Phil Jones should be remembered by Manchester United for more than just memes - his injury-ravaged career is nothing to laugh about
It has been ten years since Sir Alex Ferguson predicted that Phil Jones, who had just lifted his first Premier League title, would go on to be Manchester United’s greatest-ever player.
Needless to say, as Jones bids farewell to Old Trafford a decade later with no more titles to his name and his career ruined by injuries, Ferguson got that one wrong.
The legendary manager was not the only one to tip the versatile defender for greatness. Sir Bobby Charlton compared Jones to his old team-mate Duncan Edwards, the star of the great team known as the Busby Babes who was tragically killed in the Munich Air Disaster.
Fabio Capello likened him to Franco Baresi, and Gareth Southgate remarked early into his stint as England manager that Jones was the best defender in the country.
The fact that four great figures of the game believed so much in Jones makes the way his career has turned out even sadder. As well as the injuries, and there have been many of them, Jones has turned into a figure of ridicule. His contorted face has become the subject of endless memes, his name the punchline in so many jokes. But he deserves much better than that...
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Standing out to Ferguson
Jones was one of the most exciting prospects in the country and was in England's Under-19 and Under-21 sides. He first caught Ferguson's eye when he was aged 17 after starring in a 3-0 win for Blackburn over United in the FA Youth Cup in 2010.
Ferguson's initial attempt to sign Jones was unsuccessful but he was again attracted to him later that year while watching United trounce Blackburn's first team 7-1, when Dimitar Berbatov scored five goals. What stood out was the defender's determination in the face of adversity, his enthusiasm to fly into tackles despite the fact the match was a lost cause.
Ferguson eventually got his man in the summer of 2011, United paying £17 million ($21m) for him after beating off competition from Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. It looked like money well spent when Jones instantly settled into the team and became first-choice right-back. He showcased his physical power with a barnstorming run down the pitch against Bolton, bulldozing his way through the defence to pave the way for Wayne Rooney to score, one of two assists he gave to Rooney that day.
Ferguson's trust in Jones was further demonstrated when he picked him in midfield away to Liverpool. He scored his first goal for the club to secure a 1-0 win at Aston Villa and he was a key player throughout the season, when United were pipped to the title by Manchester City on goal difference, making 25 league starts.
Jones made his England debut that same season and was part of Roy Hodgson's squad for Euro 2012 although he did not get on in any of the matches.
A brutal amount of injuries
Jones has had a brutal number of injuries throughout his career. His problems began in his first season in the Premier League with Blackburn, when he tore a cartilage in his knee and was out for three months.
He stayed relatively injury-free in his first campaign with United but his second got off to a bad start when he injured his back in pre-season and then hurt his knee again. He did not make his first appearance until the end of November and in February he suffered a bad ankle injury against Everton, missing another two months.
He immediately returned to the team and was able to help United clinch the Premier League title against Aston Villa. But he made a grand total of only 13 league starts. It was after the game against Villa when Ferguson made his bold prediction that Jones could become one of United's greatest ever players. He had clearly not considered the effect the injuries might have on the then-21-year-old.
According to Transfermarkt, Jones was injured for a total of 1169 days between 2011 and 2021, missing a total of 205 matches. That is more than three years out of ten recovering from injury. In the last four seasons he has made only 13 appearances. Across his 12 seasons at the club, he was able to play just 169 Premier League matches out of a potential 456, just 37 per cent.
While he managed to make four appearances last season, he has barely been able to train this campaign. When speaking after Jones announced he was leaving, Erik ten Hag revealed he had only been able to see him train for 20 minutes in pre-season before the defender got injured again.
'I've been through hell'
Jones has sustained more than 40 separate injuries and almost no part of Jones' body has escaped punishment. He has had serious ankle and knee injuries but also problems with his hamstring, calf, groin, shoulder, back, pelvis, hip and toe as well as concussion.
Some United fans have questioned why he was given a new four-year contract in 2019 given his injury record and blamed him for taking a wage. But just imagine what it must be like to have spent such a large portion of your career unable to do what you love, not to mention being in constant pain.
"I've been through hell and back over the last couple of years," Jones told United's website in 2021, after being injured for almost two years, which included undergoing knee surgery for a third time.
