In the shadow of the freezing East Lancashire moors last Saturday, one player looked completely at ease, despite being booed by home fans: Phil Jones was one of Manchester United’s best performers as his team earned a 1-0 win at Burnley’s Turf Moor.
He was jeered because he started his career at nearby Blackburn Rovers. The Burnley-Blackburn rivalry, between clubs from towns approximately 12 miles apart, is one of the most pernicious in English football. Yet it’s a curiosity that they seldom meet since they’re usually in different divisions, with Burnley the current top dogs.
Jones left Blackburn in 2011 when he was only 19 years old. Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to sign him a year earlier after watching him play well in an FA Youth Cup game, but then-Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce wanted the player more.
The eventual transfer was greeted with little fanfare; there were no helicopters, no hashtags and no pianos, which is exactly how the United of that time liked to do things. Instead, a friend of Jones posted on Twitter that the defender was on his way to Old Trafford to sign; within minutes, journalists were trying to find out whether the story was true.
Jones has played 186 times for United in the six-and-a-half seasons since then, which is an average of 28 games per campaign. By comparison, David De Gea, who signed at the same time, is averaging 46 games per season.
The centre-back partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic was one reason why Jones did not initially start every week but he has also suffered several injuries and the rate at which he gets hurt does affect how people view him.
Had Jones been in the line-up vs. Newcastle in November, it would have been the first time he’d started 12 consecutive Premier League games for United; he’d also played 11 straight games in the autumn of 2014-15 under Louis van Gaal. Guess what happened? Jones was injured playing for England vs. Germany in a friendly. Jose Mourinho was furious.
Jones came back after only four games and this season has been one of his best, with 19 league appearances out of 24. Seventeen of those have seen him complete 90 minutes and United have not lost when he has played a full game. They have also kept 13 clean sheets, compared to conceding goals in four of the five games he did not start.
Manchester City fans have long mocked him with their “You signed Phil Jones, we signed Kun Aguero” song and Jones, who has won more trophies than Aguero in Manchester, was even chided by his own players for some technical deficiencies when he came to the club. But he’s a survivor and much improved.
Jones is not the fastest defender but reads the game well, his positioning has improved, he’s less rash and, while it might seem like he’s been around forever, is still only 25. He’s played in midfield and at right-back for United but is now seen very much as a man for the middle of the defence.
He has played more times in the league than any of United’s central defenders this season, yet he’s not appeared once in cup competitions. Given that Mourinho rates Jones highly, one wonders how he will be used as the season goes on. United face a Champions League round-of-16 tie against Sevilla, for example.
It’s now normal for top-level managers to want four central defenders and, after the highly-rated Axel Tuanzebe joined Aston Villa on loan on Thursday, United have five, with Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Victor Lindelof also on the books.
Jones is unlikely to play at Yeovil on Friday in United’s FA Cup fourth-round tie and will enjoy a break before next Wednesday’s league game at Wembley vs. Tottenham. He made his United debut at England’s national stadium in the 2011 Community Shield and then, 15 days later, Spurs were the opposition in his first league start for the club.
“Phil is a fighter, who knows his weaknesses but covers them,” said Patrice Evra, who caught up with his former teammate when United had a warm-weather training camp in Dubai earlier this month. “He’s a sweet guy, always laughing and happy. I’ve never seen him angry.”
Jones can leave the beautiful football and facial expressions for his teammates but, if he stays fit, he’s on target to play more league games than in any of his six previous seasons at Old Trafford — his previous best was 29 in 2011-12 — and his form makes him arguably one of the best central defenders in England’s top flight.
United fans do have a song for him, which has been sung for a few years but is yet to really catch on beyond a few hundred. To the tune of Spandau Ballet’s “Gold,” it goes: “Jones! Always believe in Phil Jones, he’s got the power to know, he’s indestructible.”
Although the last phrase might be a tad ironic given his injury history, with more performances like the one at Burnley, it might be sung a little more.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.