It’s 2 August 2020, a picture-perfect day for a cup final at the home of football. Clear blue sky without even the blemish of a cloud; the iconic archway silhouetted in the bright sunshine. But after a near-20-year professional career, this was hardly how 37-year-old Jon Stead saw his long-awaited bow at Wembley as the whistle went to get the game underway. He was sat in the stands in an empty stadium, wearing a face mask.
To play for your boyhood club; to represent your country; to make the net ripple in the Premier League; to stride out at Wembley. There are innumerable dreams in the minds eye of Englands talented, football-crazy youngsters.
Proud Yorkshireman Stead had achieved almost all of the aforementioned by his 22nd birthday. A product of the Huddersfield academy, he made his debut at 19 for the Terriers in 2002 as a fresh-faced yet old-fashioned target-man.
With the club in freefall and hampered by looming administration, manager Peter Jackson had just a handful of senior players at his disposal as they began the 2003/04 season in the fourth and final tier of the professional English pyramid – so the latest youth programme was rushed through into the first-team action.
Surprisingly with such a threadbare squad, Huddersfield found themselves amongst the league leaders when the January transfer window came around, largely due to the 18 goals that Stead had plundered.
Blackburn manager Graeme Souness took the gamble in a bold bid to avoid relegation from the Premier League and snapped up Stead for just over £1m. “There was a few clubs watching me from November, December, but not much more than that,” Stead told These Football Times. “I wasnt made aware of Blackburn’s interest at all, until Jacko pulled me over after a game and told me the club had accepted an offer – it was as quick as that really. The next day I was over at Blackburn – they were playing on a Sunday against Chelsea at Ewood Park and they wanted me to go over and meet the manager.
“Me and my stepdad watched the game in corporate [boxes] and had a meal and then just spoke to Souness in a stairwell at the back of the stadium. He said, ‘Do you think you can handle it at this level, lad?’ Obviously I said yes but really I was bricking it!
“Within ten days of hearing of their interest, I was starting for them and scoring against Middlesbrough. My debut was a real highlight; even if I’d not scored and we hadn’t won the game it still would’ve been a huge moment. It was very surprising on the Friday night to be told I was going to be starting alongside Paul Gallagher, and Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole were on the bench. It was a surreal moment – I’d only been scoring in the old third division for four months.
“Souness had been having some issues with Yorke and Cole and myself and Gally were the two that he looked towards to try and salvage things.”
The huge step up to the Premier League was taken in the ample stride of the six-foot-three-inch striker. His debut goal was the first of six crucial strikes, including winners against Fulham, Everton and even reigning champions Manchester United, as Rovers avoided relegation and Stead was installed as a sudden cult hero.
“That season was fantastic. I was scoring goals and we were getting great results, and we stayed up without it even going to the final game. It was a job well done and I was looking forward to the next season, but circumstances changed. Souness left and went up to Newcastle. Mark Hughes came in and I didnt see as much football as I’d have liked – I wasn’t one of his players.”
Meanwhile, the move had threatened to derail Huddersfield, but they managed to secure their promotion via a playoff final victory over Mansfield at the Millennium Stadium. Stead was at the game to support the team and was welcomed onto the pitch to not only celebrate with them, but was honoured for his key contribution to the season with a winners medal.
He represented England 11 times at under-21 level and had already checked off so many of those schoolboy dreams. He still hadn’t, however, played on the sacred turf of the iconic and legendary national stadium. It would remain a missing piece of his career jigsaw for a long, long time.
New Blackburn boss Mark Hughes soon brought in his Welsh star striker Craig Bellamy and Stead found himself warming the bench, his time at Ewood clearly up. “Overall, I loved it there,” said Stead. “It gave me a great platform for my career and I’m still thoroughly grateful for the opportunity. Scoring against Manchester United was another huge moment for me and my family, it felt like a real step up in my career and something I’ll remember forever.”
With manager Mick McCarthy a long-time admirer, fellow Premier League relegation battlers Sunderland paid £1.8m for Stead’s services, but like many lone forwards in struggling teams, he was inevitably starved of service and a long goal drought began to hang heavy.
When he was loaned to Championship side Derby in 2006, a journeyman career in the EFL began – but so did that of a regular goalscorer and one of the Football League’s most popular figures. “Steady” by name; steady by game.
