Exclusive: From Armley kickabouts to the brink of the Premier League - the rise of Leeds United star Kalvin Phillips
It was Kalvin Phillips’ Sliding Doors moment. He was 16 years old and Leeds United were offering him a scholarship, one of 11 players who made the grade in their academy that summer.
His mother wrote to his school to ask for their permission but was sent a reply asking her to reconsider the whole idea.
“My mum got a letter from school,” Phillips recalls.
“It said they hoped I realised that not many people make it as a professional footballer. There was me and a friend, in the same age group, and they were threatening not to let us go. But they did and when I look back now I think…”
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How different life could have been?
Most footballers have stories like that, of breaks and openings which appeared on a whim or were almost lost for various reasons, but Phillips’ timeline is unusual in sport which harvests kids at a younger and younger age.
Many of his peers, the players he rubbed shoulders with at Thorp Arch, were in the building before their 10th birthdays.
Phillips was a late starter at 14, picked up by Leeds midway through secondary school after being scouted in a tournament he had gone along to watch.
“I was at Wortley Juniors until I was about 12 and then left for a season at Farsley,” he says.
“I’d gone to watch Wortley play in their home tournament but they didn’t have enough players so I played for them. I got scouted by a guy called Sonny Sweeney and went to Leeds City Boys.
“After that, he came and watched me again and got me on a six-week trial at Leeds. It all went from there.”
Playing for Wortley was itself a chance occurrence, presenting itself after a friend’s father who coached the club saw Phillips kicking a ball around the same park and asked him to join a training session.
Phillips says that since that evening “I haven’t taken a football out of my hand.”
He never saw himself as exceptional or obviously gifted, though some of the boys around him did.
“My team-mates thought of me as one of their best players,” he says.
“They’d give me the ball all the time and I’d do what I did but I never used to think ‘I’m better than him or I’m a good player.’ That’s not how I felt.”
Phillips is 23 now and the strengths which were spotted in him in 2010 have poured out at Leeds this season. He grew up in Armley, close enough to Elland Road to smell it, and was raised by his mother in a large family, a triplet who lost one of his sisters to illness at a very young age.
The other, Phillips’ twin, lives in London and works in the prison service, a world away from Thorp Arch but a proud career in its own right. Her job is an open goal when it comes to teasing Phillips about life as a footballer being easy.
“She tells me that every time she sees me,” he jokes. “But she’s proud of me as much as I’m proud of her. I don’t think she realises how proud of her I am.”
Phillips and his brother played in the streets, football mad and Leeds United daft.
“I remember getting my first Leeds shirt, me and my brother,” he says.
“It was the yellow one with Strongbow on the front. I had Alan Smith on the back. We’d play outside whenever we got the chance, from 10 in the morning until six at night when my mum shouted us in for tea. You’re just a kid and you enjoy running about. I never got tired.”
Walter ‘Sonny’ Sweeney was a Glaswegian full-back who Don Revie brought south to Leeds in the 1960s. Before the Scot pointed him towards United, Phillips had taken a trial at Huddersfield Town but found the experience underwhelming.
“As soon as I went there, I thought ‘I don’t like it. It’s not for me’. I was growing up around Leeds and I idolised Leeds. I went to Huddersfield and thought it was a good chance but I got there and felt like I didn’t really fancy it.
"A couple of weeks later I went to Leeds and I haven’t looked back.”
Nothing in what Phillips says betrays much stress about the reality of chasing a dream which disappoints thousands of teenagers. Even when his school suggested his mother said no to a scholarship at Leeds, he felt philosophical.
“I was so laid back that I just let it happen,” he says. “If they said no and it didn’t happen then it didn’t happen. But I’d keep on trying.”
At Leeds, the general opinion of Phillips was that considerable pedigree lay behind the broadest and most infectious of smiles.
Coaches in the academy gave him good odds for a first-team debut once he settled in as Under-18s captain and Neil Redfearn blooded him in 2015 during a 4-3 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers, a swashbuckling game in which Leeds’ junior core – Phillips, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram and Alex Mowatt – made a dramatic fist of what threatened at one stage to be a heavy loss.
“Neil Redfearn knew what kind of player I was,” Phillips said.
“He gave me my chance at Wolves, which is probably one of the best games I’ve played in with everything that went on. I trusted him and I’m grateful to him for bringing me through. Look where it’s got me.”
It got him here despite Phillips arriving at the academy when he did.
“I knew I’d joined late but in a way it was better because I got to enjoy my football more when I was younger. There wasn’t as much pressure. Me coming here late probably made me a better player.”
He remembers looking up to Taylor, Byram, Mowatt and Lewis Cook, most of whom were a step ahead of him and drawing admiring glances from elsewhere. Speculation about transfers invariably focused on those four, rather than Phillips, but his current stock is exceeded only by that of England international Cook.
As the others were lost to rival clubs, Phillips dug in at Leeds.
“I had loads of friends who came through here and it seemed like everyone was going one by one,” he says. “There were times when I thought ‘there’s only going to be me left!’”
Timing in football can be crucial.
Cook joined Bournemouth almost overnight in the summer of 2016 and a player who Garry Monk would have used in his midfield was gone before the season began.
Instead, it became the first full campaign of Phillips’ career.
“It’s probably one of the best I’ve had,” he says. “(Monk) saw that I had what it takes to play week in, week out. That was the kind of season which made me think ‘yeah, I can do this.’”
In the grand scheme, it will not match up to the season he is close to finishing now.
Pablo Hernandez took Leeds’ player of the year award last weekend but Phillips is the recipient of the YEP’s prize, a leap for a midfielder who sensed scepticism about him 12 months ago.
Hernandez trades in magic beans but Phillips was the fulcrum around which Marcelo Bielsa built his machine; the most improved player in United’s squad despite the fact that Bielsa’s tactical proposals asked more of him than anyone else.
He is Bielsa’s answer to Alisson or Virgil Van Dijk, someone who fundamentally changed the way Leeds play and the way Leeds are. The crowd quickly took to calling him ‘The Yorkshire Pirlo’, even though Phillips’ inspirations lay closer to home.
“When I was growing up I looked at players like Gerrard, Scholes and Lampard. Although I shouldn’t really say Lampard!”
Bielsa found Phillips willing to roll with whatever was asked of him, like occasional turns at centre-back.
“Last season I played more attacking and scored a few goals,” Phillips says, “so I was a bit shocked that he wanted me to play defensive midfield, to be honest.
"Then it was centre-half and I was thinking ‘what’s going on here? He’s going to turn me into a centre-half?’ But when he came in he said he wanted players who can play in more than one position. That’s how he coaches.
“I feel like I’ve done really well. I get people telling me I’ve done really well but it’s kind of hard for me to tell. I thought last season I did all right but some people obviously thought differently.
So too are results, which turned against Leeds at a critical moment over Easter and snatched automatic promotion away, but optimism still prevails.
“There are some really good teams in the mix but with the performance we had against Aston Villa (last Sunday), it shows we’re capable of dealing with teams like them,” Phillips said.
“I’m excited because it’s the first time ever that I’ve got something to play for at the end of the season. And I’m really confident.”
As ever he is.
The YEP’s Leeds United player of the year award is sponsored by long-time supporters Jackson Trophies of Crossgates. For a full and comprehensive range of corporate and sporting trophies, visit the Jackson Trophies website at www.jacksontrophies.com.