HomeNewsPhil Jones: ‘I’ll never give up. I feel like I’m still good enough’ | Donald McRae
Phil Jones: ‘I’ll never give up. I feel like I’m still good enough’ | Donald McRae
April 5, 2022
“I feel lucky,” Phil Jones says after he has considered the bruising abuse he endured on social media and in person, his long catalogue of injuries and the fact that he now hardly plays for Manchester United despite being his team’s best player in a solitary Premier League appearance this season.
“I’m 100% lucky to have played in two World Cups, been through the Euros and had some fantastic moments at Old Trafford with some amazing players. Of course people say: ‘You should have done this, you could have done that, blah blah blah.’ But I feel so lucky.”
From the outside, a question about any sense of misfortune might sound ludicrous. Jones is paid lavishly and, at 30, he hopes to resume playing regular football for a number of years. He is happily married and the father of two young daughters who, as soon as we have finished our interview, he will take to the park for a picnic. Jones has also told me about his new web 3.0 venture on the metaverse with real exuberance as, this month, he begins a new chapter in his life.
He still loves Manchester United and talks engagingly about all the famous managers he has played under and the great footballers he has faced. Jones has played more times for United than feted defenders such as Paul McGrath and Jaap Stam and he has won 27 caps for England. He also sounds convinced that good days lie ahead for him in football.
Yet it is hard to think of any other player who has been celebrated by leading managers and then so vilified in later life. Jones is now regarded by many as a meme rather than a central defender as his errors and gurning expressions play on an endless social media loop. He is sometimes verbally abused when on an innocuous walk with his daughters and even Rio Ferdinand, whom Jones revered as a kid, once suggested Jones was “a waste of time” without being aware of the extent of his injuries.
It was, once, very different. Nine years ago this month, after Jones helped United to clinch their last Premier League title, with victory against Aston Villa, Alex Ferguson said the defender could eventually become “our best-ever player”. Ferguson was not prompted just by euphoria and demob fever as he headed into retirement. The greatest manager in the history of British football had first tried to sign him in January 2010 after Jones helped Blackburn played United in a FA Youth Cup game.
“We beat them 3-0 at Ewood Park, even though they were much better than us technically,” Jones says. He smiles when I ask if any players in United’s youth team went on to play football at the highest level? “I think Paul Pogba’s pretty famous and successful,” he says, before adding: “It sounds like I’m being modest but when I was that young I never came off thinking: ‘Look at me, I played really well.’ I came off high-fiving all the lads. At any level, beating United is a big thing.”
Ten months later, Ferguson was convinced after he watched an 18-year-old Jones play with heroic defiance despite Blackburn being spanked 7-1 by United. “I don’t want to talk about that,” Jones says with a laugh. “I remember one of the goals. Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov played about five 1-2s and scored. With five minutes left I went and stood next to Wayne – so I could be the first to ask him for his shirt.”
But Ferguson saw something different, which Jones acknowledges. “He said that game showed my determination. I was still flying into tackles at 7-1 down.”
Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal all enquired about signing Jones. But Ferguson was so set on completing the transfer in 2011 he arranged for Jones to meet him in the south of France. “Unbelievable experience, unbelievable man,” Jones says. “I was so nervous but I owe him so much.”
In his first few seasons at United, Jones says: “I played everywhere. Right-back, centre-back, centre-midfield. I even played midfield for England. I played all over.”
Bobby Charlton made another startling claim when he said Jones reminded him of Duncan Edwards. Fabio Capello, his England manager, compared Jones to Franco Baresi and as recently as 2017 Gareth Southgate hailed Jones as England’s best defender. It all seems a very long way from the Calamity Jones figure that became the stock depiction of him. “Maybe the huge accolades didn’t do me any favours,” he says. “Everybody remembers those comments.”
It is typical of Jones that, talking about Capello’s praise, he should remember being outclassed by Spain’s far superior footballers in 2011. “We played Spain and won 1-0 after Frank Lampard scored at the back post. But we got battered and I was chasing shadows for 90 minutes against Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield.”
