In recent years Manchester United fans have become accustomed to the sight of young signings for whom they once had high hopes becoming a burden on their club. With high wages but little on-pitch value, those players find their careers wasting away in the stands at Old Trafford, stuck between a no-longer viable dream and the cold, hard reality of the bulk of the Premier League.
Some, like Anderson, were content to sacrifice their careers for a huge regular pay check, while others find themselves stuck in limbo, happy to move away but over-priced and over-paid for the standard of club they now attract. A third group recognise the stagnation of their careers and take the plunge into the real footballing world to resurrect their professional pride, as Jonny Evans has at West Bromwich Albion. The Northern Irishman has gone from injury prone and fitfully used at United to club captain and one of the first names on the team-sheet at The Hawthorns. ‘Homegrown’ players tend to be in demand and thus have a stronger market value within the Premier League.
One ‘homegrown’ player at a crossroads at United is Phil Jones. Much was expected of the Preston-born centre back after he signed from Blackburn Rovers in 2011 for a fee in the region of £16m. At Ewood Park he had impressed from a young age and had enjoyed a fine debut in the Premier League as an 18 year old against Chelsea, perfecting his man-to-man marking job on Didier Drogba. His time at Rovers had been somewhat stop-start due to injury and he looked no more of an athlete than Steve Bruce did at United two decades before, but he was effective and more technically gifted than initial impressions might suggest.
After signing on the dotted line at Old Trafford, Jones travelled with England under-21s to the Euros in Czech Republic, and although England were knocked out at the group stage he formed a fine defensive partnership with Chris Smalling which had United fans excited for the futures of both players. With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic creeping towards their careers’ ends, it looked like Sir Alex Ferguson had their replacements in the bag. Jones made his debut in the Charity Shield win over Manchester City and started his first Premier League game two weeks later at home to Spurs. His manager valued the player’s versatility and over the next two seasons used him in a variety of roles in both defence and midfield. Jones, however, managed to achieve the paradox of rarely looking out of place in any given position but also never quite convincing there either.
Ferguson appeared to see something that most could not, and after Jones had played in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa which wrapped up the 2012/13 Premier League title he was effusive in his praise:
“Jones, arguably the way he is looking, could be our best ever player. I think Jones may be one of the best players we have ever had, not matter where we play him. At 21 years of age, he is going to be a phenomenal player. I think he can play anywhere on the pitch. He has such a massive influence, with his instinct and reading of the game. He has a drive about him.”
21 at the time, Jones clearly had promise, but the fans had witnessed little to suggest they were witnessing a great of the game.
Having succeeded the now retired Ferguson, David Moyes continued to utilise Jones in a number of roles as he searched for solutions to his side’s many problems during a wretched campaign. The player’s injuries were increasing in frequency and after Louis Van Gaal replaced the Scot, Jones’ United career had already peaked. The Dutchman decided that the player would play exclusively at centre-back, but with availability an increasing problem it became impossible for him to form a consistent partnership at the back or play the run of games needed to reach full fitness. In the 2014/15 season Jones played only 24 times in all competitions, a number which fell to only 13 the following season.
Many United fans have long since lost the faith in a now 24-year old who is rarely fit and appears to be an accident waiting to happen when he does start. His bravery has never been in question, but the anticipation, controlled power and fine leadership qualities displayed during his formative years as a professional are no longer what they were. There exists an iconic image of Jones, from a recent game against Arsenal, in which the defender stumbles as he chases to clear a through ball which could have set Olivier Giroud free. On his hands and knees, Jones briefly, desperately chases the ball, before flinging himself head first at it, a flick of the neck deflecting it away to safety off the Arsenal striker’s shins. It was Jones epitomised, clumsy and prone to mistakes, but recklessly courageous, a combination that has in no small part contributed to his increasing injury issues.
With Van Gaal gone and Jose Mourinho installed as manager, every player in the squad had a chance to make a new start. Jones more than most needed one. Jamie Jackson, in the Guardian, suggested that the Portuguese saw Jones and Smalling as his first choice defensive pairing, even after the expensive acquisition of Eric Bailly. Pre-season lapses, however, may have caused a rethink and it was Blind and Bailly who lined up for the Community Shield. Both impressed, then and in the first two Premier League games of the season, and Jones finds himself fourth, or perhaps fifth, in the queue. At 24 it has left the player at a crossroads in his career. He was linked with Hull City before Steve Bruce resigned and more recently to Stoke City and Arsenal. An English player remains in demand even when on-pitch contributions are minimal. There are now conflicting reports about his availability, whilst some state that Jones has declined the chance to leave in order to fight for his place.
One can understand why he feels that unwillingness to leave. United remain the pinnacle of English football and almost any move is a step down. It is why Evans delayed his release from the club he joined as an 11 year old for so long. But Jones is now at the most crucial stage of his career, at an age when he should be approaching his physical peak, and yet he finds himself not playing and a long way from a starting berth for England. Every day that goes by is a step further into irrelevance. He need only look at Evans, fit, revived, being touted as a potential target for Arsenal, to see the benefits of a new beginning. Jones is three years younger than the Northern Irishman was when he left and has far longer to play himself back to the pinnacle of football. What is certain is that he cannot, however, do that from the stands at Old Trafford. The fans have long since lost faith in his contribution (an ill-advised ‘branded’ Munich memorial image didn’t help) and Mourinho appears to see only limited value in the Lancastrian. It is hard to identify what there is to be gained in sticking around, even on a sizeable salary. To remain only for the money would seem to be a false economy, as reputational loss now will only reduce the value of future contracts, while playing time is lost that can never be regained. The decision would seem to be a relatively simple one for Jones and yet he is seemingly unwilling to take it. If a move does not materialise in the next week this will most likely be another season of stagnation for a once highly-promising prospect.