We laugh at Phil Jones, don’t we?
As football fans in 2018, we have been conditioned to snigger at the English centre-back’s misfortune.
There was a crushing sense of inevitability as Jones stepped up to take Man United’s eighth penalty in their League Cup shootout defeat at the hands of Frank Lampard’s Derby earlier this season.
He missed because that was the narrative crying out to be satisfied.
Just as it felt normal when Jones scored an own goal in Valencia’s favour to become the first Man United player to score an own goal in the Champions League since… Phil Jones in 2011.
The 26-year-old has become one of English football’s most-recycled punchlines.
But is that fair?
Type the term ‘Phil Jones’ into Google and the search engine’s algorithm predicts that you wish to search for ‘Phil Jones faces’.
The Preston-born defender’s unintentionally comedic expressions are world famous.
He doesn’t do them on purpose of course.
And they don’t impact his performance in any way.
But they do contribute to the creation of a character, a figure of ridicule in the style of a 90s American sitcom character.
We laugh at the silly faces because they are funny.
But they also result in us categorising Jones as someone not to be taken too seriously.
Which isn’t something you’d say about many other long-serving Man United players with 27 England caps to their name.
There’s a sense that Jones would have preferred a bygone era.
In this day and age, with the merciless all-seeing eye of social media, every one of his faces, slips and tumbles rack up thousands of retweets.
His style is rather old-fashioned; and that’s not necessarily a criticism.
There’s plenty to be said for a brave, committed, physical competitor who will throw himself in front of everything.
The modern way demands centre-backs who are proficient ball-players, frustrated playmakers almost.
Jones is not incompetent in possession, but he’s unlikely to be United’s answer to John Stones from over the road.
At his peak, Jones is a worthwhile asset for any team.
He really wasn’t far off occupying Harry Maguire’s current role for Gareth Southgate’s England.
Had he not been embarrassed by Eden Hazard in the FA Cup final, he could well have started alongside Kyle Walker and the aforementioned Stones in Russia.
However, he shares Dejan Lovren’s fatal flaw — glaring errors that erase the memories of the accomplished 80 minutes previous.
It’s hard to underestimate how highly regarded he was in his younger days.
A titanic performance against Chelsea, full of trademark blocks (something Jones has always excelled at), made him a favourite among Blackburn fans overnight.
A knee cartilage injury hindered his progression but a dominant performance against Man United upon his return impressed Sir Alex Ferguson.
Two years later, after a £16.5million transfer to Old Trafford and a medal to show for his contribution United’s 20th league title, Fergie made his now infamous claim about Jones’ potential…
“Jones, arguably the way he is looking,” he said, “could be our best ever player.
“I think Jones may be one of the best players we have ever had, no matter where we play him.
“At 21 years of age, he is going to be a phenomenal player.
“I think he can play anywhere on the pitch.”
Ferguson probably regrets such hyperbole.
Not because he didn’t believe in Jones at the time, but because of the pressure such words inevitably apply.
Jones is a good player but not a ‘phenomenal’ one.
At the top level, it’s hard to imagine him doing a job anywhere other than centre-back.
Perhaps one standard below he would be a proficient defensive midfielder or full-back, but not at the level at which Man United should be operating.
Needless to say, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are unlikely to have their legacies surpassed by Jones, as Ferguson predicted.
Shouldn’t we feel more sympathy for him though?
In falling short of United’s greatest ever players, he is joined by 99.99% of his peers worldwide.
His occasionally clumsy demeanour is exaggerated in our minds.
Partly because of the faces; partly because of Ferguson’s false prophecy; partly because of the skewed standards by which we measure Man United players.
Jones has become something of a laughing stock.
But he probably deserves better.
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