'It's not something anyone worries about' - the roots and DNA keeping Leeds United and England's Kalvin Phillips grounded
It is not in the DNA of Leeds United’s European Championships bound Kalvin Phillips to allow something as trivial as an injury to take away something he and his family have worked so hard for.
Nerves that were set jangling by the sight of the midfielder being helped from the field deep in stoppage time at the end of the final game of the Premier League season had been soothed by the glimpses of him hard at work in training with his England team-mates, before minds were finally put to rest with Gareth Southgate’s squad announcement.
That, of course, set in motion an entirely different nervous energy for the family and friends who have accompanied him on a remarkable journey from the streets and Mushy field of Armley to Wembley Stadium.
For a boy who grew up idolising Alan Smith, then the homegrown blue-eyed boy of Elland Road, wearing the white shirt of Leeds was a dream come true. But to pull on the white shirt of England and follow in the footsteps of players he looked up to as a youngster, like Steven Gerrard, is a pinch yourself moment.
“Playing for England alongside Harry Kane, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Declan Rice...that’s surreal,” he said a few weeks ago.
“Sometimes I do go home and realise how far I have come in football.
“But that won’t stop me trying to go further. The Euros would be massive for me.”
We now know they will be, regardless of how much he plays. The experience will be huge and quite unlike anything Phillips has gone through before. He’s well accustomed to dealing with the scrutiny that comes in a one-club city where all your friends and family support the team you play for, but the national spotlight is a different animal.
Those who know best insist it won’t change him.
“Kalvin has always been a grounded person, from day one,” former Leeds player Kevin Sharp, Phillips’ agent, told the YEP.
“Since I started looking after him at youth team level he’s never changed, that’s the beauty of Kalvin.
“Parts of his football game have changed and might need to be tweaked here and there but not his character, his mentality or his work rate.
“He’s so down to earth, so is his family, that won’t change. It’ll never come into question. They keep his feet on the ground but it’s not something anyone worries about, it comes naturally.”
His family, chiefly mum Lindsay Crosby, his three siblings and Granny Val, who sadly passed away in February, have played a huge part in his ascent from local grassroots football to the very top.
Sharp says they’re involved in every decision Phillips makes. Val’s disapproval of a proposed summer 2019 move to Aston Villa helped convince Phillips to stay at Leeds and have one more shot at delivering a promotion the city and his family would never forget.
Age and maturity have helped the player, whose father Mark was ‘in and out’ of his life, come to terms with just what he’s been given by the women in the family, even if there were hard times during his childhood.
“My mum has had four kids, she has near enough raised us all on her own and worked two or three jobs every day to get money to pay for food, to pay for the house, birthday and Christmas presents,” he said.
“To be honest, when I was younger I didn’t really notice how much she sacrificed but as I have grown older, I have realised what my mum does and what my grandma did. The women in my family have done so much to make us grow and to make us good people.
“It’s amazing and remarkable what they have done.”
When his school at first took a dim view on the prospect of Phillips joining the Leeds United academy, Lindsay stood firm.
“She said ‘you’ve worked this hard to get into this position, we’re not going to let anyone take it away from you’,” Phillips revealed in a chat with former England goalscorer Ian Wright.
When Phillips plays for Leeds, and now for England, that same attitude is evident when he fights to win the ball and keep it, doing everything in his physical power to stop anyone from taking it away from him.
He loves a battle and grew up relishing any chance to, in his words, ‘go and smash somebody.’
That too was evident when he flew in on Grady Diangana in the 93rd minute of Leeds’ season finale against West Brom.
It didn’t look good, nor did the aftermath, even if Leeds were quick to state their confidence that he would be fine in time for the Euros.
That confidence was based on a body of evidence.
“It’s quite a common theme with Kalvin,” said Sharp.
“When he picks up an injury you know he’s hurt, he doesn’t go down for the sake of it, but he always recovers well. That’s testament to how he lives his life and trains, how his rehab is and the medical team at Leeds.
“He’s robust. He can take his knocks, he’s durable.”
The challenge that left him with an injured shoulder occured right in front of where his former Wortley Juniors coach Ian Thackray was sitting.
“His shoulder went under him slightly and I turned to my grandson and said ‘that’s that, no Euros’ but it obviously wasn’t as bad as I first thought,” he said.
“It’s a bit of a coup for our club [the call up] and he’s the third of ours to get to the international stage – Stuart McCall and David Batty were before him.
“It’s always good to have a local person in the team.”
When he spoke to the YEP, Thackray was out in the sun planting trees, donated to Wortley FC by the Woodland Trust, in soil that still holds Phillips’ roots – his cousins Levi and Bobby Wisher play for the club’s open age men’s side.
Thackray planned to watch the England squad announcement with an eye shut, just in case. His mood was one part confidence, one part grounded Yorkshire realism.
“I’d like someone to show me someone who’s better at what he does,” he said.
“Whether what he does is exactly how they want to go about it at the Euros, we’ll see.
“I don’t like to get too giddy because as soon as you do, boom you’re down on your face.
“Kalvin might take a bit of time to settle in the Euros, so it might be more psychological than ability but if he gets a game early doors and does alright, he’ll be off then, there’ll be no stopping him. He’s one of those players who feeds off his own enthusiasm.”
From Wortley to St George’s Park, Phillips’ life and surroundings have changed dramatically but Thackray won’t entertain the idea that any of it will go to his head. He won’t let this opportunity slip through his fingers.
“You wouldn’t get that with Kalvin,” he said.
“He’s too grounded and his mum is not going to let him waste anything that’s come his way.
“He’s worked for everything he has.”