Phil Jones is leaving Manchester United after 12 years, and the letter that marks his departure is a personal touch which does him considerable credit.
And then there was one. The ties between Manchester United and the Ferguson years have long been fraying, and David De Gea will soon be the the only player in the current United squad signed by the legendary manager; Phil Jones is to leave after 12 years at Old Trafford.
It is the end of an era that will probably come to be framed in terms of what might have been rather than anything that actually happened.
Ferguson himself clearly rated Jones, paying £16.5m to sign him from Blackburn Rovers when the defender was 19 years old. Versatile to the point at which he could play practically anywhere across the defence or the defensive midfield, in 2013, as Manchester United coasted to another Premier League title, Ferguson said of him that: “He may be one of the best players we have ever had, no matter where we play him.”
In the spring of 2013, few would likely have guessed that a decade later Manchester United would still be waiting for their next Premier League title, and Jones came to be something of a target for the ire of supporters losing their patience as the fallow years started to pile up – a physical manifestation of everything that had gone wrong at the club since Ferguson retired.
This was obviously unfair. Manchester United’s biggest problems have been structural from the head down for years, and to blame this on any one, two or several players was always somewhat absurd. And to a point, Jones was unlucky. He had a tendency to appear in match photos wearing the facial expression of somebody who’d just been successfully persuaded that the ball itself was, in fact, a ghost, while (as with Harry Maguire, another player who has started become a meme in recent years) having a gait that seemed pre-determined to position him in the occasional inelegant pose for the cameras didn’t help.
That the injuries that have come to so blight his career should have coincided with him signing a contract extension with Manchester United was highly unfortunate, but to blame the player himself for this in any way was always obviously wide of the mark. Jones played just 13 games for Manchester United after signing his four-year extension in 2019, but even then he could occasionally offer a reminder of what injury had robbed them of; when he made his first appearance back in two years against Wolves in January 2022, a 1-0 home defeat couldn’t mask an excellent performance from Jones, who offered a reminder of why Ferguson had rated him so much.
And the announcement of Jones’s departure from the club was accompanied with a personal touch, an open letter posted on the Manchester United website with seemingly heartfelt thoughts on his time at Old Trafford.
It makes for a thoughtful read, considering what he’s been through these last few years. When he says, “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,” you can feel the extent to which he means it.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that players don’t want injuries, and that the football supporter’s tendency to blame players themselves when they get injured is one of their least endearing traits. The idea that an injured player is somehow “stealing a living” is so lacking in basic empathy and legal understanding (there a very good reasons why player contracts so seldom get cancelled unilaterally by clubs, and it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts) that it’s barely worth taking on board, though it is worth bearing in mind that the players who end up memefied are human beings.
Players are usually doing their very best in one of the least forgiving industries there is and, it’s especially worth remembering, they have more talent in their little toes than any of us have in our entire bodies, even if the castigating culture of the game could occasionally give the impression that this might not be the case. Those who hurl their insults around seldom even understand what they’re really talking about.
I’ll never understand why this was laughed it. It’s world class defending in a difficult situation. pic.twitter.com/7E7JwPmWcR
— 🏴 (@LJUTD) May 19, 2023
The above piece of defending, for example, was roundly laughed at at the time it happened, but looked at with any degree of objectivity it’s brilliant, instinctive and inventive, and it saved an almost certain goal.
And Jones has had appalling luck with injuries. No matter what he tried, it felt as though there was always another complication just around the corner, another set of specialists who needed to pore over him for a few weeks, another operation, or another spell of recuperation or rehabilitation to have to go through. No announcements have been made at the time of writing, and his future plans remain unclear. But it would not be entirely surprising if he decided that this was a battle he can never win before hanging up his boots altogether.
He may only have made 229 appearances in all competitions for Manchester United, but Jones couldn’t have done anything more. He made mistakes. Pretty much every player does. But he handled himself with the utmost professionalism at all times, and did everything he could to recover from the injuries that robbed him of the best years of his career. And it’s also worth recalling that, for the laughter and all the memes, he won the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Europa League, and was in the England squads for two World Cups and a European Championship. And when it comes down to it, that’s the real mark of him as a player rather than the sneering of know-nothings. Go well into your next chapter, Phil, no matter what it turns out to be.