Only a couple of players came through Manchester United’s soul-sapping recent loss to Wolves unscathed. Phil Jones was definitely one of them.
Before the match, you would’ve got tempting odds on the injury-plagued defender even being in the line up, let alone being one of the better performers.
It’s a testament then to the 29-year-old’s character that he didn’t just make up the numbers. In contrast with the wider mess on view, he actually gave a telling reminder of his quality.
That Jones can be a fine defender shouldn’t really come as a surprise – his ability to play has rarely been seriously questioned. It’s his ability to withstand the rigours of elite sport that has been the main problem.
After all the operations, the delays, the doubts and often toxic public criticism, it’s hard to imagine how he must’ve felt when the Stretford End rose en masse to applaud his every decisive act.
It was a bracing reminder that, away from the social media gallows, Phil Jones‘ pain has been real. The home fans were quick to recognise the effort it’s taken for him to get back onto the pitch.
And the former Blackburn ace barely put a foot wrong. He was commanding in the air, strong on the deck and positive in his passing. He slipped in seamlessly alongside Raphael Varane.
So assured was his display that it’s difficult to imagine too many fans clamouring for Harry Maguire to swoop in and steal his place back.
Which brings us to the flip side of the conversation. If an injury-ravaged centre-back with knees made of putty and paperclips can immediately turn up and perform, what the h-ll is happening with the rest of the squad?
It’s a damning indictment of the current group that, along with David De Gea, only the sole surviving members of the Fergie-era seem to truly ‘get’ what it takes to flourish in a red shirt.
Where Jones has switched off social media accounts to avoid the noise and concentrate on football, others seem to manipulate it to make increasingly unconvincing appeals for togetherness.
It seems fitting then that, in the same week United fans saw a player return from two years in limbo, stories were coming out about monumentally well-paid members of the squad being demoralised by life at the biggest club in the world.
The collective hearts of the fan base will surely be bleeding for the poor, misunderstood millionaires who can’t quite seem to motivate themselves enough to push the club back to the top.
The truth is that Phil Jones probably wouldn’t have lasted the course at any other big club under comparable circumstances. He would’ve been thanked for his efforts and ushered towards new pastures.
The fact that, even now, he’s probably more likely to get a new contract than a firm handshake and nicely worded club statement isn’t his fault. Everything about the current malaise is on the people who ‘run’ the club.
They, like the players who seem to think more about social media narratives than performances, could learn a lot from Jones about the integrity and work ethic needed to rebuild in the face of adversity.