The footballers we remember best aren't always the best footballers. As an archetype, the cult player has a long history in the English game, figures of fan lore enshrined forever in a parallel pantheon peopled not by those with the most medals, necessarily, but the most arrogance, ineptitude, caprice or cruelty. English football is narrative-driven. It loves its characters.
Each decade tends to define "cult" differently. The 1960s had its cult hardmen – Norman Hunter, Tommy Smith, "Chopper" Harris – a division-striding axis of evil who looked like their faces had been put on back to front, walking bonsai quarries half-heartedly decorated with hangman grins and tiny little rat eyes. The 70s contributed a different kind of cult figure to the national memory, tousle-haired karaoke-night shaggers like Charlie George, Stan Bowles and Robin Friday. The 80s gave the cult canon Cyrille Regis, Luther Blissett, David Rocastle and John Barnes, young, gifted black men resplendent in a racist English top-flight.
As the millennium wound down, the golf-club alphas of the 90s – Dicks, Merse, "Razor", Le Tiss – gradually melted away, ushering in a shyer, shut-in decade that birthed cult players whose careers were of note only in virtual realms, the likes of Cherno Samba, Freddy Adu, Ibrahima Bakayoko and Tonton Zola Moukoko, the fabled desktop protagonists of 10 million adolescent control fantasies, oblivious ghosts in teenage machinery.
It's interesting: English football clearly cherishes its cult heroes, but it feels as though it's never really stopped to interrogate why it is that very different types of player have been able to achieve that same, rarified status at certain points in our national story, how their enduring notoriety might relate to the prevailing mood of the times in which they operated. What already seems obvious on the cusp of this latest decade is that the last ten years have again thrown up their own special kind of cult player, a type several rungs below the generational greats, but who are regarded such that their names will echo on into eternity. In the 2010s, our cult footballers were meme footballers – and among this crop, there is one man who stands out as the first among equals.
How much money would it take for you to accept life as a daily figure of international ridicule? Fifty grand? A hundred grand? A cool mil'? What about 120 grand, plus bonuses, deposited into your current account every week for four years? If that sounds like a cushy gig, remember for a second the dreams that would have to die for this kind of arrangement to be viable. No one grows up wanting to be Phil Jones. But one day, to Phil Jones, it must have just happened. Imagine that. You wake up, spring out of bed, pull open the wardrobe, and there it is, waiting inside: your life-size Phil Jones man-suit, staring straight through you, gurning.
Bonk. Clank. Ooft. Fuck. Yes, here he comes: the Premier League's very own high-diving horse, its feral, face-planting farce magnet, the man who fell to earth, the boy with kaleidoscope eyes. At times, Jones plays with a lack of grace that is genuinely startling, always teetering on the brink of some imminent calamity that only he appears capable of seeing, peering into innumerable abject futures with that Suicide Forest blast-radius gaze.
Jones sees disaster coming like Haley Joel Osment saw dead people in The Sixth Sense; his life lived in service to a curse that to others is a gift, a prescient, sentient fear that is forever getting its kicks from squatting on his chest. Perhaps this is why Jones often seems determined to become the world's first quadrupedal football player. Slipping, falling – Phil Jones is always falling – to the sodden turf, he's reduced to scrambling along after danger on all-fours, glory, glory Man United's very own millionaire bomb dog.
Feted as one of English football's most precocious talents upon leaving Blackburn Rovers in 2011, Jones has spent the remainder of the decade rising to preeminence, in tandem with social media, as a bottomless reservoir of sheer memetic potential. His is the harrowed face of a gazillion gormless jpegs, a man who's been turned by the laughing boys of Twitter into a type of online currency, anonymous ghouls mining Jonescoin endlessly for status-boosting "W"s and RTs. In an age that creates cult players out of those who provide the juiciest meme material, Jones is the GIF that keeps on giving, a defender who isn't Van Dijk or even Matip, but who in his own way will come to define the weird, wired era of English football he happens to find himself operating in.
Recent events feel as though they're bringing this situation to a head. Tuesday's Carabao Cup semi-final against Manchester City was meme-epoch Jones in excelsis, a televised ritual humiliation of him and everything he's ever done with his life. At times, as City pushed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side back into their own penalty area, shivering with menace at its edge, it felt less like watching a live game and more like a 90-minute long GIF devoted to United pratfalls. A Victor Lindelöf collapse here, an Andreas Pereira own goal there. At the heart of it, of course, was Jones himself, chasing after City's spectral 10s and false 9s like a fishwife might a naughty dog, flailing, falling – always falling – at one stage even contriving to injure himself in the process.
At some point, all of this has to stop. While Phil Jones seems determined to spend his time preventing people scoring goals against Manchester United, surely he's aware on some level that his life can't be an experimental study on the limits of human humility and the torture of watching glorious potential drain away in public. Because let's face it: it can't be much fun for anyone at this stage – not for the fans and the club's power brokers, nor Jones and those closest to him.
What goes through his mind in private moments? What do his loved ones say to him after games? At what point do vast riches and the chance to tell people you play for the biggest club in the land start to pale in comparison to your life basically being one of those dreams where you wind up naked in a local shopping centre? Phil Jones isn't the first United player to perform as if he's in debt to the devil on his shirt. There are about ten others in the current squad. But for the good of everyone involved, it feels right, now, to call time on The Phil Jonestown Massacre, to consign this cruel cult to the annals of folk memory, and to see if the coming decade might hold more kindness for a player who, for all his faults, has never committed anything less than everything to the cause.