Manchester United outcast Phil Jones has opened up on his ongoing fight with a serious knee injury, the criticism he received from ex-Red Devil Rio Ferdinand and the persistent abuse aimed in his direction in a revealing interview.
The 29-year-old showed early promise in his career, but injury curtailed his progress, and he has not played for the Premier League giants since January 2020. He has become a lightning rod for abuse from supporters, particularly after signing a new contract with the club in 2019.
Jones has rarely spoken out over the unfortunate circumstances which have dictated his time at Old Trafford, but in an emotional interview with The Times, the former England international opened up on his struggles.
Here is a breakdown of Jones' frank interview.
Jones first admitted that he has been fighting a debilitating knee injury since his Blackburn Rovers days, which flared up at Man Utd at the beginning of his second season at the club. He suffered from severe meniscal damage, and was forced to have surgery on the knee.
However, the meniscus was so badly damaged that the surgeon was forced to remove it altogether, meaning his bones would rub together inside the joint. That caused serious pain when making sideways movements, and the issue eventually caught up with Jones.
“I’d get swelling after training. You’d lay a ball off and any resistance against the knee was just agony. The merest nudge,” Jones said.
“For years I’d go into games thinking, ‘I shouldn’t really be playing,’ and players would look at me, see the swelling and be thinking, ‘He’s playing here?’ But I love playing and I’ll do anything for United. If I have to play at 60% and know I can get through it, then why not?”
The defender took the coronavirus lockdown and suspension of all football to rebuild himself, and by May 2020, when Man Utd returned to training, he felt 'in the best shape' he'd ever been in 'as a professional footballer'.
But on the second day of training, during a sprinting exercise, disaster struck. Jones completed a set of 'strides', “and then just couldn’t run, couldn’t pick my leg up to bend it. I just walked in.
“Everyone was saying, ‘What’s he doing?’ I’d lost my mind completely. I’m thinking, ‘I’m finished, can’t be bothered with all this any more.’ I went straight to the doc and said, ‘Enough’s enough. I’ve had too many anti-inflammatories, too many injections, too many close shaves. I need this sorted.’”
Surgery & rehab
After initial injections didn't resolve the issue, Jones underwent 'last resort micro-fracture surgery,' which involved drilling deep holes into the knee, hoping to create fibrous cartilage from the presence of blood.
Covid restrictions added months to Jones' recovery, extending delays between visits with his specialist in Barcelona, while the second and third lockdowns added to the mental and physical strain on the player.
“It was the lowest I’ve ever been as a human being," Jones confessed. "I used to come back [from United’s training ground] and be in bits. My head was an absolute mess. I’d be in tears. I’d say to Kaya, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I remember us both crying.
“There were many times I felt an awful dad. You’re trying to give your kids your energy but you can’t. Listen, you’ve got daughters, if your daughter tells you you’re dressing up as a princess, you’re dressing up as a princess, but I just wasn’t there, wasn’t present in the moment. I’d be on my phone or miles away.
“I’m not scared of saying any of this. People and footballers, they’ll put on a front that everything’s all right, but you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Criticism from Rio Ferdinand & Man Utd future
Jones' lack of impact on the Man Utd first team has seen him come in for plenty of abuse from supporters, but he's also been on the receiving end of criticism from a former teammate. Ferdinand branded him 'a waste of time' and accused him of blocking the path for a potential youngster to break into the first team. He was having none of it, though.
“Listen, the respect I’ve got is enormous. I’ve shared a dressing room with Rio - great professional. Loved playing with him. Great lad, good humour. Learnt so much off him. But what he said was poor. Really poor. I’m not into disputes, not into arguments, and if he didn’t know [Jones was injured], he didn’t know.
“Look, I’m private, so maybe people don’t understand me, but that’s the total opposite to how I am. I’ve done my absolute utmost. From tablets, to my diet, to setting up my house so that every time I get back from training I’m sitting in recovery boots and have my ice machine ready. Nobody can say, ‘You didn’t do enough.’”
In fact, Jones is feeling back to his best after the successful surgery, and he's ready to fight for his place at Man Utd.
“It feels almost like I’ve started my career again,” he said. “I feel young - not 29 but 25 or 26 - and because I’ve missed so much football I feel I have so much left in me.”
“I’ll fight for United until someone tells me, ‘Go somewhere else.’”
An easy target
Jones believes that he 'must be an easy target' for abuse, but he knows he will have 'the last laugh'.
“I must be an easy target. Every footballer has a tag and unfortunately mine is, ‘Let’s have a laugh at him.’
“But - and I say this in the nicest possible way - I know who’ll have the last laugh. I’m proud of my career and when it finishes and I’m enjoying my life - and by the way I’m super fortunate that I’ll be able to do that, because footballers are fortunate - [the keyboard warriors] will still be in their mum’s spare bedroom, sipping Diet Pepsi that’s flat, eating a Pot Noodle, sitting in their boxers, tweeting.”