Phil Jones was one of only five players chosen to represent England at both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, but when Gareth Southgate picks his squad for Qatar 2022, he won’t be mentioned.
The 30-year-old defender is also unable to play for Manchester United in the Premier League right now, having been left out of the registered squad. He could be added in January, but he’d have to prove his fitness first, and he hasn’t started consecutive league games since May 2019. In the meantime, you can also check out the best online casinos of this fall.
Jones, who is out of contract at Old Trafford in the summer, may have played his final game for the club he joined as a teenager in 2011. United have the option to extend his contract for another year, but after more than two years of injuries and setbacks that Jones has privately described as “hell,” it’s likely that a player once praised by Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello, and Southgate will be allowed to leave quietly.
Ferguson was so eager to sign Jones from Blackburn Rovers in 2011 that he flew him out to join a family vacation in the south of France. Despite competition from Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal, United agreed to a deal worth more than £16 million.
Jones had piqued Ferguson’s interest 18 months earlier when Blackburn defeated United’s under-18s, which included a young Paul Pogba, in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup. Ferguson was persuaded to make the move after seeing Jones play for Blackburn’s first team in a 7-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
Even now, Jones says he’d rather forget the day, but Ferguson witnessed the 18-year-old yell and shout at teammates more than ten years his senior. Michael Salgado, a veteran centre back who had got to play more than 300 games for Real Madrid and twice won the League, was one of them. Ferguson decided that if Jones was confident enough to scold Salgado, he would be fine walking into a United dressing room that included Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, and Wayne Rooney. He was correct.
Jones appeared in 41 games in his first season and was a member of the team that won the Premier League the following year. By late 2013, he was regarded as so important that an ankle injury dominated the build-up to the Champions League round-of-16 match against Real Madrid. He was ruled out of the return leg in Manchester, which was remembered for Nani’s controversial red card for a high challenge, and United were eliminated in a 2-1 defeat.
Injuries were never far away, but between 2011 and 2019, Jones appeared in 216 games, averaging nearly 30 per season. He was asked to play anywhere, usually at centre-back, but also at right-back and in midfield.
He played in the center of midfield for England against a Spain team that included Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, and Xabi Alonso in 2011. England triumphed 1-0. Jones’ ability on the ball, physical attributes, and versatility were once predicted by Ferguson to place him among United’s greatest-ever players; Capello, England manager between 2007 and 2012, compared him to legendary Italy defender Franco Baresi. Southgate is a fan as well, saying in 2017: “On the ball, he maintains excellent poise. He has a good game sense, is aggressive in defense, which I like, and I believe he has a lot of experience. He is well-organized and competitive.”
Despite the support of almost every manager he’s worked for, Jones’ career may be remembered for the games he didn’t play rather than the ones he did.
When Louis van Gaal took over as manager of Manchester United in 2014, he wanted to sign Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund, partly because there were concerns that Jones had just returned from three separate injury layoffs due to issues with his head, knee, and shoulder. However, following a series of tests conducted over the summer, United’s medical staff informed Van Gaal and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward that Jones, then 22, was in peak physical condition and that, barring any freak injuries, he was expected to be available for the entire season.
He started the first three league games, but a hamstring strain sidelined him for nearly a month by early September. After returning to full fitness and playing in a 2-2 draw with West Brom in late October, he didn’t play again until mid-December due to a shin injury. In a nutshell, this is Jones’ career: a manager who likes him, a string of promising performances, and then another injury setback. It’s a recurring motif.
Jones started eight of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first 11 games in charge after being named caretaker manager in December 2018. It prompted United to offer him a new four-year contract, but he has only started 16 games since signing it in February 2019. A knee injury in February 2020 forced him to miss nearly a year of action, and he was on the verge of retiring during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jones’ injury issues have resulted in online abuse, and he hasn’t tweeted to his 2.1 million followers since May 2017. Posts to his 1.3 million Instagram followers also ceased shortly after. Worse, he has been subjected to personal abuse while out with his wife and two young daughters, which has added to the toll on his mental health over the last two years.
Despite not having played since April, when he was unexpectedly selected by Ralf Rangnick for the 4-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield, he stayed at Carrington this summer to follow a personal training programme while new manager Erik ten Hag took the squad to Thailand and Australia for preseason. Potential moves away from Old Trafford were thwarted by a lack of fitness, and with no timetable set for his return, Ten Hag decided it didn’t make sense to register him for the Premier League or Europa League.
As a result, when the World Cup begins in November in Qatar, Jones will be watching from home for the first time since he was 18. He is still only 30 years old and hopes to play regularly again, even if there is now an acceptance that it will have to be at a different club. He’s already had a career most footballers can only dream of, having played more than 200 games for United, won 27 caps for England, and won the Premier League, FA Cup, and Europa League. However, there will always be a sense of what could have been.