When asked who the finest player he had played with at the top level was, Stead answered quickly: “Tugay. An incredible talent. He was coming towards the end of his career so probably wasn’t even at his best, but he had a brilliant attitude towards the game – really relaxed and confident in his own ability. Technically, he was magically gifted with the ball and was a joy to be with both on and off the pitch.”
Stead’s Premier League experience and positive nature led to him being not only a leader of the forward line, but of the changing room, too. Yet playoff finals and cup runs that may have brought about the Wembley adventure proved elusive. Whilst Stead had the stories of playing against some of the worlds elite, many younger, less established teammates were able to regale him with their anecdotes of Wembley appearances – with good friend and Bristol City colleague Martyn Woolford never missing an opportunity to remind him about the day he blasted the winner in the League One playoff final for Scunthorpe.
Championship stints with Sheffield United, Ipswich, Coventry, Bristol City and finally – after nine years and seven clubs – a return to his hometown of Huddersfield, saw Stead into the final years of his career before a further drop down the pyramid was required. A disappointing load spell at Oldham had led the 31-year-old to question where his career was heading and how long of it he may have left. But another loan move to another local rival sparked Stead’s return to form – and to the back page headlines of the national newspapers.
“That Bradford FA Cup run was very special. It came at a good time for me because I’d been struggling to play much at Huddersfield; I’d had a little loan spell at Oldham which didn’t go very well and I was thinking where do I go from here? But that move to Bradford picked everything back up again and got me playing and scoring regularly again.”
Stead had already scored in each of the opening three rounds of the 2014/15 FA Cup when his League One also-rans Bradford were drawn to play José Mourinho’s Premier League leaders and champions-elect Chelsea, away at Stamford Bridge. A nice day out, eh? A chance to test themselves against the best and maybe get the shirt of an international star to remember the day by, eh?
That was the way it was seen from the outside; after all, there were 49 league placings separating the two clubs. Mourinho wasn’t going to consider leaving things to chance in front of over 41,000 supporters, deploying eleven first-team regulars including Petr Cech, Oscar and Didier Drogba, as well as a young Mohamed Salah.
With five minutes to go until half-time, the script was being followed to the letter. Goals from Gary Cahill and Ramires had many in the stadium going for their Bovril early on the cold January afternoon.
A rare journey into the opposition final third led to a dangerous set-piece for Bradford. When the high cross cleared everyone, the experienced Stead retreated into space on the edge of the penalty area and was available for the ultimate pull-back. Defenders and goalkeeper alike were expecting a right-footed curling effort to the far corner, but Stead dragged the ball in the opposite direction, creating the perfect space for a left-footed thunderbolt that put Cech, as well as the ball, into the Chelsea goal.
With 20 minutes to go, Mourinho threw on Fàbregas and Willian to put the game beyond their lowly challengers – but five minutes later, the game was dramatically level. On came Eden Hazard to surely win the game and allow Chelsea to avoid an unwanted replay up north. But two assists from the inspired and dominating Stead in the final ten minutes of the match completed one of the FA Cup’s historic giant-killings.
Another goal to make it five in five rounds saw off former team Sunderland and another Premier League scalp, and Stead and Bradford’s journey was the talk of the English game. A home quarter-final tie against the Championship’s Reading was now seeming relatively straight-forward, and victory would ensure a semi-final trip to London and, finally, Stead’s Wembley bow.
But it wasn’t to be. A goalless draw at Valley Parade meant a replay at the Madejski, where the dreams were brought to an end. “I’ve always had a good relationship with the fans at every club I’ve been at,” said Stead, reminiscing on his long career. “Even when I’ve stupidly gone on some of the message boards and seen what people are writing about me signing for them – Bristol City was one, I was getting dogs abuse – I ended up having an unbelievable relationship with the fans there. I’ve always got involved in the community stuff at clubs and given my all on the pitch.”
Stead talks about his respect for the honesty and work ethic in the lower leagues. “It’s relatable, isn’t it, when you’ve got a bunch of lads running around and working hard for each other? The majority of the people that have paid their money to sit in the stand will have been running around all week, a lot more than footballers do in their day-to-day lives, so they want to see people doing that for their club on the pitch. It’s about showing some humility, rather than strutting around like they own the place after playing 20 Premier League games. That’s what annoys me.”
In 2015, Stead signed for League Two’s Notts County. Four seasons and 162 appearances for the Magpies meant that Meadow Lane became the unlikely destination at which he had the most longevity, before relegation led to him being released at the end of the 2018/19 campaign at 36.
