Cobi Jones is the ultimate US Soccer Guy. The record caps holder for his country, an LA Galaxy legend, one of the most decorated players in Major League Soccer history and the proud owner of an indisputably excellent haircut.
Yet in the late winter of 1995 he found himself in the queue at McDonald’s in Coventry city centre wearing a “big brown wax jacket” (according to the Sky Blues fan who spotted him there) and looking “homeless”. That’s what the Premier League can do to a man.
The pint-sized midfielder spent a solitary season trying his luck at English-style soccer when he moved to Highfield Road in 1994, initially to much excitement after his starring role in the USA’s 1994 World Cup campaign.
Coventry’s club shop took the unprecedented step of launching a Cobi Jones T-shirt amid what one fan on the Sky Blues Talk forum remembers as a “wave of expectation” about his arrival.
And the early signs were promising, as Jones won a match-winning penalty on his debut against Leeds following a mazy run into the area.
“I thought he was going to be amazing,” confessed one City fan who was present that day.
However, there were others at the game who were disappointed to have received a 5ft 7in dreadlocked American winger instead of a 6ft 3in mulleted American defender (who was also a rock god).
“Alexi Lalas was who we all wanted at the time and Cobi Jones wasn’t him,” said the City fan. “I still remember the back page of a newspaper that claimed we’d offered to let Lalas’ band hold a concert at Highfield Road if he signed. Still a bit gutted he didn’t.”
But the Coventry grunge scene’s loss was Jones’s gain, or at least it should have been. Except that exciting debut display proved to be slightly atypical.
“He seemed to be playing without studs on his boots, always slipping over just when he needed not to,” recalled one supporter.
Another said: “He was one of those signings that was either going to be legendary or shocking - and sadly it was the latter on this occasion. But despite this I always liked him. Maybe it was the hair!”
Ah, the hair. Jones’s magnificent bleached-blonde braids, which protruded from his head in a variety of directions whether he was in full flight or standing still, were reason enough to ensure his popularity.
“Ability 5/10. Haircut 7/10,” was one summary.
Jones also didn’t become one of the USA’s greatest players without having some ability. He scored twice for City in the 1994/95 season - in a 1-0 win against Norwich and a 2-0 victory at Crystal Palace - and is also remembered for having a “blinder” against Chelsea and getting an “overhead kick assist” for a Dion Dublin goal.
Then there was the catchy terrace chant penned in his honour, which went - to the tune of 2Unlimited’s No Limit - “Cobi, Cobi Cobi, Cobi Cobi, Cobi Cobi Jones-ee.” Inspired.
“He was very fast and like most wide players blew hot and cold,” said one fan. “He was a decent player but Phil Neal constantly played him out of position,” argued another.
Yet Neal’s replacement, Big Ron Atkinson, didn’t see enough in Jones to keep him for the following season. He was offloaded to Brazilian side Vasco de Gama, where he played just a handful of games before returning to the USA, where he remains much-loved.
“I never saw him play for Coventry but I saw him countless times for the US national team, for which he was a vital cog for many years and scored quite a few excellent goals,” said one US fan.
Jones joined LA Galaxy in the club’s founding season and played a record-breaking 12 campaigns, serving as interim coach following his retirement in 2007.
Now an American sporting icon, he was introduced as “one of three legends of world football” when he helped draw the teams for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The other two were Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.
“I couldn’t stop laughing,” said one stunned Sky Blues fan who witnessed the comparison being made live on air.
But that’s the kind of company Cobi Jones keep nowadays; his dishevelled appearance in a Coventry McDonald’s is nothing but a distant memory. Premier League success isn’t the be-all and end-all when you’ve got cool dreadlocks and 164 international caps.
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