front of my mind," he told Wales on Sunday.

"I can't go so far as to say I expect it, but to get back in the squad would be so appreciated.

"Pulling on the red jersey is still the ultimate dream.

"It's fingers crossed for me now, but after what I have been through it would mean the world."

And, boy, has Jones been through plenty.

It started when he ruptured the cruciate ligament in his knee.

He'd just moved from Leeds to Leicester and had emerged as one of Hughes's midfield generals in the 11 caps he won for his country.

He battled the setback as best he could but admits the black moods that engulfed him drove him to binge on drink.

And as if being crocked wasn't bad enough, there were more slings and arrows on their way.

"The financial situation at Leicester was the last thing we needed and a real worry for me on top of everything else," Jones explained.

"There was all sorts of talk about pay cuts and deferrals and it was very scary.

"In a way, being injured probably helped on that score because I had to channel all my concerns into that rather than anything else.

"But watching Wales do so well was different. I've just been like any ordinary Welsh fan over the past year, cheering on the lads whenever they've played.

"There was no point me sitting down and thinking too deeply about that.

"I just had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn't able to do something I've dreamed of doing since I was six years old.

"But seeing how well they've done makes you even more desperate to be a part.

"Now I know it is going to be even harder than ever to get back in the team."

You bet it is. With the beach-ball lunged Robbie Savage, the dependable Mark Pembridge and other central midfield protagonists like Simon Davies, Andy Johnson, Jason Koumas, Carl Robinson, Paul Evans and Paul Trollope, Jones has a battle royale on his hands.

But he's had help from good sources - England legend Lineker, Foxes boss Mickey Adams... and former Cardiff City supremo Alan Cork.

"Lineker is the sort of person you look up to," said Jones.

"I've met him and he gave me plenty of good advice.

"Everyone looks up to him. He is going to be our chairman and you have to respect the way he has helped us.

"Mickey Adams has been great never rushing me to come back and always keeping me involved.

"But Corky has been great too. He is assistant here and I think it's a role he revels in.

"He has some great ideas and moving here from Cardiff was a great thing for him.

"Maybe Corky functions better in an environment where the pressure is off.

"He is relaxed and he's got a smile on his face every day.

"But it's not as if we need telling what we have to do. We know that if we get promoted then all the money worries disappear.

"If we don't, well that's when the troubles start all over again."

But as much as Jones is overjoyed to be back doing the job he loves, he admits he's not the same player.

Far from it. He's leaner, faster, fitter - and more focused than he has ever been.

"I've actually been told by the medical people that my knee is now stronger than it ever was," he said.

"But it's not just that, there's a host of other reasons why I am a different proposition these days. I've learnt about life itself.

"I have been honest with myself. I've looked back at the good times and the bad times and analysed how I arrived at them all.

"I train harder, I have lost weight, I don't eat the same sort of rubbish I used to.

It's hard to believe Jones can play with any more energy than he did while winning those first 11 caps.

Suffice to say Mark Hughes has permission to drool.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 19, 2003
Words:878
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