Phil Jones was one of only five players selected to represent England at both the 2014 and 2018 World Cup, but when Gareth Southgate sat down to select his team for Qatar 2022, he wasn’t close to the conversation.
The 30-year-old defender cannot play for Manchester United in the Premier League at the moment, after being left out of the squad. He could be added in January, but that would require him to prove his fitness first, and he hasn’t started back-to-back league matches since May 2019.
Out of contract at Old Trafford in the summer, Jones will likely have played his last game for the club he joined as a teenager in 2011. United have the option to extend his deal for another 12 months, but after more than two years of injuries and setbacks he described Jones has secretly called it ‘hell’, it is likely that a player praised by coaches like Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and Southgate will be allowed to leave quietly.
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In 2011, Ferguson was so eager to sign Jones from Blackburn Rovers that he took him to join a family vacation in the south of France. The sales yard succeeded, and despite competition from Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, United agreed a deal worth more than £16m.
Jones first came to Ferguson’s attention 18 months ago when they beat United’s Under-18 side – a team that includes youngster Paul Pogba – in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup. However, Ferguson was content with the transfer while watching Jones play for Blackburn’s first team during the 7-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
It’s a day that Jones, so far, says he’d rather forget, but Ferguson watched the 18-year-old yell and yell at his teammates more than 10 years ago. One of them was Michael Salgado, a veteran defender who played more than 300 games for Real Madrid and twice won the Champions League. If Jones was confident enough to reprimand Salgado, Ferguson decided he would be fine in 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 that won the Premier League title. By late 2013, he was considered so important that an ankle injury dominated preparation for the Champions League Round of 16 match with Real Madrid. He was brilliant during the 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, he was left out for the second leg in Manchester – most remembered for Nani’s controversial red card for a major challenge – and United were knocked out 2-1.
Injuries weren’t far off at all, but between 2011 and 2019, Jones made 216 games averaging nearly 30 games per season. He played wherever he was asked, usually as a central defender but also as a right-back and central midfield.
In 2011, still only 19 years old, he played in midfield for England against a Spain side that 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 make him among United’s greatest players of all time. Capello, England coach between 2007 and 2012, likened him to legendary Italian defender Franco Baresi.
Southgate is also a big fan, saying in 2017, “He has very good composure on the ball. He’s got to read the game, he’s aggressive in defence, which I like, and I think he’s got a great experience. He organizes really well and he’s competing well. Good “.
But despite the endorsement from nearly every coach who has worked under him, Jones’ career is in danger of being remembered for the match he missed rather than the one he played.
When Louis van Gaal took over as Manchester United manager in 2014, the Dutchman wanted to sign Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund, in part due to fears that Jones could exit a season in which he suffered three separate injury dismissals due to problems with his team. Head, knee and shoulder. But after a series of tests over the summer, United medical staff informed Van Gaal and Executive Vice President Ed Woodward that Jones, then 22, was in peak physical condition, barring any odd injuries he was expected to be available. to her. The entire campaign.
He started his first three league games, but by early September he suffered from a hamstring strain which left him out for about a month. Returning to full fitness and in the team that drew 2-2 with West Brom in late October, he didn’t start another game until mid-December due to a leg injury.
It’s Jones’ career story in a nutshell: a coach he loves, a string of promising performances and then another injury setback. It is a recurring topic.
After Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as interim manager in December 2018, Jones started eight of his first 11 matches in Norway. It pushed United to offer a new four-year contract, but since he was signed in February 2019, he has only been able to start 16 games. He sustained a knee injury in February 2020, which left him out for about a year, and there was a point during the COVID-19 pandemic that he was about to hang up his boots.
Jones’ injury issues led to online abuse, and he hasn’t posted to his 2.1 million followers on Twitter since May 2017. Posts to his 1.3 million followers on Instagram also stopped shortly thereafter. Even worse, he experienced personal abuse while with his wife and two young daughters, which added to the toll on his mental health over the past two years.
Having not played since April – when he was inexplicably picked up by Ralph Rangnick for the 4-0 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield – he stayed at Carrington this summer to pursue a personal training program while new coach Erik ten Hag took the team to Thailand and Australia before the season. Possible transfers away from Old Trafford during the transfer window have been nullified due to a lack of fitness, and with no timeline set for his return, Ten Hag decided it did not make sense to score him in the Premier League or Europa League.
And so, when the World Cup finals kick off in Qatar in November, Jones will watch the tournament from home for the first time since he was 18, and he still hopes to play again regularly, even if there is an admission now. Being in a different club. Having played more than 200 games for United, won 27 caps for England and collected the medals of winners in the Premier League, FA Cup and Europa League, he already had a career most footballers could only dream of. But there will always be a sense of what could be.