Ten months later, it’s almost comical to recall that Phil Jones and Chris Smalling faced a battle to start Manchester United’s opening-day fixture against Tottenham. It was Jones who had paired Daley Blind in United’s four International Champions Cup matches in July.
“I have to start with a formation and when a formation is doing well I let them play in that formation,” Louis van Gaal said. “I think I shall play Luke Shaw with Blind and Matteo Darmian and then the right central defender’s position I have to consider.”
As misfortune would have it, Jones was subsequently laid low by an occlusion, a blockage of the veins in his calf. Van Gaal’s decision had been made, and Smalling never looked back.
If 2014/15 was a frustrating season for Jones, this campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. Illness in August, September and October, muscle injury in November and December, ankle injury in January, February, March and April. Forty-six minutes in all competitions so far in 2016.
Therefore, if realising that Jones started an international match less than six months ago is surprising, learning that he played more minutes in England’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign than Smalling might knock you off your chair. For so long Roy Hodgson’s Swiss Army Knife, Jones has now even lost that role to Eric Dier; younger, faster, stronger, more reliable. There were no clamours for Jones to be given a seat on the plane/ferry/train after the squad was announced.
By the time next season starts, it will be five years since Jones was first brought into the senior England setup, a late call-up by Fabio Capello for the friendly against Netherlands. Two months earlier he had moved to Manchester United, becoming one of the most expensive teenagers in history. Two months later and he was a fixture in United’s first team.
“If you talk to Bobby Charlton,” said Paddy Crerand at the time, “Phil Jones reminds him of Duncan Edwards with his power and build.” Even then, it was clear that Jones was being made a hostage to fortune. The next great prediction on Jones’ glittering future came from Alex Ferguson in 2013: “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, no matter where we play him.”
Fast forward to April 2016, and Jones was being derided by United supporters for his performances in Under-21 Development League fixtures. ’Is he even a professional player any more?’ one supporter asked, reflecting the mood. The internet is not the natural habitat for nuance and patience.
There is no great secret to Jones’ Old Trafford demise. He missed 24 games in 2012/13 (back and ankle), 15 games in 2013/14 (ankle, groin, knee, hip and head), 14 games in 2014/15 (hamstring, shin and ankle) and 32 games this season (calf, foot and ankle). Under such circumstances, progress is impossible. At an elite club, unreliability is your eventual suicide note.
For a young footballer with international ambitions, the mental impact of such misfortune can be devastating. Having sacrificed a ‘normal’ childhood in pursuit of your dream, being stopped from training and performing through no fault of your own is an obvious psychological stressor. A FIFPro study in 2013 revealed that 26% of professional players surveyed suffered from anxiety and strains of depression when injured.
One of Ferguson’s initial attractions to Jones as a player was his emotional maturity. Having lost two of his school friends to tragic accidents, he spoke eloquently about dealing with adversity in an interview with Mark Ogden shortly after joining United.
“Bad times are an eye-opener and, when things aren’t going well, I always remind myself that I have my family, my friends, my girlfriend,” Jones said. “People like that will always be there with you, so I always try to take the positives out of things.
“That’s the joy of football, though, in that one minute you can be up there and the next, down here,” Jones continued, a sentence now steeped in pathos. Football hasn’t provided him with much joy lately, just a two-year cycle of disappointment and struggle.
Yet injuries form only part of Jones’ tarnished reputation. Very few players have become quite such a figure of fun, the defender’s facial contortions and occasional clumsiness transforming him into a footballing Mr Bean. Jones has become the gurning face of a million social media jokes, an audience gleefully anticipating his next (sometimes literal) fall into absurdity. We’ve all been guilty to some extent.
‘Phil Jones falling over is exactly as hilarious as it sounds,’ a Daily Telegraph headline in May 2015 read. ‘Phil Jones, you make our lives better and better with each passing day,’ the same outlet tweeted. That’s right, he’d pulled a funny face. A man of means has become a man of memes.
There is no malice to these japes, but nor too any reflection as to what Jones himself must make of national broadsheet newspapers making jokes at his personal expense. He is a victim of the principle that nothing sells quite like banter, but suffers too for those lofty projections of Ferguson and Charlton. Someone else’s pride came before his own fall.
In that 2011 interview with Mark Ogden, with Jones riding the crest of a wave, the then-19 year old spoke of his hopes for the future. He aimed not for individual accolades or England captaincy, but meaning. “I don’t want to be a player that people don’t remember,” was the pay-off line.
Unfortunately for Jones, he has become memorable only for the wrong reasons. Mocked for being over-hyped, mocked for being perennially injured and mocked for struggling to find form after those injuries. The jokes are a damn sight funnier when they’re not at your expense.
This summer, Jones faces an initial battle to remain at Old Trafford, and then a further fight to stay fit and regain his first-team place. Fail in either task, and a vaunted youngster will only further establish his reputation as English football’s tragicomic king.