Absence of fans has been hard on Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips who isn't made for the small screen - Daniel Chapman

Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 5:40 am
SMALL SCREEN - Fans not being in grounds has been hard on Leeds United and England midfielder Kalvin Phillips, argues columnist Daniel Chapman. Pic: Getty

One nice aspect of this fortnight of international football has been the opportunity, after a year of pandemic loneliness, for football fans of all clubs to come together behind their international football team.

I mean, next to nobody took it, but it was nice to have the opportunity.

That Kalvin Phillips is regularly starting competitive matches for England is a source of pride for Leeds – as Marcelo Bielsa says, it reflects well on both the player and the good work being done at the football club.

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But it comes with a reminder of the status Leeds United have lost since relegation from the Premier League in 2004.

Leeds fans know Phillips deserves to be there, with Pat Bamford, and Luke Ayling, plus Jackie Harrison, too. Not forgetting future Ballon d’Or winner Joffy Gelhardt, or Stuart Dallas, the Cookridge Cafu, if BT Sport keep insisting on his local Leeds boy status.

To us, Phillips is an integral part of the football wonder machine built by one of the world’s greatest-ever coaches, and the inheritor of the No 23 shirt from David Batty, himself a custodian of a brand of midfield excellence Billy Bremner learned from Bobby Collins.

His international career is a natural extension of his prestige as a footballer for the proud European champions of 1975.

That’s the view from Beeston, anyway. Viewed from elsewhere, he’s a backwards-passing waster from a small club with no Premier League pedigree that will probably be relegated next season anyway.

Ah, the calm, cool analysis of modern football fans. I hate to get my cloth cap on, but eeh, when I were a lad, international footballers got some respect.

I remember it being explained to me that songs at league grounds, about Peter Shilton’s extramarital affair, were “distateful – this is the England goalkeeper”. A reverent position in society, like a Home Secretary or a lollipop lady.

Nowadays the make-up of the England football team functions as an extension of social media’s club-oriented tribalism, with PES 2021 ratings and a YouTube search as evidence.

Which is obviously fine when it’s me saying I don’t think Jack Grealish should be anywhere near the England team, but even then, I will now admit his international performances have managed to bring me very slightly round to the idea that he’s not altogether a total waste of VO5.

It would be nice if Phillips could have that persuasive effect on the sceptics, but that is rarely the fate of a defensive midfielder.

Criticism of Phillips’ games for England is another inheritance from Batty, because neither player is suited to television. Shielding the defence and feeding attackers: there’s an ideal of a football match in which a player like Phillips or Batty doesn’t touch the ball once, because they don’t need to, ruling over the pitch with their presence more than their possession.

They work off the ball and intervene when required and, while the camera follows the action, their best work is out of frame.

Only fans of Leeds, Blackburn and Newcastle ever appreciated how brilliant David Batty really was, because you had to see him play live and watch him.

If he ever made the highlights on Match Of The Day it was usually because he’d smacked someone, and yet there he would be, in the England team, while fans fumed on their sofas, wondering what he was for. But if you knew, you knew.

Now so many opinions are formed from social media videos it feels like the world has turned further away from players like Phillips. His only viral video of the season came from sharing a couch with Dua Lipa.

Raphinha’s goal at Fulham summed things up. The weighted pass from Bamford and the almost-imperceptible roll Raphinha put on the ball before finishing were worth every slow-motion replay, but look at where it all began.

Mario Lemina hesitated, and from left-of-screen Phillips struck, like a hawk snatching a dormouse in a David Attenborough documentary. It was a snap-second impact, flashing like a subliminal message, gone once the lads up front put some silk on the move and scored the goal, but not completely forgotten.

The absence of fans has been hard on players like Phillips.

Back in Batty’s day, he could at least rely on touring the country live, impressing local fans, so when it came to England the mystification of Match Of The Day viewers had a counterpoint from match-going fans – “oh yeah, him, he was good at our place”.

It feels like a missed opportunity of lockdown, that while so much effort was put into replicating crowd noise, no broadcasters offered the high-level, whole-pitch view you get from the back of a stand.

Some players just aren’t made for small screens, and some people might have to think again about Kalvin Phillips, when they see him at their ground next season.