“Arguably, the way he’s looking, he could be our best ever player.”
The words of Sir Alex Ferguson during a post-match interview back in 2013 as he waxed lyrical about his 21-year-old centre-back, Phil Jones.
Seven years on and the former Blackburn Rovers man may be able to boast an impressive winner’s medal haul along with 27 England caps, but his career has been far from stellar.
Not only has Jones failed to fulfil the potential which his former boss so readily enthused, he’s become a bit of a comedy figure (disclaimer – by ‘bit of’ we of course mean if you type ‘Phil Jones’ into Google Images, 95% of the search results are of him pulling a ridiculously hilarious face).
Speculation regarding the centre-back’s future this summer has been rife, with Newcastle and West Ham both said to be keen on securing his signature in an attempt to bolster their defensive arsenal.
However, if Jones harbours any genuine hopes of reviving his career, a move away from the Premier League is sorely needed, and teammate Chris Smalling is a perfect example of the positive impact a switch abroad can have.
Smalling and Jones’ careers have endured very similar trajectories since their moves to United. Both signed from a mid-table Premier League club and were touted as the future of the Red Devils backline, having arrived with bags of potential.
However, after an underwhelming stay in Manchester, pastures new are evidently needed, with both players burdened by multiple haphazard performances and a fan base who will forever associate them with the club’s post-Fergie demise.
Having been deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford last summer following the arrival of Harry Maguire, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer shipped Smalling out on loan to Serie A side Roma.
The former Fulham man enjoyed a sensational year with I Giallorossi and is now being monitored by a whole host of clubs, with Italian champions Juventus one of those rumoured to be interested.
The dramatic turnaround in Smalling’s career is proof that Jones can still make a name for himself as a top defender – rather than just a puller of funny faces – and at just 28 years old time is still on his side.
Given the interest surrounding Jones from Premier League sides and with the United man no doubt still keen on being considered for England selection, the obvious and easiest move for him would be to sign for another English club in search of first-team football.
However, if that’s the avenue he opts to go down, there’s a high chance he could waste more valuable years of his career.
For all Jones’ mishaps and blunders during his time at Old Trafford, few people actually recall the solid performances he’s produced. Granted there’s been some horrors along the way, but to earn international recognition on 27 occasions and clock up 224 appearances for one of the biggest teams in world football, he’s definitely done something right.
However, given the reputation which precedes him, the task of rebuilding his career at a Premier League club is nigh-on impossible. Regardless of how many solid performances go before it, the first mistake he makes will be the thing he’s remembered by.
After all, when even the official UK Twitter account is mocking you as a player, you know it’s about time to call it a day.
A move abroad would represent a fresh start for Jones and would give the former Blackburn man the chance to play with freedom, knowing he wasn’t on a constant knife-edge and just one slip away from becoming the face of yet another meme.
Smalling has offered Jones the perfect blueprint for how to rejuvenate a career which had looked destined for cameo roles and EFL Cup appearances.
This summer represents the perfect opportunity for Jones to part company with United, otherwise, he’ll probably find himself in exactly the same position in three or four or five years time, by which point it may be too late.