Phil Jones was cursed ever since someone uttered the immortal words ‘Duncan Edwards’.
The Manchester United great achieved so much by the age of 21 that he is still spoken about in reverential tones, nearly 60 years after passing away in the Munich air disaster.
This colossus of Old Trafford folklore has been a millstone around Jones’ neck since he signed from Blackburn as a 19-year-old in 2011.
Paddy Crerand, former United midfielder and now avid pundit, arguably started it all off. “If you talk to Sir Bobby Charlton, Phil Jones reminds him of Duncan Edwards with his power and build,” he raved at the time.
That’s not just a throwaway observation. Sir Bobby Charlton played alongside Edwards. And even Sir Alex couldn’t help himself, claiming ‘the way he is looking, he could be our best ever player’ after sealing his last title with United four years ago.
But after Ferguson exited stage right, the script took an ugly turn. Best-ever player? On occasion he hasn’t even looked like United’s best back-up defender.
He became just one scapegoat of the David Moyes era, suffered inconsistent runs in midfield and right-back, and compiled a wretched injury history that reads like the nursery rhyme ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’.
Cold shoulder: Jones has suffered from a host of injuries in a United shirt.
To borrow from another English children’s ditty, it looked like all the king’s horses and men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Then in stepped the king himself, Jose Mourinho.
Favoured over new signing Victor Lindelof and fellow England international Chris Smalling in defence so far this season, no one is now laughing at a man who is best known for pulling funny faces.
The question is whether this is a true breakthrough – or another false dawn.
Yes, it was only West Ham and Swansea. And of course, tougher challenges lie ahead. But this season’s partnership between Jones and Eric Bailly could not have started any better.
And arguably it is Jones who has stood out more. According to whoscored.com, Jones has made three tackles and seven interceptions across the two games compared to Bailly’s two and four respectively.
Jones may have a reputation as a no-nonsense defender but he has helped build from the back so far too, completing 93 per cent of his passes compared to Bailly’s 87 per cent despite having more of a tendency to play it long.
This is not to disparage Bailly, who was arguably United’s best performer last year – rather to highlight Jones’ fine form next to a player who is an undisputed starter.
It feels as if Jones has been breaking himself in a United shirt for the last decade but the Englishman only turns 26 in February. Roughly two years older than Bailly, there is a chance they can form a long-lasting and fruitful partnership.
It’s not as if Jones lacks the skills. At 5ft 11in he doesn’t possess the ideal height for a centre-back but as his interception rate suggests, he is nearly always at the right place at the right time to make a crucial block or header.
Though comparisons have proven a dangerous game, Mourinho admitted there is one big similarity between Jones and his former Chelsea favourite John Terry.
“They are different players and it is difficult to compare,” he said last year. “Phil is faster than John, John is better in the air than Phil. They are different players but what they have in common is that they enjoy defending and that’s what I like.”
Let’s not pretend Jones has escaped Mourinho’s wrath, however (though not many have). The Portuguese aimed sly digs at Jones, as well as Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw last year, implying they were not tough enough to grin and bear their injuries.
You can at least understand why Mourinho was frustrated. Jones played in just 26 games last year, even though United’s centre-back stocks were desperately thin, because of knee and toe injuries.
If Jones survives through the rest of this season make no mistake – it will be nothing short of a miracle.
At the heart of the problem is his rashness. Terry may have gotten away with trying to head a ball that wasn’t even in the air (see England v Slovenia 2010) but Jones’ body is too fragile to be flung all over the place.
Even putting the injuries to one side, Jones arguably has never knitted together the type of form – say, an unblemished two months – which screams ‘world class’.
A good, rugged, albeit injury-prone defender. That’s how you would describe Jones at the moment, but certainly not a Nemanja Vidic, a Steve Bruce, or a Jaap Stam.
To be a Manchester United mainstay those are the type of defenders he must aspire to.
If Jones stays well away from the treatment table, then earmark October as a time where he can truly prove that he is a phoenix from the flames.
United go to Anfield, and a niggly Huddersfield, before entertaining Tottenham in that month. The Champions League will also be in full swing and the games may be piling up with England duty, too.
Do you remember what one ill-fated England manager, Fabio Capello once said?
“(Jones) can play in different positions always at the top level. I found in my career probably two players (like that – Franco Baresi and Fernando Hierro.”
No pressure, Phil.