If ever there is was ever a prime catalyst for the growing cult of Phil Jones it came on Wednesday night during Manchester United’s 5-0 destruction of Fulham at Craven Cottage. In the moments after the 19-year-old defender had taken Clint Dempsey’s elbow squarely on the jaw, Jones staggered around the pitch as if inebriated by a measure or few of Christmas cheer. The youngster was so stunned by the force of the blow that he for a moment he saw double, but with Bryan Ruiz almost baring down on goal, the Preston-born stopped still had the wherewithal to pull off a last-ditch tackle of the highest class. Encapsulated in two moments barely minutes apart was Jones in a nutshell – fearless and talented beyond most players’ dreams.
But Jones’ bravery almost came at a cost, with the player withdrawn during the second half in west London. It brought early fears of a broken jaw, and potentially months on the sidelines. With injuries mounting at Old Trafford, losing Jones now would be a huge blow to United’s Premier League aspirations.
“We feared the worst because he lost his vision a bit in that period when he came back onto the field,” explained Sir Alex Ferguson. “He has some swelling in his jaw but there’s no break, no fracture, which is good news.”
Great news, in fact. It was with a collective sigh of relief, then, that when the manager confirmed Jones suffered nothing more than some bruising and should be fit for United’s Boxing Day fixture with Wigan Athletic. Reports that Dempsey’s elbow will never be the same again are unconfirmed.
Jones’ rapid recovery is symptomatic of a player who has become a firm Old Trafford favourite. Dynamic, energetic, flexible, and with seemingly limitless talent, Jones has become everything expected of a United player in just five short months; and in today’s inflated transfer market, a bargain at £16.5 million. Indeed, the player’s integration into Ferguson’s team has been instant, with the former Blackburn Rovers defender having made 16 appearances in the Premier League this season – 24 in all competitions. Nobody has featured more often for the Reds in the current campaign.
The 19-year-old has certainly made mistakes when featuring in central defence this campaign, but few defenders can claim Jones’ all-round impact. After all, while Jones has made eight blocks and 17 clearances in the Premier League, he has also created three goals, struck 15 shots, made 13 crosses and scored once – his first professional goal – in United’s 1-0 win at Aston Villa in November. All of it has ensured the youngster has become a cult figure at United despite the relative freshness of his arrival at the club.
Meanwhile, the player’s form has earned three caps for England – in three different positions to boot. It is almost certain that Jones will travel to Euro 2012 with Fabio Capello’s squad and has a realistic chance of featuring at right-back, in central midfield, or in the player’s preferred position of centre back. It is this flexibility that has enabled Jones to feature in so many games for United this season, filling in for the injured Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić early in the season, switching to right-back and then latterly featuring alongside a rejuvenated Michael Carrick in midfield.
It is a trait that Ferguson likes, of course. John O’Shea, for example, appeared in around 400 games for United – far more, some might say, than a player of his limited talents should have played. But the Irishman’s flexibility ensure that while O’Shea was rarely first choice in any position, he was first reserve for many.
The longer-term question is whether Jones will be able to bed down a single position in the side. Indeed, Jones’ flexibility may not always be a bonus – some players do not fare so well, or develop as hoped, if they are unable to develop a rhythm and an expertise in one role. But for the moment the player, who Ferguson believes will eventually settle into a central defensive role, is happy to do whatever is asked of him.
“I enjoy playing anywhere. I enjoy playing football, so wherever I am asked to play I will play,” Jones said recently.
“If the manager asks me to play right-back, centre-back or midfield, I will go and do a job there. I don’t think it really matters at the moment that I am cementing a spot in a certain position because I am still young. Hopefully, as my career progresses that will happen.”
Then there is, of course, the debate about Jones’ best role. While the player is currently staring with Carrick in United’s engine room, the Lancastrian is yet to impress against one of the leading lights domestically or abroad. Jones was excellent in United’s wins against Wolverhampton Wanderers and QPR recently in midfield, but failed both at Anfield against Liverpool in October, and when United was knocked out of the Champions League against FC Basel.
Upcoming fixtures with Newcastle United at St. James’ Park and the FA Cup third round tie with Manchester City will test Ferguson’s resolve to deploy Jones in central midfield. In fact Ryan Giggs’ star turn against Fulham – a side that has given United significant trouble in the past few seasons – may yet be telling.
Whatever Jones’ eventual role there is no doubt that the boy is on his way to super-stardom. Another heroes’ turn in upcoming fixtures will only cement the moniker sooner.