Phil Jones was one of only five players picked to represent England at both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, but when Gareth Southgate sits down to select his squad for Qatar 2022, he won’t be anywhere near the conversation.
Out of the contract at Old Trafford in the summer, it’s possible that Jones has played his last game for the club he joined as a teenager in 2011. United hold an option to extend his deal by another 12 months, but after more than two years of injuries and setbacks that Jones has described privately as “hell,” it’s likely that a player once hailed by such managers as Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and Southgate will be allowed to quietly leave.
Back in 2011, Ferguson was so keen to sign Jones from Blackburn Rovers that he flew him out to join a family holiday in the south of France. The sales pitch worked, and despite competition from Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, United agreed a deal worth more than £16 million.
Jones had first caught Ferguson’s attention 18 months earlier when Blackburn beat United’s under-18s — a team which included a young Paul Pogba — in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup. However, Ferguson was convinced about the transfer while he watched Jones play for Blackburn’s first team during a 7-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
It’s a day Jones, even now, says he prefers to forget, but Ferguson watched the 18-year-old scream and shout at teammates more than 10 years his senior. One of them was Michael Salgado, a veteran defender who had played more than 300 games for Real Madrid and twice won the Champions League. If Jones was confident enough to berate Salgado, Ferguson decided, he would be fine walking into a United dressing room that boasted the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney. He was right.
Jones played 41 games in his first season and the following year was part of the team which won the Premier League title. By late 2013 he was considered so important that an injury to his ankle dominated the build-up to the Champions League round-of-16 tie with Real Madrid. Fantastic during a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, he was ruled out of the return leg in Manchester — most remembered for Nani‘s controversial red card for a high challenge — and United went out in a 2-1 defeat.
Injuries were never far away, but between 2011 and 2019, Jones made 216 appearances at an average of nearly 30 games a season. He played wherever he was asked, usually at centre-back but also at right-back and in midfield.
In 2011, still only 19, he played in the centre of midfield for England against a Spain team which included Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. England won 1-0. Ferguson once predicted that Jones’ ability on the ball, physical attributes and versatility could one day see him placed among United’s greatest-ever players; Capello, England manager between 2007 and 2012, likened him to legendary Italy defender Franco Baresi.
Southgate is also a big fan, saying in 2017: “He’s got very good composure on the ball. He’s got the reading of the game, he’s aggressive in his defending, which I like, and I think he has got fantastic experience. He organises well and he competes well.”
But despite endorsements from almost every manager he’s worked under, Jones’ career is in danger of being remembered for the game he’s missed rather than the ones he’s played.
When Louis van Gaal took over as United manager in 2014, the Dutchman wanted to sign Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund, in part because there were concerns that Jones had come off a season during which he had endured three separate injury layoffs because of problems with his head, knee and shoulder. But after a series of tests run over the summer, United’s medical staff reported back to Van Gaal and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward that Jones, then 22, was in peak physical condition and that barring any freak injuries he was expected to be available for the entire campaign.
He started the first three league games, but by early September had suffered a hamstring strain which ruled him out for nearly a month. Back to full fitness and in the team for a 2-2 draw with West Brom in late October, he didn’t start another game until mid-December because of a shin injury.
It’s the story of Jones’ career in a nutshell: a manager who likes him, a run of promising performances and then another injury setback. It’s a recurring theme.
After Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed caretaker manager in December 2018, Jones started eight of the Norwegian’s first 11 games in charge. It prompted United to offer him a new four-year contract, but since it was signed in February 2019, he has only been able to start 16 games. A knee injury suffered in February 2020 ruled him out for nearly a year and there was a point during the COVID-19 pandemic that he was close to hanging up his boots.
Jones’ injury problems have led to online abuse, and he hasn’t posted to his 2.1 million Twitter followers since May 2017. Posts to his 1.3 million followers on Instagram also stopped soon afterward. Worse still, he has suffered personal abuse while he’s been out with his wife and two young daughters, something that has added to the toll taken on his mental health over the last two years.
Having not played since April — when he was inexplicably picked out of the blue by Ralf Rangnick for the 4-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield — he stayed behind at Carrington this summer to follow a personal training programme while new manager Erik ten Hag took the squad to Thailand and Australia for preseason. Potential moves away from Old Trafford during the transfer window were scuppered because of a lack of fitness and, with no timescale put on his return, Ten Hag decided it didn’t make sense to register him for the Premier League or Europa League.
And so when the World Cup kicks off in Qatar in November, Jones will watch the tournament from home for the first time since he was 18. Still only 30, he remains hopeful of playing again regularly, even if there’s now an acceptance it will have to be at a different club. After playing more than 200 games for United, winning 27 caps for England and collecting winners’ medals in the Premier League, FA Cup and Europa League, he’s already had a career most footballers can only dream of. But there will always be a feeling of what might have been.