When Manchester United announced the signing of Phil Jones from Blackburn for a fee believed to be £16.5m, the news went down well amongst fans of the club as well as being praised by all corners of the media.
As a teenager, Jones had already put in some outstanding Premier League performances, including his first league start at age 18 which saw him thrust into the spotlight for man-marking Didier Drogba out of the game. The young-English-talent hype-train had been kicked into gear, and when Jones put in another eye-catching performance against Manchester United, this time from defensive midfield, the club felt the need to act.
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Like he did many times before, Alex Ferguson pulled the trigger on a signing after a big performance against his side, and Phil Jones was all set to be the natural successor to Nemanja Vidic at the heart of United's defence. Instead, here we are in the year 2016 and Phil Jones has essentially become an internet meme. What the hell happened?
"The Next Duncan Edwards"
It all started so well.
At the beginning of the 2011/12 season, Phil Jones took to Old Trafford like a duck to water and wasted no time at all in winning the fans over. His performances in the second half of the Community Shield win vs Man City, the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal, and the strange 3-1 win over Chelsea which will always be remembered for that Torres miss were enough to convince many that he would be a mainstay in the side for the next decade.
Alex Ferguson claimed then that Jones had the potential to go on and become one of the greatest players ever to pull on a United shirt, while Bobby Charlton famously claimed that Jones reminded him of Duncan Edwards, the only player he had said made him feel inferior on a football pitch.
That's not just high praise, that's on a different level altogether. And what is even more strange is that many thought the two legends were bang on the money. Jones was a tank in his early games at Old Trafford, putting in bone-crunching tackles and carrying the ball into midfield on runs that left the home fans gasping, having not seen such adventure from a defender since... Well, ever.
That season was a strange one for Manchester United. The early promise and flowing attacking football dried up, and while they managed to stay within touching distance of the title for the entire campaign, they were eventually beaten to it by Manchester City. Phil Jones' dejected face as he left the pitch against Sunderland on the final day having heard the news of the 'AGUEROOOOO' goal would become one of the defining images of the day.
But it wouldn't become one of the defining images of Phil Jones.
A Victim Of His Own Versatlility
When he was signed, Phil Jones was a promising youngster unfortunate enough to have the cliche "we don't actually know what his best position will be" (which also claimed the career of Jack Rodwell) attached to his name.
Was he a centre-back? A defensive midfielder? Or even a right-back?
Ferguson's neglect in terms of signing a proper right-back before and after the arrival of Jones saw the Englishman played out of position, something that would also happen to Chris Smalling. The ageing Ferdinand and Vidic were still firmly first choice, and with Jonny Evans playing well when fit it seemed that Jones would have to wait to get his chance at centre-back.
At fate would have it, he would not get that chance until David Moyes' first season at United, but then it became clear that he just wasn't going to be good enough to make the position his own. His best moments came when he was making up for a mistake he had made with a last-ditch challenge, and United's vulnerability to the counter-attack in particular looked very bad for the defenders at the club.
Woeful Luck With Injuries
The simple fact of the matter for Phil Jones at Manchester United is that he has not been available for selection nearly enough. There is no denying that his awful injury record has had a seriously adverse effect on his development, but unusually for a footballer, there is a common opinion that many of those injuries have been through his own fault.
Much like Jack Wilshere at Arsenal, many believe that Jones' often reckless style of play has resulted in many of the injuries that have ruled him out. You need not look past the clip of the young defender using only his face to tackle Olivier Giroud as an example, but a vivid memory that any United fan will hold of Jones is one where he lunges into a tackle only to take a significant time to return to his feet.
Phil Jones has made only 141 appearances for Manchester United in 5 years.
2011-12 : 41
2012-13 : 24
2013-14 : 39
2014-15 : 24
2015-16 : 13
— Rahul Singh (@forevruntd) May 19, 2016
It has always been something.
A back injury and a knee-operation meant that the 2012/13 season, the crucial second-season in a young player's development, was a total write-off. The 2014/15 campaign too never got going for Jones, as after looking solid in the pre-season tour of America, was simply not available for Louis Van Gaal enough. There were niggling injuries, but also a rather dangerous-sounding blood clot related illness known as thrombosis that meant it was not just his Manchester United future in jeopardy.
Regardless of his willingness to use his face as a football boot, Jones has had horrendous luck.
Becoming A Meme
The praise that was thrown at Jones in his early time at United was almost as over-the-top as the battering he soon began to take across social media.
The infamous 'Phil Jones face', a terrifying "gurn" that would pop up pretty much any time Jones was pictured making a challenge would see him mocked mercilessly, and the only way to answer back to that type of "stick" was to deliver on the pitch. Sadly for Jones, he never quite could.
Soon United fans began to turn on Jones. Frustrated with his lack of ability and apparent regression in development after such a promising start, soon United fans used Jones as a symbol of how uninspiring things were becoming under Louis Van Gaal, as the decision to put Jones on corner-kicks was met with derision from all angles.
His regrettable social media gaff - putting his own 'PJ4' promotional branding on photos used as a Munich air disaster tribute - proved just how low Jones' standing had sunk with fans of the club. His return to the squad, and appearance on the bench for the FA Cup final, went almost without comment, as it seems as though nobody really cares.
Just because Sir Alex wants Giggs as manager doesn't mean he's right. He also said Phil Jones was the next Duncan Edwards....#MUFC
— The United Stand (@UnitedStandMUFC) April 2, 2016
So What Does The Future Have In Store?
If I had told you at the end of the 2013/14 season that Manchester United's best defender, and likely future captain, was Chris Smalling, and that Phil Jones would be used by Man City fans as an example of how they have fallen from their perch (the song "you signed Phil Jones, we signed Kun Aguero" still rings out at the Etihad), you likely would have laughed in my face..
The forward strides that Chris Smalling has taken ever since he received a brainless red card against Man City in a 4-1 loss near the start of last season look particularly bad for Jones. Smalling has grown immensely as a player, and it's almost entirely because he was always available to play. Had Jones been offered the amount of opportunities that his compatriot had, then you can't help but feel that he might just have grown into the player he was supposed to be.
Instead, injuries and inconsistency have hampered his progress so much that were he to walk away from the club this summer, nobody would be greatly upset. That won't happen, of course, because Jones signed a four-year contract extension last summer to keep him at Old Trafford until 2019, but should Jose Mourinho arrive and decided that a spring-cleaning is needed, then Jones may be one of the first asked to find a new club.
You get the feeling that a move to Sunderland or West Brom (without being too disrespectful to those teams, more because of the frequency of transfers in recent years ala Brown, O'Shea, Evans, Fletcher etc.) beckons for Jones, but were that to happen, maybe then he would finally start to live up to his promise, as moves away from the club have been staggeringly successful for many players in recent years.
He made a fantastic start, and clearly loves football, but Phil Jones' Manchester United career never got a chance to get out of second gear due to injuries and now appears to be unsalvageable. There is always the chance that with a full pre-season under a new boss he could finally regain fitness and become a very useful player for the club, but that is the less likely option that this moment in time.