Phil Jones: Can Man Utd's footballing punching bag ever rebuild his career?

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Manchester United's loss against West Ham in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday was a bad night for most associated with the club - but for Phil Jones, it was potentially something special.

After 19 months on the sidelines injured, Jones was named in a United senior matchday squad for the first time since January 2020.

An unused sub, it nevertheless looks as if he is ready for a much-delayed return to the first-team fold.

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For many people, in and out of football, the last two years have been horrendously difficult amid the Covid-19 pandemic. For Jones, who has missed 78 straight United matches due to a knee injury, it has been hell.

A Premier League, FA Cup and Europa League winner with 27 senior England caps, Jones has been boiled down to a figure of online fun, ridiculed by the vast majority of supporters, as well as some within the game.

In December 2019, Raheem Sterling - Jones' England team-mate - joked  after a photographer snapped him in an unflattering light during a Champions League game that "Phil Jones would be proud" of his gurn, referring to the odd expressions Jones has become infamous for inadvertently pulling during matches.

But amid all the memes, injuries and trolling, it is easy to forget just why Jones is a Manchester United player in the first place.

Coming through the Blackburn Rovers youth teams, Jones made his Premier League debut just a week after his 18th birthday, against soon-to-be champions Chelsea, earning a 1-1 draw as he bested Didier Drogba.

He joined United in 2011 after impressing Sir Alex Ferguson, who somewhat unhelpfully compared him to legendary 'Busby Babe' Duncan Edwards.

"The way he is looking, he could be our best ever player. He may be one of the best players we have ever had, no matter where we play him," enthused Ferguson in 2013.  "At 21 years of age, he is going to be a phenomenal player.

"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."

Early on, there was evidence to suggest Ferguson's effluence was warranted.

Jones made 29 Premier League appearances in 2011-12 - the most he has made in any campaign to date - before helping United to win the league title in the following campaign; Fergie's last before retirement.

His strength, speed and ability to play in multiple defensive positions earned him flattering comparisons from not only Ferguson, with ex-England manager Fabio Capello saying Jones reminded him of Franco Baresi.

So what went wrong? That can be divided in three factors.

Firstly: injuries. Not a season has gone by where Jones - who has not played more than 30 games in a campaign since 2013-14 - has not had multiple issues with his ankle, knee, toe, hamstring, or some other body part.

This has had a major impact on the raw pace and power that made Jones stand out as a teenager; while stil an immensely talented footballer, he no longer has the same base physical attributes to work from.

This also plays into the second issue: United's own identity crisis. Jones' presence in the first team, and his subseuqent injuries, coincided with Ferguson's departure and a huge reduction in fortunes at Old Trafford.

The season in which he played his second-highest number of games for United was during David Moyes' disastrous reign, and Jones has been tainted as a calamity ever since.

His injuries also meant that Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have not been able to effectively rely on him since, hence the patchwork of questionable centre backs that have been recruited at great expense since.

The final factor is the internet.

Jones is part of the first generation of players whose career has coincided with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, the explosion of online banter culture around football, trench warfare where fans of different clubs are armies lined up to take potshots at their rivals, using any ammunition available. A missed tackle here, a strange face there.

Jones became English football's ultimate punching bag.  Twitter itself had to apologise in August last year  after the official brand account for the site, which has 58.2 million followers, sent the post "name a better footballer than Phil Jones", clearly aimed at trolling the centre-back.

The confirmation of his new contract, which runs until 2023,  drew more than 6,500 comments on United's announcement tweet, the majority of which were not complimentary.

His name appearing on the teamsheet drew howls of online rage, and any mistake would lead to an article's worth of furious internet criticism.

He was dropped from the Premier League squad for 2020-21,  and soon the use of Jones as whipping boy was no longer the sole reserve of faceless trolls on the internet.

Rio Ferdinand, another former team mate of Jones, said in August : "He’s taking up a youth team player’s position in that squad right now. Huge potential but injuries have absolutely annihilated his career and then confidence issues at certain times as well.

"I think he should’ve gone ages ago. He should’ve gone before Chris Smalling went. Find a new club and play some football. 

"I am baffled at how he’s still been given a new deal given his past few years at the club. It just doesn’t make sense to me how you get a new deal.

"I remember back in the day you’d have to do some absolute graft to get a new deal. You’d have to be putting in performances, you’d have to be a vital member of the team. Phil Jones isn’t that."

But Jones is still there - and in all the years since he was a regular first team player, United have still not found a consistently impressive central defensive pairing. The positions they are widely agreed to be lightest in are right-back and defensive midfield - both roles which Jones has capably filled, too.

Jones himself has come out fighting, calling Ferdinand's comments "really poor" in an interview with The Times,  and painting a striking - and hilarious - portrait of his online detractors.

He said: “When my career finishes and I’m enjoying my life - and by the way I’m fortunate that I’ll be able to do that - the keyboard warriors will still be in their mum’s spare bedroom, sipping Pepsi that’s flat, eating a Pot Noodle, sitting in their boxers, tweeting."

And so while Jones may be no Edwards or Baresi, he remains a footballer that United could perhaps find a use for. Only the worst of Twitter trolls would not wish him the very best if he does make it all the way back.

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