“This result tells you that we still believe in youth,” Sir Alex Ferguson said of the young side that beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 at Old Trafford on Monday night. And with the Scot’s young, English, lions – Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones – performing with electrifying confidence so early in the season the 69-year-old Manchester United manager has more reason to believe the statement more than most.
The aforementioned quartet is leading an increasingly youthful evolution at Old Trafford this season, which also includes, at just 20, the da Silva brothers, together with 23-year-olds Javier Hernández, Jonny Evans and Anderson. Yet it the youngest of the group, Jones, that arguably stole the show against Spurs with a performance of remarkably classy maturity.
Indeed, such have been the 19-year-old’s performances in Red this season that injured Rio Ferdinand faces a greater challenge to an automatic place in Ferguson’s side than at any point in nearly a decade at Old Trafford. And while Ferdinand could make Ferguson’s side for Arsenal’s visit to Manchester next weekend, the Londoner is surely now fully aware of the alternate talent available to Ferguson.
Ferdinand’s injury has come at an inopportune time of course, so early in the season and with Jones hardly settled at his new club following the £16.5 million move from Blackburn Rovers this summer. Yet, with outstanding performances against both Spurs on Monday, West Bromwich Albion last weekend and for 45 minutes during the Community Shield, Jones has slotted seamlessly into the ‘United way’. The teenager has, it seems, been at the club not two months but a couple of decades.
The player’s arrival at Old Trafford has been a long time coming though, with Ferguson having settled on the England Under-21 international following Blackburn’s 7-1 hammering in Manchester last season. The game was perhaps a strange stage on which to earn a move to Old Trafford but tough times do true characters make.
“When Blackburn lost the fifth goal, he was out giving them [team-mates] all stick,” Ferguson said.
“He was just one of those players you couldn’t miss when one comes along in the game. We made enquiries in November and were hoping to get him in January but we were prepared to wait. He is an absolutely fantastic young player.”
Ferguson’s is a sentiment echoed by supporters at Old Trafford on Monday, who witnessed not only a mature performance from the Preston-born defender but a genuine air of authority. It is a cliché of course but less than three games into a United career and Jones is already marked as leadership material for club and country. The maturity with which he handled not only his personal performance but media commitments with Sky following United’s victory on Monday night said much for the player’s temperament.
The 19-year-old is close to a full England cap too. After all, Ferdinand’s injury has potentially opened up a space in Fabio Capello’s squad for forthcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria in Sofia on 2 September and then four days later against the Welsh at Wembley. That each of the Premier League’s top six lodged bids for Jones is all Capello needed to know of the player’s class before calling the teenager into the England squad for the aborted friendly with Holland earlier this month.
Indeed, Jones was one of few that returned home with any credit from England Under-21s disastrous European Championship performance in the past summer. Chris Smalling made the tournament’s all-star team but Cleverley, so bright in central midfield for United this season, looked lost on Stuart Pearce’s right-wing.
In fact Jones’ class has already drawn lofty comparisons, with 1968 European Cup winning midfielder Paddy Crerand claiming more than a hint of a famous Busby Babe. “If you talk to Bobby Charlton, Phil Jones reminds him of Duncan Edwards with his power and build,” says Crerand, who regularly commentates on United’s youth and reserve games for MUTV.
The plaudit is unlikely to phase the level-headed 19-year-old Jones, whose rise is remarkable not only for the quality of his game but for the lack of genuine experience; the player has appeared in less than 50 club games for United and Blackburn combined, in addition to nine Under-21 caps.
Yet, such is Jones’ obvious seamless transition to United’s team that it will surprise few if the defender has supplanted Ferdinand not only in the England side but Ferguson’s by the season’s end. The latter’s poor injury record may accelerate a changing of the guard, with captain Nemanja Vidic a certain starter, injury permitting.
“I’ve always said I aspire to follow the likes of John Terry, Michael Dawson and Rio Ferdinand. I always watch what they do and try and learn from them,” said Jones when he joined United in June. When it comes to performing for club and country, Ferdinand may well have cause to hope the protégé doesn’t learn too fast.