Armed guards, power struggles and Ronaldo - Tom Jones remembers stint as Armenia coach

Ian Porterfield a mentor to Jones from Busan to Yeravan

It ended in the Hellenic League with Royal Wootton Bassett Town, but along the way there was Pittodrie and Busan, Armenia and Ronaldo.

There was also suffering and loss, not football loss, real loss. When he talks of his time in Armenia, Tom Jones cannot tell his story without its protagonist, Ian Porterfield - his mentor, his friend. Porterfield, the Scot who famously scored the FA Cup winner for Sunderland in the 1973 final, passed away in September 2007.

At the time he was manager of Armenia’s national football team. Jones was his assistant. After Porterfield’s death, Jones became caretaker manager.

“When Ian called me to join him in Armenia, it wasn’t in the greatest of circumstances because he had just been diagnosed with colon cancer,” recalls Jones.

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Their careers criss-crossed over the years, forever kicking footballs and ideas around. In 1987 when he was managing Aberdeen, Porterfield had signed Jones from Weymouth, suddenly the boy from Aldershot was going from the Football Conference to the big leagues. In 1983 Aberdeen had won the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Super Cup, beating Real Madrid in the final of the former.

“Aberdeen had also regularly been winning Scottish Leagues and Scottish Cups, so it was an exciting move.”

Lou Macari then brought the midfielder to Swindon Town, where Jones carved out a successful career – making 207 appearances and scoring 12 goals. He also had spells with Reading and Woking, and after hanging up his boots he got involved in coaching. A chance encounter with Porterfield one afternoon would prove to be a fork in the road moment for Jones.

Ahead of the 2003 season Porterfield was appointed manager of K League outfit Busan I’Cons (over the years the club has had various rebrands and name changes and is currently Busan IPark). He called Jones and asked him to be his assistant in South Korea.

“It just didn’t work out initially and I had to turn it down,” Jones remembers.

He had three young kids at home and the exorbitant cost of education in Korea, not to mention the upheaval of moving his family from Swindon to Busan, meant it wasn’t viable.

“But we kept in touch and about six months later Ian asked me to come out just for a year. I talked with my wife and we agreed I’d give it a go. She was always so supportive of me throughout my whole football career.”

One year in Busan ended up as three.

In December 2004 they won the Korean FA Cup. The following season they advanced to the semi-finals of the K League. In April 2006 Porterfield left Busan and four months later he was appointed manager in Armenia. Once again Porterfield sought out Jones.

“But he couldn’t get me in straight away because there were issues around the finances. His assistant when he went in was Vardan Minasyan, who was very close with the players and the staff.”

Porterfield wanted a sidekick from the outside whose footballing philosophy was similar to his own. Negative, unambitious football was something of a bête noir for Jones – attacking, positive play was a tenet of how he wanted the game to be played.

“They were always frightened by their past, from matches where they had been beaten by four or five goals. Vardan took a lot of convincing to change. They were playing damage limitation, in most games you never got to see the opposition goalkeeper.

“From working together in Busan, Ian knew how I wanted to set up teams. So we decided we were not going to let the opposition come across the halfway line unopposed, we were going to press and stop them. That is what happened, suddenly you had teams like Serbia and Portugal thinking, ‘what the hell is going on here?’”

Before any of that could happen, though, there was that call from Porterfield telling Jones the paperwork was sorted, so it was time to get himself on a plane to Yerevan.

“It was an emotional call because he had just been diagnosed. To be honest, I probably didn’t realise how bad it was, he had a tumour that had been there for some time, possibly even from his days in Korea. He was saying he wasn’t going to let it beat him. We chatted and I agreed to go over. The next day he was going in for an operation.”

But when Jones landed in Armenia, a familiar face was there to greet him.

“He had just undergone surgery, but the man he was, Ian made sure to have a car arranged to take him to the airport so he could be there when I arrived.

“I remember the journey in, there were packs of wild dogs roaming around and Lada cars everywhere, hundreds of them. But when we got to the city, there were lots of beautiful buildings and the training facilities were quite good. We immediately got to work.”