And so, after 17 seasons, 580 appearances and 135 goals, Stead’s tenure in the Premier League and the EFL, as well as his Wembley dream, were over when he signed for lowly National League side Harrogate Town. Or were they?
Harrogate is middle-class town in North Yorkshire, historically known for its cobbled streets and spa water – certainly not its football club.
Whilst Stead had been wheeling away in celebration in front of crowds of up to 70,000 people in the elite division, semi-professional Harrogate were plying their trade in the Conference North and were one of over 40 clubs that made up the sixth tier of the English league system. They were perennially near the bottom of this division but repeatedly and narrowly avoided dropping even deeper into obscurity.
In 2010, father and son partnership Irving and Simon Weaver took control of the club as chairman and manager respectively, and suddenly they began to look up rather than down, becoming a full-time professional outfit in 2017. They had been in that same league since its 2004 inception, but finally escaped it by beating Brackley in a 2017/18 playoff.
Now in the National League, Harrogate were one step away from making it to the Football League for the first time in their 106 year existence.
The momentum continued and they finished sixth in their inaugural season at their dizzying new heights, qualifying for the playoffs but being eliminated early by Flyde. More experience was required, and Stead had just been released by Notts County. A mutual agreement didn’t take long to make.
Now turning out in front of hundreds at Wetherby Road rather than the thousands he had been used to, Stead was playing for his love of the game and hoping to simply enjoy and appreciate his final ebb in the sport. But terrible off-the-field circumstances would make it the most difficult season of his career.
A disappointing start for both Stead and Town left the team languishing near the foot of the table after a dozen games. But some harsh words from the management team brought the talented bunch out of their slump, and they became the form team in the division, with Stead back amongst the goals.
With a small squad and the likelihood of a playoff campaign elongating an already marathon season growing, Simon Weaver set about getting in another striker to provide competition and cover for his forwards.
On the morning of 13 March, Weaver completed the signing of Aaron Martin from Guiseley. Later that day, they were due to travel to Solihull ahead of the 38th league match of the 46 game programme. But when one player and one staff member reported in with potential coronavirus symptoms, Weaver took the brave decision to put safety first and postpone the fixture. Within hours, the whole of football followed suit. With nine games left to go of the league season, football was in lockdown.
Harrogate were in second place in the league, just four points behind Barrow in the race for the solitary automatic promotion position, and had been the team with all the momentum. Life changed overnight into a monotony of homeschooling and anxiety.
Being the gateway league between the EFL and non-league, the National League had the most uncertainty of all. No outcome was off of the table and everything was hanging in the balance. With a windfall of almost £2m for promotion, decisions being made in the boardrooms of differing associations were going to effect the lives and livelihoods of so many at the club.
For the ten weeks that followed, all associated with Harrogate became nauseous at hearing the phrase “null-and-void”. When the entire structure below them took that option, the future looked bleak, especially when it was decided that the National League would not be completed and the final standings confirmed by a points-per-game average, confirming second place for Town.
But when the EFL confirmed two teams would indeed be relegated from League Two, the correct assumption was made that two clubs would be promoted. Barrow were up, but how would the second team be decided? Would it be Harrogate without the need for complicated behind-closed-doors football, or would it be decided via a stressful playoff?
On 17 June, the authorities deemed it would be the latter. This was uplifting news for all the other qualifying teams, as they had been given a lifeline. For Town, after months away from the game, they had to pick themselves up and go again.
The devastating news was relayed to the squad via a team Zoom call. “I had a bottle of Bud behind the laptop, ready. Ready to go!” joked Stead. But his life had been shaken months earlier while COVID-19 was still just a mild concern in other parts of the world.
In the early hours of 25 January, his close friend and former teammate at Huddersfield, Jordan Sinnott, was attacked following a night out in Retford, Nottinghamshire. He sustained serious head injuries and tragically died that same day.
“It was a terrible start to the year. As a family, we’d already had two bereavements with grandparents passing just before Christmas. So it was the third funeral in about four months. It was a really tough time, but Jordan’s death hit us the hardest. I’d certainly never lost a close friend like that before in any circumstance, but the way it happened was just so hard for everyone – it’s still tough now.”
Coronavirus protocol-laden training began at the very end of June, as the team prepared the biggest match of Harrogate’s history. They had home advantage for the semi-final by virtue of the runners-up league position, and they would host Boreham Wood.
