IT was summer 2020. While setting up to interview Jordan Henderson at Anfield, talk off-mic turned to emerging news that day: Curtis Jones was switching shirt numbers for the season ahead, opting for number 17 after previously wearing 48.
“See Curtis has gone for Stevie’s old number there.”
The Liverpool skipper, looking bemused and amused at the same time, exchanged glances with Matt McCann, Liverpool’s head of press. Both grinned and nodded knowingly.
“That’s about right,” said the non-verbals.
“He told us it was a number that meant something to his family,” laughed Henderson.
There was no reason for Henderson to know the history of the shirt number at Anfield – the current skipper’s debut for Liverpool came 11 years after Steven Gerrard first pulled on 17 for The Reds in a competitive fixture, a season-opening game against Bradford at Anfield in August 2000.
Henderson was just 10 years old then, two years into his time with Sunderland’s youth academy. Curtis Jones, aged seven months, was still in nappies in a street not far from Liverpool’s city centre.
Twenty years on, though, you can bet your house that Curtis Jones was more than aware of the significance of that number 17 – also worn by Steve McManaman, another Scouser, for three seasons in the mid-90s.
As we have witnessed with the player on numerous occasions, Jones spotted an opportunity – and he wasn’t shy about taking it.
Pressure? Expectation? Keeping things on the down low? It’s not for Curtis. And don’t we just love him for it?
Jamie Carragher called the 20-year-old’s swagger and surety on the pitch “football arrogance”. And we’ve seen evidence of it in abundance, going all the way back to when he told Harvey Elliot in no uncertain terms just who should be taking penalties for the Under-23s.
Talking of penalties, it’s been almost two years since Jones, then 18, made a cheeky centre-circle pact with Divock Origi as they prepared for a League Cup penalty shoot-out with Arsenal at Anfield.
The sides had played out a thrilling 5-5 draw in normal time and Jones was pencilled in for the fourth penalty of the shoot-out with his senior team-mate Origi on fifth.
Unbeknown to the manager, Jones, who had already made a mark on the game as a second-half sub when Liverpool had trailed 4-2, swapped places with Origi, who he had earlier teed up for a goal.
And it allowed him the chance, Kop end, from 12 yards, to dump Arsenal out of the cup with the crucial spot-kick.
“Hello Reds, what a win that was then,” he said afterwards. And he wasn’t wrong.
It’s a classic vignette of Curtis Jones at Liverpool. Imagine it, at that age. A moment you’ve dreamed of for so long. Your Anfield debut for the first team. Thousands of eyes watching inside the ground. Many more via TV. And the added pressure of a manager bollocking in the making if you got it wrong given you’ve ignored his shoot-out instructions.
Watch that penalty again. The steely focus. The step and hit. And the let-off afterwards. It’s evidence of an added psychological sprinkle that few have in their locker. It’s also known as a big set of balls.
A Premier League debut followed later that year before the moment that will live long in the memory – for Jones, and for us.
Everton, let’s remember, had the chance to sign Jones as a fledgling footballer. Legend has it that The Blues turned him down after deciding he was “too cocky” and harbouring concerns that a boy so young was modelling his game on Cristiano Ronaldo.
And in another of those infamous “Everton, that” moments, of course Curtis pops up in Liverpool red to score an outstanding goal to dump them out of the FA Cup years later. Add it to the list, lads. Add it to the list.
There was also the rabona against Shrewsbury Town, when Jones became the youngest-ever player to captain Liverpool at just 19 years and five days old. It was like it was all meant to be for him. All in a day’s work. Only a matter of when, not if.
With those moments under his belt, Jones was firmly in the consciousness of Liverpool fans, particularly given his Scouse heritage.
A local lad playing for his local team is always special – a kiss of romance in a game spoiled by money, a fairytale twist in a story not always as sweet as it’s sold. And it doesn’t happen as often as you would think either – certainly not at Liverpool.
Using the ever-excellent resource that is lfchistory.net, I make it of the 833 players they list as having played a role of some significance in Liverpool FC’s 129-year history, 151 are of what most would consider ‘local’ to the club (I’m not getting fully into that can of worms, I’ll leave that with you).
That translates to 18 per cent. Of those many are in the deep depths of LFC history, way beyond the recall of your everyman. Others were peripheral, racking up only a few appearances.
The point is this: to progress from potential at six, to realisation at 20 is outstanding. And perhaps then there should be a little more respect on the name of Curtis Jones, certainly among our own.
Author Michael Calvin revealed a few years back that of all the boys who enter an academy in this country at the age of nine, less than half of one per cent make a living from the game.