"I think as a footballer, as a person, as a human being, that's the lowest I probably ever felt in my life. You try and get a balance between football and family life but it was so difficult going home and trying to look after the kids. You're there, but you're not there, you're not present."
Perhaps the saddest thing about Jones' injury struggles is that his determination to keep playing through the pain inevitably made things worse. He took six painkilling injections to play for England in a friendly against Germany in 2017.
Anti-inflammatories and injections were a part of his routine. Despite all the injuries he had, which included having the meniscus in one of his knees removed in a 2016 surgery, he kept going. He also took his recovery deadly seriously.
"I’ve done my absolute utmost," he told the Sunday Times. "From tablets, to my diet, to setting up my house so that every time I get back from training I’m sitting in recovery boots and have my ice machine ready. Nobody can say, ‘You didn’t do enough.’ ”
Abuse on the street, social media...and from Rio
Jones has not only had to deal with injuries. He has had to endure streams of abuse, on social media and in real life. When he was given a new United contract in 2019, the club's announcement on Twitter had over 6,500 replies. Nearly all of them were negative, the majority abusive.
And that was two years after Jones decided to come off all social media platforms due to the abuse. He has also had to shoulder taunts from people in the street, even while out with his young daughters.
The mocking even extended to fellow professionals. Rio Ferdinand called him "a waste of time" in a podcast in 2021, and that comment from a former team-mate hit Jones hard.
"What he said was poor. Really poor," Jones told the Sunday Times. "I’m not into disputes, not into arguments, and if he didn’t know, he didn’t know . . .” Given the physical pain he was suffering, the abuse made things worse.
"In this society we’re living in at the minute, all the racism and stuff that affects mental health — I’d just say be careful. You don’t know how it’s going to affect players: physically, mentally, emotionally. We always go back to the same point: ‘Oh they’re footballers, they should be able to deal with it, they get so much money, have this lavish lifestyle.’ But take all that away, strip all that back and we’re just human beings."
An emotional comeback at Old Trafford
Jones did make an emotional return to the first team last year against Wolves at Old Trafford. It was his first match in over two years and although United lost 1-0, Jones was outstanding and the fans at Old Trafford - not the ones who abused him on social media - gave him an incredible reception.
He was in tears at full-time and it would be the last time he played 90 minutes for Man Utd. It was one of his most memorable moments for the club.
"I felt great and inspired by the atmosphere at Old Trafford. Playing in front of those fans, I know how much it means to them. I understand what they expect from us," he told The Guardian.
“I had no fear because I was so happy to be on the pitch. I could have played not so great and that would have still been an achievement. That was as big an achievement as winning the league. People might think: ‘What are you talking about?’ But to come back from where I was at, in a dark place, makes it special.”
A painful goodbye but an unforgettable time
Jones' farewell letter to United fans was painfully honest. He wrote: "I wish I could have played more. I wish I could have given more to the many squads I played alongside. I will say, from the bottom of my heart, I did everything I could. I did everything the medical team asked of me. I never left a stone unturned in the pursuit of living my dream and representing Manchester United on the pitch.
"Sometimes, in life, things happen that we don’t like, but we have to learn to accept it and be at peace in our minds that we did everything we could to overcome the challenges. In your career, and life, that’s all we can really do."
But he was able to look back on his long time at the club with pride. "I lived a dream at the biggest club in the world. I played for England in major tournaments. At United, I won trophies, most notably the Premier League under Sir Alex, in his final season," he added.
"It’s not a time to be sad, it’s a time to look back, for me and my family, and be happy that I managed to live a dream at United. I can always say to my family and friends that not many people get to play for this club, to always be in its history and to be able to look back with such happy memories."
Jones' time at Old Trafford will inevitably be overshadowed by the injuries and the jokes are likely to continue long after he leaves. But not many players get to spend 12 years at a club like United or make 229 appearances for them.
And not many players can say they have been praised by Alex Ferguson for his job marking Cristiano Ronaldo at the Santiago Bernabeu. It is one of the memories Jones has kept with him through the dark times. The people who abused Jones on social media or on the street would do well to remember that.