What does he recall of Ferguson’s comment about him? “It was unbelievable that someone of Sir Alex’s magnitude said that but it was one of them games where I couldn’t care less how I played as long as we won it and the title. For me the best moment was when [Rooney] plays that 40-yard pass and Robin [van Persie], looking over his shoulder, volleys it in the corner. That’s giving me goosebumps now thinking about it. To be a young lad, just 21, and winning the Premier League was incredible.”
Since then, United have not come close to winning the league and Jones’s career has been beset by injuries and insults. Was all the early praise problematic? “I don’t think it became problematic for me but probably it became questionable to people on the outside. But I never took the highs [for granted] because I knew the lows are only around the corner. You can be as high as a kite one minute in football and the next day you’re lower than a snake’s belly. I’ve always tried to stay very neutral.”
Jones has been hurt by the mockery and there have been times when he has been depressed. “But in the past couple of years I’ve really learned to cope with that and take a different view of where I am, and how I’ll be [in the future].”
Humour has also helped him. When someone suggested he was no [Andrea] Pirlo, Jones responded with a “No shit, Sherlock” quip. “It was a ridiculous comment after we played Italy away, got absolutely battered again, and Pirlo played little one-twos round the corner. They tried to compare me to him and I just turned round afterwards and said: ‘I could have given an interview before the game and told you I was no Pirlo.’ It’s all fun, isn’t it?”
There was no fun when grown men insulted him in front of his family as he was having an ordinary day out as a dad and a husband. “That’s happened a few times and it’s hard when you’re going through a really shit time and you’re with your kids. There’s a time and place for everything – but not when you’re walking with your little girl and she’s asking what they were saying. But I’m over that. I’m in a more positive space than I was back then.”
Jones’s renewed optimism is tied to the new metaverse business he will help launch this week. He is the face of Red Lion Sports Club, a digital venue that will allow an online community to congregate around major sporting events – from the NBA playoffs to the football World Cup. The club will initially have around 4,000 members who will pay about $160 to buy a non-fungible token (NFT) that acts as a digital membership card. The club will host exclusive live shows where Jones will be joined by other athletes and celebrities.
“I’ve tried to stay away from social media over the past years but web 3.0 and the metaverse offer a fascinating opportunity for people to get involved in a family-friendly community. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re into because everybody in the Red Lion Sports Club will have an opportunity to view content we create. It gives them an opportunity to speak to people in the game, make friends, grow the project themselves.
“We could move from F1 to the World Cup to the Super Bowl. I want people to feel at ease, that they belong there. Social media can be very toxic but we want to build a fun and easy-going community. I’m very proud of it.”
Jones is also proud of the way he played for United against Wolves in January. It has since led to just a substitute appearance, in an FA Cup defeat by Middlesbrough, but Jones performed with such intent and assurance in the 1-0 home loss against Wolves that his name was sung with gusto by United’s otherwise disillusioned supporters. I ask if he has seen the striking photograph taken before the game – as Jones leaps high off the ground, his legs ramrod-straight in readiness for kick-off, while his teammates look uninspired and listless.
“I’ve seen it, as have all my friends. I was just so ready to play finally. I felt great and inspired by the atmosphere at Old Trafford. Playing in front of those fans, I know how much it means to them. I understand what they expect from us.
“I thought I did well, especially considering I’d not played in 15 months. I had no fear because I was so happy to be on the pitch. I could have played not so great and that would have still been an achievement. That was as big an achievement as winning the league. People might think: ‘What are you talking about?’ But to come back from where I was at, in a dark place, makes it special.”
How did he feel when he heard the supporters’ reaction? “Brilliant. It was emotional because it was the first time my girls could watch me. They were too young when I went through all my problems [with injury and being trolled on social media] to really understand what Daddy does for a living. They thought I kicked a ball in the park with my mates. So for them to be there with my wife, and to see me playing, made it a great occasion.”
What did Ralf Rangnick say to him? “He was very complimentary. He said he was pleased to see me back and I deserved a chance. But let’s see what happens. I’m hoping I can get some game time and I’m giving everything in training every day.”
Jones accepts he might have to leave United in the summer but he stresses: “I’m still only 30 and I’ve missed a lot of football. I’m hoping to recapture some form and enjoy playing football. When I was out injured it was a difficult time but I’ll never give up. I feel like I’m still good enough and I’ve got a lot to give. So I’m hopeful. I’m ready to play again.”