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Reformed Jones back in Mourinho's scheme of things

LONDON • For most of the past 18 months, Phil Jones' career has followed the trajectory of an unrelenting downward spiral.

Left out of the first team by Louis van Gaal towards the end of the Dutchman's ill-fated reign with little hope of a recall, his time at Manchester United seemed over.

The low point came on April 4 this year during a run-out for United's Under-21s.

That almost 10,000 turned up for the Under-21 Premier League match against Chelsea was impressive, but, nevertheless, the presence of 65,000 vacant seats made Old Trafford feel like an empty shell.

Jones knew that better than any of the other youngsters in the team. This was a far cry from the raucous atmosphere that he had experienced under the lights at Old Trafford on Champions League nights.

COMMITMENT TO THE CAUSE

It helps that Phil would probably play on one leg.

AN UNNAMED UNITED SOURCE, on Phil Jones' determination to play well.

For 75 minutes against Chelsea's youngsters, he endured what amounted to a near-humiliation. Kasey Palmer,then 19, nutmegged the 20-cap England defender twice in quick succession.

Forward Tammy Abraham, then 18, sent Jones into a tailspin with his pacey runs and the centre-back's passing was wayward.

He looked dejected as he trudged down the touchline to the dressing room in front of van Gaal, Ryan Giggs and Bobby Charlton after his 76th-minute substitution.

Last season had initially looked to be the year when Jones would get his career back on track after a series of injuries. Van Gaal started him in all four pre-season friendlies in the United States alongside Daley Blind.

The Dutchman decided they would be his centre-half pairing for the season - until thrombosis developed in one of Jones' calves during the 71/2-hour flight from Chicago. Back to the treatment table he went. It was a familiar place for him.

Jones has picked up 16 injuries and been ruled out by illness during his eight-year professional career.

The 24-year-old has been unavailable for 600 days, which have included cruciate knee ligament damage and several ankle problems.

It seemed as though the former Blackburn Rovers defender, a man Charlton compared to Duncan Edwards and Alex Ferguson declared could be United's "best ever player", was destined for the scrapheap.

Thankfully for Jones, the arrival of Jose Mourinho as manager has breathed new life into his career.

Last month, with Chris Smalling out of favour and sidelined with a broken toe, and Eric Bailly out with a knee-ligament injury, he became Mourinho's first-choice centre-back.

He started again on Saturday at The Hawthorns and helped United keep a clean sheet in their 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.

It was the first time since May 2014 that he has made the starting XI for seven successive Premier League games.

With that outing, he also surpassed the number of league starts he made last season (six).

United fans are starting to remember Jones as the commanding centre-back, who, they always felt, was destined to fill one of the holes left by the exits of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in 2014.

They see shades of the man who worked so tirelessly in an attempt to keep Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema from registering a cricket score in the Champions League last-16 meeting with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in February 2013.

The rash lunges and indecisiveness have disappeared. United fans speak of his headed clearances, his well-timed tackles and his ability to drive forward with the ball and find a team-mate in space. No longer do they talk about the faces he pulls when he makes a tackle.

In the 1-1 draw at Everton on Dec 5, Jones was United's best defender. He had a higher pass-completion rate than any of his team-mates, made 10 clearances and lost possession only three times.

When Tottenham Hotspur full-back Danny Rose sprinted into the box in the 96th minute at Old Trafford last Sunday with United 1-0 up, Jones swept the ball away from under his feet, rather than clatter into him.

Jones' commitment has also been vital to him earning Mourinho's trust.

"It helps that Phil would probably play on one leg," one Carrington source said.

Mourinho is aware of Jones' poor injury record, but he is hopeful that the defender's rise will continue and aid United's attempt to climb the table.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Reformed Jones back in Mourinho's scheme of things'. Print Edition | Subscribe