Mark Jones was one of the most understated members of the Busby Babes but arguably one of the most crucial; the sort of player appreciated more by his team-mates than he might be, for example, by journalists.
Jones played in the Central League as early as 1949, with a couple of games in the number 5 shirt – his first, a 6-0 win over Leeds on 27th December 1949, though that was followed up by a 3-0 loss to City four days later. He later played in another local derby, against Burnley in mid-February, a 1-0 win.
Early on in the following season he began to make that number 5 shirt his own. After battling it out with Sammy Lynn for a place in the early months, by the turn of the year, he was a mainstay, playing 25 games all told.
In 1952/53, that was his shirt, shared only sparingly with Ronnie Cope. He made over 30 appearances. In 1953/54, it was a similar story, with 38 appearances.
Jones’ integration to the first team had taken place over this period. 4 appearances in 1950/51, 3 in 1951/52, and 2 in 1952/53. His big chance came in a regular run in the back end of the 1954/55 season, where he played 13 games in Division One.
This accounted, of course, for his absence from the Central League for the second half of that campaign, though he had been an ever present with 30 games until his last game, in a 3-1 defeat at Bolton on 19th February 1955.
Jones then kept his place in the United first team, playing all 42 games in the league-title winning season of 1955/56, and scoring one goal – his only goal for the club, which was the winner against Birmingham City at Old Trafford in the last home game before Christmas 1955.
The following campaign, Jones made 40 appearances in all competitions, with 29 of those coming in the First Division – he enjoyed arguably his best form in this campaign, with some stunning performances in the European Cup. He earned rave reviews for his performance against Athletic Bilbao but United author and historian Roy Cavanagh remembers a display that was arguably even better in his opinion.
“Jones was a commanding centre half, strong in the tackle and in the air,” Cavanagh says. “His best game was probably helping get a 0-0 draw in Dortmund on a poor icy pitch.”
Jones made 3 appearances in the Central League at the back end of the season. Despite his earlier successes, Jones found himself back in the Central League, as Jackie Blanchflower was in a rich vein of form and took the number 5 shirt.
Jones played over a dozen games in the Central League in the 57/58 season but it was a sign of his hard work and professionalism that he was recalled into the first team over Christmas and it was Blanchflower’s turn for a run in the second-string.
Jones kept his place in the team as they crushed Bolton 7-2 and won that famous game at Arsenal 5-4. Having played in the first leg against Red Star, Busby kept faith with Jones in front of Blanchflower for the return game in Belgrade. That 3-3 draw would be Jones’ 121st appearance for United, in a first team career spanning seven seasons. He made roughly the same amount of appearances for the second string.
The appearance tally spread over those years may not seem like a lot but it really presented Jones as a very typical case of how Murphy and Whalley would school their young players – dipping their feet in to the first team whilst educating them in the Central League. Once Jones was deemed ready, he was pretty much a reliable member of the first team squad.
Jones was never capped for England and it was said that he was unfortunate that his career coincided with the great Billy Wright of Wolves. “England sides were picked by committees and Billy Wright had a lot of friends!” Cavanagh says. “Mark is another player, that when the Babes are discussed, it is all about Duncan, Tommy, Roger etc. They were a complete side, however, and the likes of Mark Jones made them complete. This should never be forgotten.”
That Jones is never featured in the discussion when people talk about United’s best ever defenders is surely one of the more devastating, if understandable, consequences of the disaster. Here was a player who, when the team were being described as the best in the world, was playing his best ever football. Had the disaster not happened, and had United won the European Cup as many predicted, then Jones would surely be discussed as frequently as, for example, Bill Foulkes.
This article is part of a ‘Lost Babes’ series which will run through the following days. If you have enjoyed it, please consider purchasing the forthcoming biography of Jimmy Murphy, “The Man Who Kept The Red Flag Flying”. The book has been heavily researched and is the official biography of his life as authorised by the Murphy family.
Additionally, this series will not feature Duncan Edwards in great detail. So much has been written about Duncan that there was little point writing an individual feature about him, but he was featured in the first in this series which included Eddie Colman. Tommy Taylor will also not feature due to the intention of this series, to shine a light on those young players who came through the Central League, and to present some facts and figures that most supporters are unlikely to know.
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