From Wortley to Wembley - Matt Abbott
Like every other Leeds United fan, Matt Abbott wants to wish Kalvin Phillips well ahead of England's Euro semi-final tonight.
Who’s been the most improved player under Marcelo Bielsa? If you’d have asked me back in May, I’d have struggled. I think any Leeds fan would. With pre-season ambitions of a European push, the core group that he inherited remains. It’s been a wild three years that’s largely resembled a parallel universe.
We wondered whether he’d be able to turn also-rans into promotion contenders. Stoke City bore the brunt of that. We wondered whether the notorious ‘burnout’ was real, and whether it’d scupper his second attempt. We won the title, 10 points adrift. And then we wondered whether we’d be left in a Premier League dogfight. We were safe by 31 January.
The likes of Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling, and Mateusz Klich continue to exceed our wildest expectations. Every time the bar’s raised, they somehow leap clean over it. But there’s one man who’s stolen the summer. And that man is England’s Kalvin Phillips
This is a player who made his début during a 4-3 defeat at Wolves in April 2015. Neil Redfearn had returned for a permanent spell as manager after his predecessor/replacement Darko Milanič had lasted 32 days. We finished 15th, and by the October, Phillips was answering to Steve Evans. In that following campaign – which Evans shared with Uwe Rösler – Phillips made only 10 appearances.
I don’t think many fans would’ve been bothered if Garry Monk hadn’t offered Phillips a new contract in summer 2016. Even then, Monk only started Phillips when Liam Bridcutt was injured in the September. As form fluctuated, he fell in and out of the team. And even in the starting XI, neither Monk, Thomas Christiansen nor Paul Heckingbottom knew what his best role was.
Largely symptomatic of the club overall, his Leeds career had been frustrating, underwhelming, and uncertain. And then, like so many of us, his life was transformed by the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa. Until then, the thought of seeing Kalvin Phillips playing for England was unfathomable.
To be honest, at the start of the tournament, I felt largely ambivalent. I was only bothered about seeing how Phillips did. Watching his match-winning performance in the opener against Croatia – crowned with an assist – was phenomenal.
Since then, he’s established himself amongst Europe’s elite. And the fact is, thought of seeing England play tonight’s semi-final without him in the starting XI is an equally unfathomable.
No matter what happens, his journey from Wortley to Wembley will be something that I treasure for the rest of my life. He epitomises everything that’s great about the current Leeds and England squads. Humble, grounded, hard-working, and constantly improving.
Kalvin Phillips is a Leeds United hero. And soon, he could become an England one as well.