LANCASHIRE lad Phil Jones achieved every schoolboy’s dream when he was plucked from a seven-a-side team and began the journey to footballing stardom. AASMA DAY talks with his parents Helen and Mark Jones who live in Leyland about their son the Manchester United and England player.
Shuffling along the floor in his nappy a gurgling Phil Jones chuckled with delight as he kicked out at a soft ball lying near his feet.
Smiling fondly at the memory, mum Helen Jones recalls: “Even before he could walk, Phil was kicking a football.
“I can still vividly see him in my mind’s eye shuffling along the floor on his bottom in his nappy happily kicking a football.”
Little did Helen and husband Mark know that Phil was destined for footballing glory and would end up playing for one of the biggest football clubs in the world.
“Philip was always a live wire” says Helen, 48, who lives in Leyland near Preston with Mark. “He was always very competitive and played to win. Right from infant school his competitive streak was very evident.
“He loved playing board games with his sister Laura such as Scrabble and Ludo and Phil always had to be the first one to throw the dice and always wanted to win.
“He became obsessed with football from an early age. At school he would use cardigans and jumpers to make goalposts so he could have a game.
“He would even miss his school lunch so he could play football.
“Phil went to St Paul’s Primary in Farington and as soon as he finished school for the day, he would come out begging to play footy in the park across the road.
“Football was everything to him. Like many young boys, he lived and breathed football.”
Mark, 53, who worked as a firefighter at British Nuclear Fuels, was himself on the books for Preston North End as a schoolboy and had an apprenticeship at Southport as well as playing for non league clubs Wigan and Morecambe.
Mark grew up supporting Blackburn Rovers and as soon as Phil was old enough, he could not wait to take his own son to watch his beloved team.
Mark recalls: “My dad started taking me to watch Blackburn Rovers when I was very young and I have supported them all my life.
“I remember taking Philip to his first game. In those days, it was very different as it was all about standing and going through the turnstiles.
“I remember going through the turnstiles and getting Philip in for free by carrying him over as children were free if you could pick them up over the turnstiles.
“He absolutely loved it and after that he went to every home game.”
Chuckling, Mark adds: “We were still lifting Philip over the turnstiles when he was a few years older!”
At the age of nine, Phil was a mascot for Blackburn Rovers and had a dream day and was featured in their programme.
Mark says: “It was during a match at home at Ewood Park against West Bromwich Albion and we had booked it as Phil’s birthday treat.
“He absolutely loved it and we have got photographs of him with Matt Jansen, Marcus Bent and David Dunn.
“Philip was a true Blackburn Rovers fan and still is. It is still one of the first football scores he looks for.
“When he was young, his bedroom was full of Blackburn Rovers merchandise and he even had Blackburn Rovers wallpaper.
“All he ever wanted for Christmas or birthdays was a new football kit or a football.
“I get annoyed when people accuse Phil of using Blackburn to get to Manchester United.
“It was not like that at all as Phil loved Blackburn. It was just that the opportunity came up when it did.”
Like many youngsters, if anyone asked young Phil what he wanted to be when he grew up, his prompt reply was “I want to be a footballer.”
However, even at a young age, Phil possessed a steely determination to make his dreams come true and his ambitions were not just a passing fancy.
At the age of eight, Phil began playing football with Farington St Paul’s Cubs and then Mark took Phil to Lancashire Mid Colts seven-a-side team the Ribble Wanderers and Phil began playing for them.
Mark says: “Every season, Ribble Wanderers would be the winning team and Phil used to bang goals in for fun. He was a prolific goal scorer.
“Philip was always a tall lad and played above his age. When he was eight, he was playing for the Under 10s.
“Whatever team Philip played in, he was always the youngest. But he always seemed older because of his height and maturity.
“People were always shocked when they found out how young he actually was.”
Helen remembers: “Philip once played in a tournament for Ribble Wanderers and scored from a corner and I remember the scout running up and down the pitch saying: ‘Who are the parents?’
“But at that time, as long as Phil was happy and wanted to play football, we were happy.”
Phil’s sister Laura, who is now 24 and a qualified teacher, was a rock and roll and disco dancing champion and took part in many competitions.
So in the early years, Helen would take Laura to dancing competitions all over the country while Mark took Phil to football.
The Ribble Wanderers had two teams and Mark began coaching one of the teams.
He recalls: “There were many times when keen to show I was not biased, I would leave Phil on the subs bench to give other lads a chance, even though I knew Phil was the best player.
“Phil was never too happy about this as he was desperate to play football all the time. But at that age, it is important to give all the players the opportunity to play.”