His first game at Porterfield’s side, in June 2007, was a 2-1 victory over Kazakhstan in a Euro 2008 qualifying match. Armenia harnessed the momentum from that away win to then shock Poland, who had already beaten both Portugal and Belgium in the group, with a 1-0 win in Yerevan.

On August 22nd, Portugal were coming to the Hrazdan Stadium. The team was on an upward trajectory. But off the field, Porterfield’s health was deteriorating.

“In the weeks before the Portugal game Ian had spent time back home, in hospital. He was suffering, we knew things weren’t good. He would always say, ‘I want to get to the Portugal game.’ It was such a big match for him against some of the best players in the world. But it wasn’t an easy time for Ian. It was a difficult period, but he got to the Portugal game, which was his aim. We should have won it too, we went a goal ahead, but we gifted them an equaliser. Ronaldo scored it, of course he did.”

The game finished 1-1.

Three weeks later Ian Porterfield passed away. He was 61.

“I looked on him as a father,” says Jones.

Armenia were scheduled to play a series of friendless around that time, away to Cyprus and Malta.

“The Cyprus game was a shambles. During the match there was an argument on the bench, somebody had said something, and it all got a bit messy. There was also player brought in, who I had never seen before, and after the game he was bringing his kid to the changing room.”

It didn’t help that there also appeared to be a power struggle for the reins. Jones had been told the caretaker management role was to be shared with Minasyan.

“But Vardan had noticeably started to speak the local language around me a lot more and coupled with everything that had happened in the game, afterwards I went to see the secretary and told them no way would I be associated again with what had happened that day. Eventually they said, ‘okay, you take charge against Malta.’ So, we reloaded and went again.” Armenia beat Malta 1-0.

Jones remained in charge for the subsequent Euro qualifiers against Serbia (0-0) and Belgium (a 3-0 defeat).

“That result against Serbia was the best during the time on my own, it was an exceptional performance against a strong Serbian side. But we just couldn’t score, which was one of the big frustrations during our time there, we didn’t have a standout striker who was a natural threat.

“We went to play Belgium next and for over an hour again we were the better team. They were getting booed, it was a side with the likes of Vincent Kompany and Marouane Fellaini, but they got a freak goal that came back off the crossbar to make the breakthrough.”

That game in Brussels would prove to be the last time Jones was in the Armenian dugout.

“They basically tried to change the way they were paying me. They asked me to finish off the Euros but by paying me less. Ian was very good at sorting out our payments, which was always done between him and the FA. As soon as he passed away all of that changed, so unfortunately it just ended for financial reasons.”

Jan Poulsen succeeded him, but the Dane lasted just over a year. Minasyan then returned and would go on to become Armenia’s longest serving manager.

For Jones, Armenia had been a life less ordinary experience – from getting to work with talented players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan to observing some officials around the team requiring the protection of armed guards.

“We used to joke, if you’ve guards with guns beside you then you are either famous or a wanted man.”

He has his memories and his mementos – such as two signed Portugal jerseys, including the scribble from Ronaldo himself. “They are both in frames now and I have given one each to my sons.”

After his Armenian adventure, Jones returned to England to coach in the domestic game – including spells with Swindon Supermarine and Chippenham Town. Most recently, he was a coach with Royal Wootton Bassett Town Football Club in Swindon.

“I’m retired now,” he says. “I gave up at the end of last season. I’ve done my stint.”

But he still checks in on his former charges, including Armenia.

“I would always keep an eye on how Armenia are getting on. It has been interesting to see their results over the last few years. I’d want them to do well.”

As Ireland can certainly testify from their experience in June, Armenia no longer set out with the ambition of not losing.

These days, Tom Jones has time again to be a football supporter and can be found often at Stamford Bridge. He was there recently for Graham Potter’s first game in charge of the Blues.

“It wasn’t the best performance, time will tell, but yeah I’m a Chelsea fan.”

A club once managed by his friend, Ian Porterfield.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times