Stead would be left frustrated as new signing Aaron Martin got the nod and would make his debut, leaving the veteran on the bench. “I was the only casualty of the pandemic, you know. If it hadn’t been for that break, I’d have 100 percent been starting in that semi-final,” Stead explained.
It was one of the most dominant first-half displays of the season for Town, who felt they should’ve been several goals ahead at the break, yet the game remained goalless. Anxiety grew as minute piled upon minute with fears of a heartbreaking counter-attack goal.
Weaver called for Stead on the hour mark, and the game swung once again. He had only been on the pitch for a couple of minutes when the goal finally came from a corner. Whilst he wasn’t directly involved, there is little doubt that his aerial threat had preoccupied the Boreham Wood defenders.
“That was my remit, to try and be a presence and regain some of the territory that we’d lost, and it seemed to work. I had a few duals with their centre-halves straight away and got us higher up the pitch. I’d like to think me coming on caused them some issues and the tide of the game did turn – the timing was right.”
The solitary goal was good enough and, with more relief than joy, out of the ashes of the coronavirus devastation, the Wembley dream became a reality for both club and player. The opposition? The club that Stead had spent the previous four seasons loyally representing: Notts County.
Whilst family and friends would sadly have to miss the special occasion, Stead did ensure one of the famous red seats was reserved for the smiling face of Jordan Sinnott in the form of a cardboard tribute.
Simon Weaver stuck with the same starting 11 he had deployed in the semi-final, resigning Stead to a further agonising wait to play on the hallowed turf.
For much of the match, it appeared any game-time the veteran might get would be merely processional, as Town ran riot in the first half and the Magpies were lucky to be only two goals down at the break. But just 30 seconds into the second period, a defensive error gave Notts County a free-kick on the very edge of the penalty area, one that was expertly dispatched into the bottom corner.
Suddenly, the game had a different feel. Town’s defence looked like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders as they began to capitulate. It was chance after chance for County, and appeared to be a matter of time before the equaliser came.
Stead was once again summoned after 60 minutes. He was finally playing at Wembley – and it was arguably the most important half-hour of football of his long career, as he was instructed to use his experience to hold up the ball and to calm his rattled teammates down. “I was just so excited to be playing. Coming down all those steps and getting ready to get onto the field – I just couldn’t wait to get on. I saw it as an opportunity to fulfil a dream and to help us get over the line.”
Ten minutes later, Stead did as he had been instructed to do and received the ball to feet near the halfway line, out on the right flank. Inspired by the occasion, he rolled back the years with some intricate footwork and left two defenders in his wake. The pitch opened up, and a counter-attack of their own was on.
Stead cleverly released Jack Muldoon down the wing. Muldoon carried the ball at pace to the touchline, before crossing it low towards the onrushing Jack Diamond, whose own momentum appeared to have taken him past the ball – but a majestic back-heel behind his own body bamboozled defender and goalkeeper alike. At 3-1 it was jubilation. Notts County were flattened.
Only the width of the post would later cost Stead the ultimate moment of his own Wembley goal, but the glorious victory was enough: Harrogate Town were in the Football League, and Jon Stead was a Wembley winner. “I’m by no means ashamed of saying that my promotion from the National League to the Football League is the biggest achievement in my career.”
At the peak of the beer-swilling, champagne-spraying celebrations, Stead sneaked away and climbed the steps towards to where the cardboard tribute to his late friend was. He sat next to him with his medal around his neck, and told him that this one was for him. “Kelly, his fiancee, has had a baby now – she found out she was pregnant a week before Jordan’s funeral,” Stead was happy to reveal.
“So she’s got her hands full now, but she’s got a lot of support, all of us – Jordan’s mates – are really involved with helping her out with stuff. So we’ve got a little girl that’s going to have plenty of uncles as she grows up. It’s heartbreaking but so nice all at the same time, such contrasting emotions.
“We’ve got the foundation set up now, which I’m a trustee of, along with some of his other mates and his family.”
As well as being a trustee for the Jordan Sinnott Foundation Trust (@JSFTrust), Jon is a UEFA B certified coach, owns and runs the Jon Stead Striker Academy, and he is still playing for Harrogate – in the Football League. At a time when they seem fewer than ever, he is one of football’s true gentlemen who gives to the game much more than he takes out.
By Steven Bell @steven_bell1985