Phil Jones was the man Blackburn Rovers believed could replace John Terry as an England stalwart. Upon signing him for Manchester United in the summer of 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson, who would go on to state he coached just four world class players in 27 years at Old Trafford, said he could be the greatest player in the club’s history.
When Jones was a teenager, able to play in midfield and at the heart of defence, expectation was real, but it wouldn’t be described as typical tabloid hyperbole. A decade on and it is easy to forget. Jones is still at Manchester United but only by default.
Injuries cost him his best years and perhaps an inability to be ready to step into the shoes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic when the time was right, as he and Chris Smalling were bought for, cost him dearly. Jones was also a victim of circumstance, too. Ferguson retired two years after his arrival, unexpectedly at the time, so the man who mastered the art of evolution arguably better than anyone else wasn’t able to see through the cycle of building his next great team and Phil Jones was caught in the crossfire.
There were England caps and medals but he wasn’t able to fulfil his potential. Through David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there hasn’t been a settled identity or direction during most of Jones’ time. It has been a cocktail of misery which turned a dream move into a nightmare. Now he remains, on the books, but barely as a considerable option and more a symbol of the club’s inability to shift unwanted players on high wages and long contracts.
That is the start of the abuse and the mockery, following on from all the memes of his face when going in for tackles, has stemmed from. Footballers live the high life; they enjoy love, adulation and respect way beyond that of doctors and teachers simply because the sport they play and clubs they represent carry such a weight of popularity.But what happens when all that attention gets flipped on its head?
It is easy for that attention to turn negative and Phil Jones has felt the full force of that. Now returning from a 20-month injury layoff, there won’t be many Manchester United fans interested in seeing him back in the team and more are likely to question why he is still around, having not been sold, paid off or voluntarily exited the club for free. This is a strange phenomenon that only occurs in football to this extent because he is now viewed as a nuisance.
He should pay the price by thrusting his own career and life into uncertainty simply because it makes business sense. Yes, the fact that Jones is still with the Red Devils is indicative of their recent problems but it was their decision to give him a new contract in 2019, when he was already considerably down the pecking order and barely in England contention.
Phil Jones’ is an interesting case study of football’s acceptance of responsibility when it comes to mental health. When awareness, slogans and debate is arguably at an all time high, he has still been left to struggle alone in the background, away from the headlines. Injured footballers struggle most because recovery can be be laborious, repetitive and isolating, separate from the real hook they all love: dressing room camaraderie.
But also, they are forgotten about because they are not seen on a matchday, the only time fans really get a glimpse at what goes on. For injury prone players, it can be even worse, because of the notion of burden and that they are somehow at fault. In that sense, Jones has suffered a double-whammy.
Those memes, while likely intended as a joke, are very harmful. Recently, Luke Chadwick spoke out about the mockery he suffered over his looks when a Manchester United player, and not just from fans but also the media. For Phil Jones, times have changed sufficiently for him to be the butt of jokes from supporters and not mainstream tv or radio stations but social media has made it relentless.
He discussed his mindset in an interview just last week but only now is he back in the public consciousness because of that interview is he being talked about. Even this article, designed to shine a light on how much work there still is to do in this sense, can be construed as part of the wider issue.
Still only 29, Phil Jones is not over the hill yet but age is often overused as the barometer for the quality of a career. He will struggle to find even a semblance of his best form having been out for so long, and really is not of the required level for Manchester United.
Everybody needs to be honest about that and it is likely Jones himself understands but he has been seen as a commodity and a problem for too long. Footballers are human beings, they struggle a lot. It is about time that was respected on a deeper level than empty platitudes that still allow for cases to slip through the net.
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