It is one thing to appreciate how far Phil Jones has come in professional football at the tender age of 19, it is quite another to hear him spell out just how young he is in relation to the current generation of English footballers.
In his first press briefing as a fully-fledged England international yesterday, Jones was asked of his first football memory. He was too young, he said, to remember his beloved Blackburn Rovers winning the Premier League title in 1995. As for England he could not recall Euro 2000. In fact, the first major international tournament he can remember watching was the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
As a pupil at St Paul's primary school in Lostock Hall on the outskirts of Preston, Jones, who was then in year six, recalls watching the first half of England's 2-1 defeat to Brazil in Shizuoka at home and then rushing to school to see the second half. "When that [Ronaldinho] goal went in and the final whistle went, everyone was in tears, seriously. I'd never seen anything like it," he said. "That's how much it means. That's why I understand when I'm playing for England what it means to the onlookers who watch England and support England."
In fairness, the tears can be explained in part by the fact that it was a room full of 10-year-olds, Jones included, but the fact that the World Cup in question really does not seem that long ago really brought home just how young Jones is. Ashley Cole, who will be part of the back four in which Jones may well start for England against Spain tomorrow, played in that game against Brazil. As did Jones's Manchester United team-mates Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen, who scored.
Jones has come a long way in a short time and tomorrow's game will be another steep test for the young man signed for £18m from Blackburn by Sir Alex Ferguson in the summer. On the occasion of his first major press conference as an England player, he was a little shy at times but that is to be expected from one so young. What he did not lack was confidence.
The indications are that Jones will begin tomorrow's game in defence with either Phil Jagielka or Gary Cahill alongside him but there is still a school of thought in the Capello camp that he might be best deployed in midfield. Making your first appearance for England at Wembley is one thing, doing so in an unfamiliar position is another, but against the best team in the world? That takes some doing.
Nevertheless, Jones demonstrated yesterday that he is not about to be fazed, even by playing the likes of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. "If I am asked to play and the manager picks me there then great, it will be a great game," he said. "I am looking forward to it. They are fantastic players. We all know that but they are only human. Everyone can make mistakes if you get in among them. We'll see.
"I think centre-back is my more natural position. That is where I grew up playing. But I think I am more than adequate playing at right-back and central midfield as well. I have played central midfield for Blackburn for a full season so I know where to be."
In the way that he spoke about the specific problems that Spain pose, Jones reflected a feeling within the squad that they feel it is pointless to be daunted by the world champions. "We could sit here and talk forever about how you stop Spain," he said. "But we as players, whoever is picked in the starting XI, need to get in among them and around them and really bite away. If we do that and play the way we can, then we've got a good chance."
That sounded like a recipe for giving away dangerous free-kicks? "But if we stop that process before they can do that, then we can just eliminate that altogether," he said. "Yes, we've got to adapt our game in a different way to play against Spain and then probably a different way to play against Sweden. That's what football is about, adapting to different situations. And if you can adapt to those situations, then you become up there with the best teams in the world."
Having made such strides since his debut for Blackburn against Chelsea in March last year – in which he distinguished himself against Didier Drogba – it is probably just as well that Jones does not suffer from any anxieties about his game. He was thrust into the England team at right-back against Montenegro last month and did well in difficult circumstances.
"There is pressure. Playing for Manchester United and England there is pressure every time, every single game you play whether it is a friendly or whatever," he said. "If that was the case [that he struggled against Spain] I would go back to my club, work hard and get back in. I don't fear the game.
"I have always been dedicated to what I am doing. If I start a job I cannot leave it unfinished. That is just the person I am. I take that into my football."
It was his former manager at Blackburn, Sam Allardyce, who identified Jones as a potential future England captain after his debut against Chelsea. For the player himself, it has been a gilded career in which everything has gone right, with the exception of a rejection from Bolton Wanderers after a trial there at the age of 10. Through the ranks at Blackburn and the junior England teams up to the Under-21s, Jones has always been regarded as an outstanding prospect.
Tomorrow's game will not define his England career – far from it – but, as with his first taste of life at United this season, it will give him a sense of what it takes to be a World Cup winner. But make no mistake: he's ready.
"We've talked about different scenarios that can happen in a game but there has been a lot said about Spain [in the press] and not much about England," he said. "If we concentrate on what we're good at and what we can do, then hopefully we can come out on Saturday with a good mentality and prove that we can compete against the best."Reuse content