Phil Jones not getting carried away despite resurgence
Defender is again looking like the player Alex Ferguson said had the potential to be
Manchester United’s Phil Jones competes with West Ham United’s Ashley Fletcher during their recent League Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Getty Images
A heartening narrative strand of Manchester United’s campaign has been the return to fitness and form of Phil Jones.
When Jones suffered medial knee ligament damage in September, it was the 28th separate injury or illness the 24-year-old had suffered during his five years at the club. Rotten luck is an apt way to characterise a plague of problems that cast doubt over his physical robustness and seemed to permanently blight Jones’s hope of a rise to the very top, as once predicted by Alex Ferguson.
Three years ago the Scot described Jones as a footballer with the potential to be United’s “best ever”, having signed him from Blackburn Rovers in June 2011 for £16.5 million (€19.7m).
Yet Jones longest unbroken sequence of starts for United stands at only 13, in the closing third of 2013-14 term. After such an ill run, Jones deserved the upturn in fortune that came when Chis Smalling and Eric Bailly each suffered injury in late October. While Jones would never wish this on any fellow player, suddenly opportunity knocked and he was thrust into the XI for the visit to Swansea City on November 6th.
United won 3-1 and the seven consecutive starts that have ensued since is his second longest run in the side.
In Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham Jones again displayed the leadership qualities Ferguson also mentioned as the Prestonian led a back four also featuring Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian.
Only Valencia was first-choice at the start of the season. Yet Jones, centre-back partner Rojo, and Darmian, who is operating in an unfamiliar left-back role, are all performing well, with the unit impressive enough to have a case for remaining the defence whoever is fit and available.
“I have always said that if I get a run of games and stay fit I know what I am capable of. I am not a player who goes on mazy runs, I like to defend. I like to do a job for the team. Hopefully the manager and everyone around me can see I am trying to do the best for the team.”
Jones is conscious that his days as the next United wunderkind are over. “I am 24 and am not getting any younger, and the whole tag of being a young player is no longer with me any more,” he says. “I need to kick on and put in performances like I have been and improve.
“I need to kick on in terms of playing more games. I have missed a lot over the last couple of years. I love playing football so I want to play as many as I can. It is an old cliche but it is game by game for me.”
Of Rojo, 26, who has already suffered nine injuries since joining in summer 2014 for £16 million from Sporting, Jones says: “Marcos has been terrific this season. When I wasn’t playing and watched him I thought he was terrific. It is never easy for an Argentinian boy to come over and hit the ground running.”
Darmian is another who has grabbed his chance as Luke Shaw began the season as first-choice left-back. The Italian has started the last six Premier League games – the opening one at right-back – and appears assured in Shaw’s position after the latter suffered injury.
The vagaries of form and fitness, though, mean United had to rebuff summer interest from Stoke and Hull for Jones and there were similar doubts regarding the futures of Rojo and Darmian.
For now, Darmian is focusing solely on United. “I play for one of the biggest clubs in the world so I’m happy. I listen and read about the transfer but I don’t know anything,” he says. “At the moment nothing is true. I will continue to do my job and want to stay here.”
Of Jones, a contented Jose Mourinho says: “I am surprised because even with me he had this injury [knee] which stopped him for as long time but he was recovering first with people he trusted in the medical department. Then he was working really hard with one of my guys for around three weeks before he joined us [in training] , and he had a big improvement in his physical condition.
“Now he looks fresh and sharp and fast. He had a big evolution and I think he played already [seven] matches. [Seven] matches, Phil Jones? I don’t remember when he did that. A little bit like Marcos because Marcos also is having lots of problems with injuries and he also looks free of it. In a period without Bailly and Smalling, when people could be scared, they stepped up and both played so many matches already – six without defeat, I think – playing well and solid so I’m really happy for that.”
Jones can expect to start at Crystal Palace on Wednesday night and at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday to make it nine consecutive appearances. And with two more games until the new year, it could yet be a very happy end to a 2016 that had been one of near-despair until his November return to the side. Guardian service