Kalvin Phillips standing on the shoulders of a giant as he makes Leeds United history with England in Euro 2020 final against Italy

It’s England’s biggest football game for more than half a century and a homegrown Leeds United player is set to play a pivotal role. Graham Smyth sets the scene on the final of the European Championship.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 10th July 2021, 6:00 am
Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips salutes the England crowd at Wembley. Pic: Getty
Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips salutes the England crowd at Wembley. Pic: Getty

When Kalvin Phillips walks out at Wembley Stadium on Sunday night for the final of a major tournament he will not walk in the shadow of a Leeds United giant, but stand on his shoulders.

Jack Charlton broke new ground for every Whites player who followed him at Elland Road, becoming the club’s first major tournament winner when he played in England’s 1966 World Cup final victory over Germany, with team-mate Norman Hunter on the bench.

By the time Charlton began his World Cup exploits he was already a hero in the city, but he went on to become an all-time great, a legend, making a record 773 appearances for Leeds.

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Like Phillips, whose first Three Lions call up came in September 2020 at the age of 24, Charlton was a latecomer to international football, but he didn’t make his England debut until the month before his 30th birthday.

He too was a top-flight player at Leeds who earned promotion from the second tier and straight away set about ruffling feathers of the big boys and the game’s elite.

He too played for a manager who revolutionised the club and he also encountered a certain amount of snobbery from fans of other clubs.

And just like Phillips, a major tournament final came the year after his first cap. But while the great man was part of an England European Championships squad, he never played a minute, let alone reach a final as Phillips has.

So although Wembley represents hallowed ground upon which one of his most famous and decorated predecessors walked and triumphed, Phillips is breaking new ground for Leeds United players present and future.

History, like everything else in Phillips’ life, is unlikely to faze him. He cannot help but be aware of the significance, both historical and sporting, of this game against Italy. He cannot escape how big a deal this is for the city where he was born and bred and for the only club he has ever known.

But with a character like his he’s unlikely to be overwhelmed.

A more laid back operator you will not find, although he appreciates how privileged he is to occupy this position and will act with the appropriate urgency.

There may well be butterflies in the stomach when he lines up to belt out the national anthem, in the almost certain event of being selected by Gareth Southgate, and they may linger for a moment or two after he takes the knee in solidarity with friends, family and strangers who have suffered racial abuse. Along with Leeds team-mate Tyler Roberts he has broken new ground with words and deeds on that particular social injustice.

In the seconds before the game starts his mind might turn to his loved ones able to watch from the stands and those absent – his Granny Val, a woman whose influence has been ‘astronomical’ in his life, passed away this year.

When the whistle goes, however, nothing but the ball will occupy his thoughts. For 90 minutes or 120 minutes or as long as it takes, nothing else will matter.

The sense of occasion will give way to the sensation of an early tackle, like the ones Kai Havertz and Mikkel Damsgaard have felt in this tournament, and he will be off, doing his job, the one entrusted to him by Southgate, the only Marcelo Bielsa has helped equip him for.

Phillips does not have to burden himself with the responsibility of winning the European Championships, he can only and need only do his job.

If he does it as well as he can and if those around him do the same he can walk off the Wembley pitch with the pride of his club, city and country.

If he and England win it, however, he will walk off the pitch a Leeds United giant