By Max Gallagher (@maxgallwrites)
The following is a guest article by the aforementioned author and is not necessarily representative of opinions held by anyone at Empire of the Kop…
Not since the final scene of Shakespeare’s Richard III has a boggy field in Leicester seen such a dramatic plot twist.
Curtis Jones – whose career had seemed as dead as the Bard himself – arrived in the box to guide home a far post cross from Mo Salah and put Liverpool ahead. There was something in the composure of the finish, something in the audacity of the run, that reminded Liverpool fans of the promise this young player had once shown. It only lasted five minutes of course. By that stage, he had done it again.
We all know how this story started. Even John F. Kennedy can tell you where he was the night Curtis scored THAT goal. Local lad turns Carlo Ancelotti blue on cold Monday night. From there, it seemed only a matter of time before we’d be seeing him regularly in a red shirt. There were flashes of brilliance when he did get a brief run out. Jones had a top-class first touch, a burst of acceleration, and a cockiness and swagger that boded well. There was a childlike joy to watching him. He is uninhibited, and plays with freedom. When he sprints, he tilts his whole torso forward and runs like a cartoon character. Liverpool’s settled midfield of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum – once described by The Guardian’s Brian Ronay as being as hard working as a team of piano lifters – had always been notoriously goal-shy. The pressure to score in Jurgen Klopp’s greatest teams was always on the front three. Liverpool missed the directness and goalscoring presence of Steven Gerrard, and even when they were winning, fans longed to see a player who could dictate the game, but also arrive in the box on cue. Right from the start, Curtis Jones was always keen to test the keeper when within sight of goal. It made you want to see him play for Liverpool. It made you want to see him succeed. Fans began to hope for a midfielder who, birthed in the maelstrom of Klopp’s mad clockwork, could not only lift the piano, but then maybe sit down and tinkle out some Cole Porter afterwards.
But at that time Liverpool were a well-oiled machine, and breaking into the first-XI was going to be difficult for anyone. Competition in a team that was winning trophies was tough, and Jones’ chances were limited. His meteoric rise wasn’t quite as meteoric as some had expected, but he continued to stake his claim with promising appearances for the reserves or in cup games. As a young player, the flaws in his game were evident enough. He played all too often with his head down, holding on to the ball always a second or two too long. He was casual when he should have been urgent, and like all young players, he was often rushed when he should have been composed. Seasoned top-class midfielders can instinctively release the ball before their opponents are within three feet, but Curtis liked to draw his man in close, like the kid in the schoolyard who wants to get the better of his opponent just to show how good he is. The result was that a player who had a God-given ability to speed a game up, would more often than not slow it down.
It was inevitable that there would be a ‘Second-Act Setback’ in his career. All good stories have one, after all. During the astonishing quadruple chasing season of 21/22, Liverpool were firing on all cylinders. Thiago was pulling the strings, the spark of Harvey Elliott was once more available after injury, and the work-horses were work-horsing. Even James Milner played regularly, winning man of the match in a league game against Aston Villa right at the business end of the season. Of Liverpool’s eight senior midfielders (including Elliott), Jones was comfortably at the bottom of the pecking order.
Then, of course, things changed for Liverpool. They say a boxer ages overnight. Something similar seemed to happen to Liverpool’s midfield in the 22/23 season. After the glory of lifting two trophies and almost winning more, Klopp’s team simply fell apart. The rigours of the previous campaign surely played a part as Liverpool were regularly overrun by younger, more energetic teams. Outfits like Brighton, Brentford and Wolves thought nothing of slotting three goals past Alisson Becker, and even had the audacity to do it in three consecutive games. Liverpool were on the ropes. They needed legs, lungs, and scrap. A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse.
But when opportunity presented itself, Jones could not deliver. This was his big moment – it was time for the young Prince Hal to stop loitering and pissing about. Now was the time to go and smash the French at Agincourt with a threadbare army of starved peasants, a few archers, and Naby Keita. But Jones could only watch as Liverpool floundered, sidelined by a rare foot injury. ‘Fasciitis’ is said to be so painful that elderly nuns will scream ‘just cut the fucker off’ rather than put pressure on the afflicted foot. The timing could not have been worse. The Afield faithful, for so long famously divided on the prospects of the lad from Toxteth, could finally agree: Curtis Jones just wasn’t going to make it.
The turning point for Curtis came last April in a match against Arsenal. Klopp opted to start Jones, and he contributed to a fiercely earned point from a losing position against the title challengers. Liverpool went on a remarkable run from then until the end of the season. Jones started every game as the Reds became the form team in the league for the final eleven games. The highlight of this spell, from the point of view of the young pretender, was almost certainly that night in Leicester – his own miniature Bosworth field – when he bagged those two goals and announced his return. A Trent Alexander-Arnold free kick into the top corner could not take the limelight away from the real star that night.
But what about the revamped Liverpool? Where does Jones fit into Liverpool 2.0? Will he be at the front of the vanguard, or waiting in the wings making the occasional cameo dressed as an Abbott of a ghost? The stats would suggest the former. Both last season and this, Jones has the highest rate of successful passes in the entire team. A pleasing number of these are forward passes, and Jones compliments this side of his game with healthy numbers for his interceptions, tackles and distances covered. He has become the new standard bearer for Klopp-ball, the flag-ship in the armada. Not even the arrival of Szoboszlai, Macallister, Gravenberch and Endo can keep him out of the team. Klopp has reinvigorated Liverpool’s midfield with the dazzling economy of a jewel thief, but Jones still seems to be his first name on the team sheet.
His game has come on leaps and bounds. He carries the ball forward with dream-like fluidity, now pulling the trigger in front of goal with increasing frequency. His header against Norwich at the weekend was more difficult than it looked. If you watch, you can see that he aims past the post, knowing that the forward momentum of James McConnell’s cross will cause the ball to bend around the keeper and sneak in at the back post. It was a great finish, and the sheer satisfaction he took from congratulating McConnell on getting an assist spoke of leadership qualities. The flaws in his game are diminishing, with the help of some straight-talking from Klopp and Pep Linders. The maturity of his decision-making can no longer be questioned, he is full-blooded in the counter press, and his tactical positioning off the ball is improving. We all know how much a player’s performance off the ball matters to this coach. The German recently said that Curtis Jones now sets the bar for the rest of the team.
The bombshell announcement of Jurgen Klopp’s departure last week might change all of this of course. Klopp’s successor may envisage a different role for Jones. He may think less of his abilities. He might recoil at his self-confidence, rather than encourage it. But for now, Curtis Jones remains the beating heart of this Liverpool team. At the very beginning of Jones’ senior career, Jurgen Klopp once advised the youngster to ‘ ‘defend like a soldier; attack like a scouser’. He is now finally doing that on a week in – week out basis. Liverpool are currently favourites to lift more than just one major trophy this season. No one has contributed more than Jones to the manoeuvring of his club back into this unlikely position. It remains to be seen whether this will end as tragedy, comedy, or romance. But the story has me on the edge of my seat.