When José Mourinho first took the helm at Manchester United last summer wild transfer speculation greeted the Portuguese’s arrival. The summer promised a raft of new players, with many more on the way out in another window of change at Old Trafford. The usual suspects were prepared for exit, with Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones among those singled out for special attention. Rojo’s apparent poor quality and Jones’ injury record made exit all the more likely. Somehow, it hasn’t worked out like that.
“Exclusive! Water is wet! Grass is green! The world is round!” Statements of a similar ilk greeted the news that Phil Jones has suffered yet another injury. This time around the Manchester United defender is out with a knee injury that will see the Lancastrian sidelined for a month. Yet another setback for Jones who is struggling to salvage his Old Trafford career. The defender’s injury history has become a sick joke. The real question becomes: when does the laughter stop?
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But Jones’ bravery almost came at a cost, with the player withdrawn during the second half in west London.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.
There is a certain elixir in youth. The vibrancy and the genuine excitement delivered by younger stars introduced to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad this campaign has transformed the Old Trafford atmosphere – quite literally, as our American brothers sometimes say. Despite United’s outstanding record at Old Trafford last season, where 19 Premier League games brought 18 victories, the inescapable feeling that Ferguson’s 2010 vintage was not quite up to scratch pervaded the Reds’ campaign.
It was out with the old as Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Owen Hargreaves and a plethora of retirees made way for an influx of the new this summe. The transformation has brought not only a new style to United’s play but fresh hope too. In all of that one man stands out, one man stamped with the mark of genuine, undeniable quality. There is a feeling deep inside that, in Phil Jones, we are witnessing the emergence of a genuine world talent
Jones’ powerful running from central defence, full-back or – frankly – wherever he feels like, is compelling. As is the player’s passing, positioning and, lest we forget, defending. Jones’ running from right-back at the Reebok Stadium earlier this month seemed as effortless as it was natural. The defender’s composure in central defence at the Britannia, even under the incessant aerial onslaught, confirmed the feeling that the player is ready for the big time. Right now.
That 19-year-old’s powerful build has drawn lazy comparisons with Nemanja Vidic and, God forbid, John Terry. Let’s have none of that. Jones is a real player. More Rio Ferdinand than Vidic, yet with the captain’s temperament and a physique to surpass the former Leeds United player in every department.
Such is Jones’ quality that Sir Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand were drawn into making the almost inevitable comparisons with Duncan Edwards last month. That comparison should wait, at least until Jones approaches the 171 game marker the late, great, Edwards reached for United.
The more relevant test is whether Jones compares with the best available in the country today. Would Sir Alex swap his 19-year-old phenomenon for Terry, Phil Jaglielka, Jolean Lescot, or Gary Cahill? Not a prayer. £16.5 million was supposed to include an ‘English premium’, but when it comes to questions of value for money spent, the player would be cheap at twice the price.
Jones’ quality on the ball has also brought the inevitable call for the player to be deployed in midfield. There is little doubt that the player’s touch and passing would allow Jones to compete in the heart of Ferguson’s side. There is something in the argument that Jones could play almost anywhere and hold his own. With Ferguson’s squad still lacking a genuine, tough-tackling, ball-winner in the Roy Keane mould, the cry for Jones to fill that void is all the more inevitable.
Yet, it is also a demand that smacks of that old Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the ball-playing defender. Indeed, Ferdinand’s emergence at West Ham United in the late 1990s brought the same call. The question, surely, is why Jones shouldn’t be retained in defence, where he will become a world star, rather than be pushed into midfield, where he will be one among many. At Barcelona, for example, where possession of the ball is king, midfielders become defenders and not the other way round.
The debate may be moot. Given the surging runs from defence at the Britannia Jones helpfully fulfilled that old cliché: two players in one. At times that buccaneering style, the willingness to break out of defence and create a fifth man in midfield so clear against Stoke, may open United to the threat of counter-attack. Jones will learn, if he doesn’t already know, when to go and when to stay.
Ferdinand used to have that too, but somewhere along the line the fear took hold and the Londoner’s forays forward became more restricted. A rarity even. Somehow Jones’ fearlessness, bravery, and savvy way beyond his years seems likely to prevent a repeat.
No wonder United tied up Jones’ signature months ahead of his official July transfer from Ewood Park, at least according to weekend reports. While United fought hard for Smalling’s signature, fending off Arsenal’s admiring attention among others, Ferguson had no intention of allowing even a debate to unfold where Jones was concerned. Fortunately for United, the admiration was always mutual.
