Football's Evel Knievel, Phil Jones has put his body through hell for Man Utd
If Phil Jones starts as expected for Manchester United against Newcastle United on Saturday at Old Trafford, it will be the first time he's started 12 consecutive Premier League games since moving to the club over six years ago.
The defender managed 11 in the autumn of 2014-15 under Louis van Gaal, but he's never hit 12 in a row. Injury usually sees to that.
Until the Chelsea defeat, United had never been behind in a league game this season with Jones on the pitch. At Huddersfield, he went off after 23 minutes with the score at 0-0 after he banged a nerve in his hip and couldn't feel his leg. There was no time for it to settle and he had to come off. He still couldn't feel his leg after the game, which United lost, in part because of an error by Jones' replacement Victor Lindelof. Jones was fine to play in the next game when he again impressed in the win against Tottenham, though he'd limp off in an England friendly against Germany last week.
Jones keeps United's physios on their toes, and that sometimes means literally looking after his toes -- and the rest of his body. In six years, he's missed games because of a toe injury, several knee injuries, a malleolar injury, something called venous occlusion, a sprained ankle, concussion and separate injuries to his hamstring, shinbone, thighs, shoulders and back. He's football's Evel Knievel, the motorbike stunt man of a hundred broken bones who put his body through hell.
Though Jones would rather holiday in Nevada than attempt to jump the Grand Canyon like the U.S. daredevil, his all or nothing attitude is hugely desirable to managers. Jose Mourinho rates Jones, a Lancastrian raised 30 miles from Manchester, though he worries about the injuries.
"Phil puts his head where people wouldn't put their feet," says former United defender David May. "He's not everyone's cup of tea, but if you can keep him fit he's a great player. Out of four central defenders, Phil is the most consistent and reliable when he plays. I like him and Eric Bailly together, too. They work well.
"Phil was brilliant at start of the season and he was different class when United went so many games unbeaten last season," May adds. "He reminds me a little of Steve Bruce in that he reads the game really well and would run through a brick wall for the team."
Jones is patently not as quick as the fleet-heeled Bailly.
"It doesn't matter," is May's opinion. "He's really improved in his reading of the game. He's in position first, he understands his own game, when to make decisions and the right decisions. A few years ago he'd think less and had more of a 'I've just got to win that ball' mentality."
Mourinho tries to protect Jones by having him focus on the Premier League. He's not played in one of United's seven cup games so far, where Lindelof and Chris Smalling have been given more minutes. With Antonio Valencia now permanently in the right back role, Jones is also used only as central defender.
Jones made his United debut in the 2011 Community Shield against Manchester City after agreeing to join the club, a decision he made at a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean in the South of France where Sir Alex Ferguson was holidaying. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea also wanted the 19-year-old from Blackburn Rovers. Ferguson was not even sure what Jones' best position would be, but felt he could play anywhere.
David de Gea, Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley made their debuts in the same game. While De Gea has played 285 times for United since, Jones has started 155 times, with 23 appearances as substitute. Ashley Young, who is considered an effective squad player rather than an automatic starter, has started 124 and come on in another 49 as a sub.
Jones is still only 25. The ninth 'Jones' to play for United (Smith, with seven, is the second most popular surname for United players) may have played more than any of the other eight Joneses, but he's never started more than 36 games in a season.
First-choice centre-halves are usually virtually ever-present. Former legendary central defender Steve Bruce managed that eight times, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Pallister seven times, Nemanja Vidic four times. All those players had seasons where they started more than 50 games. In Bruce's case, he started 50 or more games four seasons on the bounce and started an astonishing 61 times in 1993-94, when United won the double.
The success of the partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic is one reason why Jones wasn't initially starting every week. And it's true that football has changed with bigger squads, but Real Madrid, with Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, had a settled central defensive partnership last season while Juventus' defence has been the most settled in football for years.
Jones needs to be well managed, for the benefit of the club and for himself. He's the one who has to live in his body after he's retired. Many a former player, including those at United, regret playing through injury because their manager pressured them to do it.
Jones also plays for England as he seeks to add to his 24 caps. He should play in Russia next year, but Mourinho and United fans will be nervous when he does -- and for good reason.
Man City fans mock Jones in song because "You signed Phil Jones, we signed Kun Aguero" in the summer of 2011. But Jones, who cost £16.5 million, less than half of Aguero's fee, can answer that by pointing out he has won more with United than Aguero.
For now, he's also starting every week alongside Bailly. The pair have started eight of the 11 league games together, a strong partnership that has contributed to United having the best defence in the league this season.
Can they be the first United defensive partnership since Vidic and Ferdinand a decade ago to start more than 30 league games in a season? It certainly worked then as they helped the team become crowned English, European and World Champions.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.