It was during his second year with Ribble Wanderers that Blackburn Rovers scouts spotted Phil’s abilities during a tournament at Leyland Motors.
Mark explains: “The Blackburn Rovers scouts spoke to us and arranged for Philip to go for trials.
“This was quite daunting for Philip as he was only 10 and not very confident so he was quite apprehensive.”
Helen adds: “Even though people describe Phil as fearless now, as a very young boy, he was always hanging on my apron strings and did not like other people and was not very confident.
“Football gave him his confidence and really bought him out of his shell.”
Phil trialled at Blackburn Rovers and was signed on at the end of junior school at the age of 11 as an Academy player.
But Mark explains this can mean nothing. “As a parent, you could think it is amazing that your son is with an Academy and feel it is the start of a dream footballing career.
“But it is nothing like that. The amount of players I saw come and go was phenomenal.
“Every club does not want to miss any player so they get them in and it can almost feel like they go through players for fun.
“Sean Kimberley, who is now at Aston Villa, was one of the coaches at the Academy when Philip joined.
“I can still remember his first words to the parents. He told us: ‘We are in charge here. We are glad your son is here. But if he doesn’t get into the team or you don’t like what we do, there is the door.’
“Being in an Academy was very ruthless and you had to be prepared to be dropped.”
Helen elaborates: “You used to get a report from Blackburn Rovers before the end of the season telling you your son’s scores for everything from agility to headers to confidence and decision making.
“They would then let you know if you were allowed to return the following season.
“We always knew Phil was good enough to be kept on for the next season. But we did not know what the future held.
“It was a very tough world. Some of the lads would be heartbroken and some parents would feel like their son had failed.”
Mark says: “Some players were a lot more skilful than Philat an early age, but he could cope with that.
“When people were streets ahead of him, he overtook them.
“The coaches at Blackburn made Phil who he was. They worked with his competitive edge.
“One of the coaches Phil had was Gary Bowyer who is now Blackburn Rovers’ manager.
“We are very glad Phil has made it as a footballer. But he did it because he wanted to do. We never pushed him.
“We saw some parents who wanted it more for themselves than their son, but we were never like that.”
After leaving primary school, Phil went to Balshaw’s CE High School in Leyland following in the footsteps of his sister, his mum and his grandmother as well as footballer Clarke Carlisle.
Even though Phil was excelling at football, his parents and the school made sure the academic side of things did not slide.
Helen explains: “Some footballers have a reputation for not being very bright, but we did not let Phil’s academic work slip.
“I was quite strict and would sit with him when he had an essay to do to make sure he did the best he possibly could.
“We did not know he was going to make it as a footballer so it was important for him to keep up with his schoolwork.
“Phil was a popular boy at school and was mischievous without being naughty and was of average academic ability.
“He was always good at English which is why he comes across really well in interviews.
“In the last two years of high school, Blackburn wanted Phil to come out of school for one day a week on a Tuesday. We had to see the headteacher at Balshaws and even though she felt school was important, she was supportive as she realised Phil had been given this opportunity.
“Phil would spend the full day at Blackburn doing classroom work as well as training.
“The school were very good and encouraged Phil and he also played for the school football team.
“When he left school, Phil achieved at least eight GCSE grades at Grade C and above. He was very happy at Balshaws.”
After leaving school, Phil was given a scholarship by Blackburn Rovers and had to live in residence. He lived there for a year Monday to Friday and played a game on Saturday before returning home for the rest of the weekend.
Phil excelled at the Academy and impressed so much, he was put with the reserve team and trained with the senior squad at the Academy.
At the time, Sam Allardyce was Blackburn Rovers manager and he gave Phil his debut playing for Blackburn Rovers’ first team in a cup game against Nottingham Forest at the age of 17.
Blackburn won 1-0 and the following day, the national media was full of coverage about the new wonder lad at Blackburn.
After impressing in the Cup game, Phil was kept in the Blackburn side and made his Premiership match debut against Chelsea at Ewood Park.
Mark recalls: “Phil was only 17 at the time and he played such a great game, he got Man of the Match.
“There was one moment in the game we will never forget.
“Phil went for the ball with so much determination and was absolutely fearless, He went through three players and the roar in the whole stadium was deafening.
“Before that, the game had been going nowhere and Phil sparked it into life. The atmosphere was electric.
“The game ended up 1-1 and Phil swapped shirts with John Terry who was one of his heroes.
“It was amazing when Phil was suddenly playing for the side I had supported all my life. It felt magical and was a dream come true for Phil.
“We were so proud of him and still are.
“Who would have thought a lad from Leyland would get scouted and then play for Blackburn Rovers and go on to join one of the biggest clubs in the world working with Sir Alex Ferguson?”