There is still something to work on with the youngster, despite the sense that the player has been two decades in the United side, rather than two months. The former Blackburn Rovers player was caught on the wrong side of the man he was marking as Peter Crouch headed home at the Britannia, for example. That we are resorting to the minutiae of Jones’ game to draw out criticism says much for the man already.
Meet Phil Jones. World star in the making and a joy to behold.
“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.
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is facing up to the autumn of his career, with three young central defenders ready to challenge the 32-year-old for a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. But, says Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and new signing Phil Jones will have to prove they are hungrier than the Peckham-born defender to do so.
Indeed, with fitness issues a concern for Ferdinand over the past three seasons there are no guarantees that the England defender will finish the coming campaign as Ferguson’s first choice to partner Nemanja Vidic. The former Leeds United player will surely begin the campaign alongside club captain Vidic, but with Smalling outstanding in his début campaign, £16 million Jones desperate to play and Evans with plenty to prove, competition for defensive places is strong than ever at Old Trafford.
Yet Ferdinand has a warning for United’s younger defenders, challenging Smalling, Jones and Evans to show the kind of desire that has taken the Londoner to the top of the world game.
“I remember what I was like when I was young,” Ferdinand told reporters on United’s US tour.
“I remember looking up at Slaven Bilic, Marc Rieper, Alvin Martin and Steve Potts at West Ham. I was only a kid but I used to sit on the bench and think I should be playing. I am sure these guys think the same thing. If they have got anything about them they should.
“They are all talented footballers and, I believe, Manchester United players. At some point I am sure they will take over the reins. But I am competitive and I don’t want to be giving up my position to anybody. My task is to prove I am hungrier than them.
“They can’t be in awe of me. If they are, they will get shipped out. That is the way it is. Your desire has to be to play. I understand and respect that. That is why they are here.”
The club’s concern with Ferdinand – the reason the 32-year-old is not club captain – is, of course, the defender’s ongoing fitness problems. After all, Ferdinand has not started 30 Premier League games for United in three years, with ongoing back problems having threatened to curtail the player’s career. Indeed, a feeling that United was prepared to sell enticed Tottenham Hotspur to bid for the defender last summer.
Yet Ferdinand claims that the back problem, which ruined most of the player’s 2009/10 campaign, is no longer an issue, although a calf injury robbed United of the defender for a large part of last season.
“My fitness is OK. I am nowhere near where I want to be yet but we have three weeks left,” added Ferdinand.
“Last season, I had no problems with my back, which was a good thing, but I did pull my calf which kept me out for a chunk of the year. Hopefully this time around I won’t have anything like that and I can continue to play a consistent amount of games.”
Despite ongoing concerns Ferdinand will remain key to United’s chances of success on the domestic and European fronts in the coming season. With inexperienced back-up in central positions and the da Silva brothers barely out of their teens, Ferdinand’s maturity means the former West Ham United player is likely to be rotated only for those games where Ferguson typically does so; against mid- to-lower table opposition.
But Ferguson will also be concerned that Smalling, who played 33 games for United last season, Evans and Jones all play enough football. The United manager’s revelation this week that Jones sought assurances on the subject before joining in June is telling. The £16 million former Blackburn Rovers player started 26 Premier League games for the Lancashire club last season, seven more than Ferdinand for United.
The United manager will use pre-season as a barometer for both Jones’ talent and the youngster’s ability to handle the pressure of being a United player. After all, Smalling’s excellent début season was predicated not solely on strong performances but 21-year-old’s ability to remain cool under pressure. Jones’ apparent maturity well beyond his years will surely serve the 19-year-old well.
“Over the years this club has been very successful. In the last couple of years we have won trophies as well. It is great to see but it does bring pressure,” adds Ferdinand.
“It is not overwhelming though. It is part of being a Manchester United player. You have to deal with all that stuff. It separates you from being a Manchester United player and not.”
Entering his 10th season as a United player Ferdinand has more than met that challenge. Smalling, meanwhile, has offered a promising start to his United career just as Evans’ future becomes a matter for debate. Jones’ biggest tests are yet to come.
Should Ferdinand once again show signs of age the trio will be more than willing to step into the elder-statesman’s boots.
It turned out to be an extraordinary day of transfer activity, so soon into the summer window, as Sir Alex Ferguson closed in on £16 million Blackburn Rovers defender Phil Jones. The England Under-21 international has reportedly agreed terms on a five-year deal and is likely to become the first of several signings before the window closes at August’s end. Manchester United will likely also confirm the signatures of Aston Villa’s Ashley Young and the Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea in the coming weeks.
