As the festive season kicks into gear, you’d imagine that Manchester United’s Phil Jones isn’t different to anyone else in savouring a little bit of Christmas cheer. But far from eyeing up an overdose of turkey and wine, you get the impression that the ex-Blackburn Rovers man’s excitement stems from a little more than the excessive consumption of Yuletide cuisine.
Because the greatest gift for all involved with the beautiful game this Christmas is of course the hectic, breakneck speed at which the festive fixture list churns out matches. Supporters love it, managers despise it and if you’re Phil Jones, than it simply can’t come fast enough.
Indeed, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side roll at a canter through December, Jones will be chomping at the bit to get involved with the action. United might currently sit six points clear at the top of the Premier League, but after a season that’s already been mired in injury, Jones has only played a part in four of those fixtures.
Following back spasms that kept him out of United’s season openers, the curse of injury struck again and it struck hard; a knee operation ensured that Jones’ season didn’t start till mid-November.
In that time, while his side have been free scoring up one end of the pitch, they’ve been conceding for fun at the other. Ferguson will bemoan the bad luck his side has faced, but despite a defensive injury list that has verged on the ridiculous at times this season, the quality at the back simply hasn’t been there.
In some ways, you wouldn’t think Jones could have picked a better time to return to the fold. With his side struggling for defensive solidity, a packed fixture list offering plenty of opportunity for game time and a versatility that can see him fit in a multitude of positions in this United team, you would have thought it’d be plain sailing for the Preston born defender.
Although as supporters will be only too aware, Jones isn’t the only defender returning to the fold after a spell out on the sidelines. His England compatriot and another to struggle with injuries during the calendar year in Chris Smalling, has returned almost in direct sync with Jones.
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Following a nightmare twelve months at the hands of cruciate ligament damage, captain and talisman Nemanja Vidic recently returned to the fold. In fact, if you take away a short term hamstring injury to Jonny Evans, Sir Alex has almost a full compliment of defenders to pick from. Quite a turnaround from the injury ravaged backline that saw Michael Carrick start at centre half at the start of the season.
Unfortunately for Jones, you can’t pick what time you return from injury and you only have to look at how Jonny Evans has benefitted from the loss of some of his teammates, to imagine how Jones is bemoaning his luck. The Ulsterman has taken the chance to boost his first team credentials, as he did for much of last season when Vidic was ruled out, with both hands. While Vidic and Ferdinand may appear the first choice partnership when fit, Evans is surely now the first port of call should one of the pair be out.
And as we’ve seen at Manchester United in recent times, gone are the days when Vidic and Ferdinand were sure bets to start as a partnership every week. As Ferdinand managed to overcome several seasons of perennial fitness issues, Vidic was of course struck down by long-term injury last term.
Unfortunately for Jones, while he started last term so strongly following his £16.5million move from Ewood Park, a string of injuries seemed to occur after the turn of last year; in fact, he’s only played 22 times for Manchester United during 2012. And far from just missing out on being Ferguson’s go-to man during a string of injuries to established first-teamers, he seems to have become something of a forgotten man.
Those fleeting early performances at the beginning of last season seem quite some time ago now and despite enduring an understandable lapse in performance towards the end of the term, we’ve not seen an awful lot of Jones firing on all cylinders.
Given his mercurial rise within English football, it seems absurd to think that Phil Jones is still two months short of his 21st birthday. Whereas so many of his countrymen at a similar age are struggling to breakthrough at their respective clubs, Jones has secured a move to one of the world’s biggest clubs, proved his worth and racked up five caps at senior international level for the Three Lions. Whichever way you look at it, Jones’ feats for a 20-year-old are remarkable.
But with such talent comes a lingering sense of expectation and now he’s battled his way back to full fitness, it’s time for Jones to step back up to the plate and raise the bar once more.
It seems a somewhat obvious sentiment, but first and foremost, Jones has to stay a lot further away from the treatment room in 2013. He needs a solid run of games to regain momentum and play himself back into sharpness, without the disruption that the steady flow of knocks has already inflicted upon his year. Luck will play its part and perhaps Jones is due his share.
And while his long-term prospects for both club and country may lay at centre half, where Jones is playing doesn’t matter at the moment, just as long as he is playing. Be it centre-back, right back or even a stint in midfield, the youngster simply needs long hard game time more than anything is.
If Sir Alex Ferguson hands him that and there’s no reason to think that he won’t, then the rest will surely come. Phil Jones is a tremendous talent and he really does have all the attributes needed to stake a long-term claim at the heart of the Old Trafford defence. When he’s handed his chance, it’s time for him to seize it with both hands.