Back then, he detailed that only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League pro.
It’s unlikely the odds have shifted much since.
Jones has beat those odds, crossing the bridge from potential to professional where so many – local and otherwise – have stumbled and fallen.
So what next for Curtis Jones?
It’s important to say first of all that he is no longer the plucky Scouser pulling out the odd moment of magic. And he is no longer on the radar of only those of a red persuasion – a goal in the Champions League and his Premier League performance against Tottenham at Anfield in December in particular saw to that.
It was a display that seemed to wake up the wider world, with Ian Wright and Gary Lineker getting on board, Wright praising Klopp’s management of the player and Lineker tweeting: "What a lovely footballer Curtis Jones is. Gonna be a helluva player."
Closer to home, Jurgen Klopp gushed post-match: “Curtis is Curtis. Our boy. Thank God. Imagine if you have to sign him? He is already here four years and wants to stay, so that is a top, top-class player.”
Klopp was referencing not only a mature performance against quality opposition, but also that Jones had already committed to a new five-year deal despite plenty of interest in his services.
Ralf Rangnick revealed he once enquired about signing Jones on loan during his time as head coach at Bundesliga side RB Leipzig.
Rangers, Middlesbrough, Swansea City, Blackburn Rovers and Fleetwood Town have also been reported as attempting to lure him away on loan while a ‘serious bid’ from a European club on a permanent was also reported.
It makes you think as the current clamour for another midfield signing continues: how good is Jones? And how good can he be? What price is a player of similar ability? And for some, is it just a case of wanting something ‘new’ when there is a talent right here already?
Gini Wijnaldum’s Anfield exit has led to a desperation among many Reds for another midfielder to be signed this summer – and don’t the transfer gossipers know it all too well.
A quick dig into Google and you can easily clock up a first 11 made entirely of middle men that have been linked to Liverpool over the last couple of months – and even a couple of subs too if you like.
How about this for a list?
Saúl Ñíguez, Renato Sanches, Yves Bissouma, Florian Neuhaus, John McGinn, Ryan Gravenberch, Otavio, Youri Tielemans, Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Houssem Aouar and Denis Zakaria.
There are many more I’ve missed and many more to come before the transfer window closes on August 31.
But while gossip columns are curated, podcasts are recorded and YouTube compilations edited about the latest name plucked from the football ether, Jones may quietly – or perhaps not so quietly knowing him – be putting his own case forward as pre-season preparations continue.
Those preparations follow his most productive season in a red shirt yet, clocking up 34 appearances, scoring four goals and making five assists.
It’s also worth noting he only received four yellow cards given previous concerns about his temperament, while resilience-wise he missed only three match-day squads through injury.
His 2020-21 tally has left Jones just three short of a half-century of appearances for Liverpool at the age of 20 – a landmark that other number 17, Steven Gerrard, hit for The Reds at the same age.
Wijnaldum, of course, was at a very different point in his football career when his Anfield adventure ended earlier in the summer. He was considered reliable, robust, and a player the manager trusted implicitly.
Concern over missing an international-standard player who clocked up 40-plus appearances in each of his five years with Liverpool – and 51 last season – is clearly valid.
One trait the former Newcastle player was lauded for was retaining possession. He was perceived as sensible, smart – a player who knew the system and could keep things ticking over.
Jones is perhaps not widely seen in the same way. Yet James Milner – and he’d know – has publicly praised Jones for working hard on the other side of his game; on defence, on game intelligence, on understanding the role and the demands of the manager.
It might come as a surprise to some, but Jones (92.2 per cent) had the second-best passing accuracy in the squad last season, behind only Wijnaldum (92.7 per cent).
There is still learning and development to come for Jones, but the same could be said of some of the supposed targets for Liverpool in the transfer market.
Ajax’s Ryan Gravenberch, as an example, is only 19. And Jones himself would likely point out that he outshone the Dutchman when the players were on the same pitch last season.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the month, whether more midfield recruits arrive at Anfield or not, you can be sure of one thing – Jones will back himself to get game time in the coming season. And rightly so.
As his former Under-23 boss Neil Critchley once said: “Self-belief is probably not one of his weaknesses, but that is also why he is who he is.”
Jones – so Scouse even his name includes the letters to spell ‘Scouser’ – has already worn a Premier League winners’ medal for his hometown club and held the trophy we yearned for high above his head.
He’s living the dream but he will want more. And he’s got the time and the talent to achieve it.
Trophies, and who knows even another shirt number (number eight, anyone?), will be firmly in mind behind that steely stare.
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