Yet, as Isaac Newton might agree, every action has a reaction, especially when wage budgets and squad sizes must be balanced. Not equal, perhaps, but for United the inbound talent ensures the revolving door marked exit remains busy this summer. Just as United supporters embrace the new-boy Jones, then a heartfelt goodbye will be heard for John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Darron Gibson, reportedly the subject of a £12 million bid from Sunderland today.
Supporters have, after all, been promised one of the busiest summers in recent memory, with significant deadwood cleared out of Old Trafford’s burgeoning squad, balanced by returning loanees and heavier expenditure than has become the norm under the Glazer family’s ownership over the past six years.
Indeed, this summer is promising to create more change in the United squad than has been seen for years. It is an accelerating evolution that will end a cycle at United in a less gradual way that is typical under Ferguson’s stewardship.
Moreover, in Brown and O’Shea, Ferguson is losing significant experience. One club men at that. Between them the latter pair has amassed more than 750 appearances in the Red shirt, adding to the departures of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar, which robs Ferguson of more than 1500 club appearances.
In experience’s place comes youth. Young, at 25, is the oldest of United’s most discussed signatures, while de Gea is just 21. Arguably though Jones, 19, is the most exciting of the trio; a classy centre half already noted for his leadership skills.
Indeed, some observers rate Jones ahead of Chris Smalling, who so thoroughly impressed during his debut Old Trafford season. With Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur chasing Jones’ signature, United has certainly paid top dollar for the player but one who could represent the club for more than a decade.
“I think he’s an amazing young talent and he could easily go on and become an England centre-half in years to come,” admitted Harry Redknapp today, with the Spurs’ manager admitting defeat over Jones’ acquisition.
“I was in for Phil Jones. We were interested in him but it looks like he’s gone to Manchester United. I think he’s a great singing for Man United. We’re struggling to find people that are better than what we’ve got. It’s not easy unless you pay massive money and massive wages.”
United has certainly spent ‘massive money’ buying out Jones’ reported £16 million release clause. And it is of course a gamble for a player with less than 50 senior games for Blackburn plus a dozen international age-group games.
But Ferguson has never been scared of risks in the transfer market, splurging up to £27 million on teenage Wayne Rooney in summer 2004. de Gea will also represent a significant gamble when the Spaniard’s signature is confirmed sometime after 1 July.
Not that the teenage defender Jones will go straight into the United side of course, with Jones likely to act as back-up to Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Smalling at centre-half next season. It is an area of United’s squad that felt threadbare at times, with Brown, Evans, Ferdinand and even Vidic injured during over the 2010/11 campaign.
Yet, while Jones may not be for the present, there is no little irony in a signature that will affect Jonny Evans most acutely. The Northern Irishman was once dubbed United’s future but has arguably forced Ferguson’s hand with a series of sub-par performances over the past year. Jones’ acquisition is unlikely to be terminal for Evans’ United career but the Belfast-born player may now find more opportunities at full-back than in the past.
While Jones, de Gea and Young begin their United careers Brown and O’Shea have earned both respect and gratitude for their efforts in the United cause over more than a decade. Both graduates of United’s academy, neither have fulfilled the glorious promise of youth but have served the club with distinction and pride.
Brown has always been one of the most naturally gifted English defenders over that time; a home-made Ferdinand whose talent was only ever limited by injury. It is no disservice to say that had it not been for one of the game’s most lengthy injury records Brown could have amassed more than a century of caps for England, rather than just 23. He would surely have also made more than 500 appearances for United bar for frequent trips to the treatment room.
Making his début in 1998, Brown earned rave reviews for early appearances at right-back, including the 6-2 thrashing of Brondby in Copenhagen during the treble-winning season. But it was at centre-half that the Longsight-born player was most natural, offering the Reds acceleration over 20 yards, a fearless competitive streak and perfect timing.
O’Shea has never possessed the same natural talent but won over United’s supporters with a vibrant début campaign largely at left-back. After all, it is no accident that United fans laud “Johnny marching down the wing.”
But O’Shea’s versatility undermined his United career, while also offering him a longevity that bemused some fans. The Irishman appeared right across the back-four, in central midfield and even in goal during more than a decade at the club.
Yet, while there is little surprised in Gibson’s departure, with United reportedly refusing to offer a contract extension beyond 2012, nor in Brown’s, O’Shea’s flexibity appeared to have guaranteed a place in next season’s squad. After all the Waterford-born defender started nearly 30 games for the club in all competitions last season.
And that is where the fun of transfer silly season becomes most acute. Sunderland’s is, at this stage, just a bid. Neither officially accepted by player nor club. One that could but seems unlikely to fail.