The straw that appears to have broken the camel’s back could scarcely have been more innocuous. On the first Sunday of October 2017, Phil Jones tweeted a reply to Simon Wood, a Masterchef-winning restaurateur who had used Twitter to flag up the presence of the Manchester unido defender in his premises earlier that evening. “Fantastic food,” wrote Phil, by way of acknowledgement for the shout-out. “Me and the wife will be back soon. Thank you.”
It was in keeping with the kind of mundane to and fro in which Jones occasionally engaged on a social media account that seemed to be curated by the player himself rather than a team of in-house social media strategists. Promotional tweets, presumably posted at the behest of his sponsors Adidas, were occasionally punctuated by birthday greetings and other supportive messages for strangers and colleagues alike. Not the kind of content a man would expect to get his two million followers exercised.
Largely bland and unremarkable like the rest of his Twitter output, Jones’s message to the man who had overseen the preparation of his dinner was written a day after he had helped United keep a clean sheet in a demolition of Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. Despite the player having played perfectly well in the game, his post was greeted – like almost all of his invariably well-meaning attempts at any kind of engagement – by toxic abuse from United supporters who don’t consider him fit to wear the club shirt.
While Jones has probably sampled the Wood Manchester dining experience in the intervening four years, the player has not gone near Twitter since. Even in February 2019, when he signed a new deal that could extend his stay at the club to a dozen years, he elected not to mention this milestone day in his career, presumably all too aware of the avalanche of ill-feeling it would prompt from “fans”. Although still a going concern, these days Jones’s Twitter account lies dormant and remains untroubled even by dutiful nods to his boot sponsors. One suspects his silence probably suits them just fine.
Reported to be on wages somewhere in the region of £100,000 per week and tied to the club until the summer of 2023, Jones was entitled to a clause in his new deal guaranteeing him a testimonial year after the decade’s service he marked in June. “Apart from my mum and dad, who else would turn up?" él dijo, upon being asked why he’d turned it down. It was a brutal, self-deprecatory pre-emptive strike from a player who almost certainly knew that if he didn’t poke fun at his refusal to take up the offer, his many detractors almost certainly would.
Described entirely accurately in The Guardian as “a genuine Rolls Royce player” during his first season as a United player, these days the type of car that springs more readily to mind at the mere mention of Jones’s name is the kind of collapsible jalopy you see driven through circus Big Tops by clowns.
Signed for £16m from Blackburn Rovers as a 19-year-old by Sir Alex Ferguson, on the day United sealed the 2012-13 title with a win against Aston Villa, his manager proclaimed he was going to be “a phenomenal player”. Fast forward six years and Jones is currently working his way back to fitness in preparation for his role as the club’s fifth choice centre-back. His current manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, recently insisted the player is in his plans, even if a cynic might suggest that is only because he isn’t in those of any other club’s manager.
Since signing his contract extension over two years ago, Jones has played just 16 times for United. His most recent appearance came in an FA Cup match against Tranmere in January 2020. He has spent the past 13 months sidelined by the latest in a depressingly long catalogue of injuries that have plagued a sojourn at the club in which he has sat out almost as many games as the 224 he has played in.
For some time now, Jones has looked to be a player whose best days are long behind him at an age when he ought to be at the pinnacle of his career. sin embargo, far from being a cautionary tale of fecklessness and promise unfulfilled, his is the story of a dedicated, determined and decorated player who has done enough in 10 injury-blighted years to impress four different England managers while winning the title, Europa League and FA Cup for one of the world’s most storied clubs. Despite this he has become something of a laughing stock because, like some kind of bizarro Beckham, anything that could possibly go wrong for him has tended to do exactly that.
With his unfortunate penchant for own goals and other calamitous blunders, along with a face that has launched a thousand memes on the back of being captured mid-gurn while its panicked owner contests tackles with all the poise and elegance of Bambi skittering haplessly across a frozen lake, this once fine player has latterly been reduced to the status of comedy punchline, even if his pride appears to remain intact.
This week he was reported to have declined to hand his No 4 shirt over to Raphaël Varane, whose recent arrival at Old Trafford has pushed the garment’s incumbent even further down the defensive pecking order. Currently making his tentative return from injury, Jones also featured in a behind-closed-doors midweek practice match, prompting his manager to commend his resilience and say he needs a run of games with the reserves and under-23s.
While he has done well out of his time at United, Jones deserves a break and it is to be hoped he can get his career back on track, even if it is difficult to imagine him featuring in the first team any time soon. Such opportunities are likely to be extremely limited for a man Ferguson once ill-advisedly claimed “could be our best ever player”.