Transfer interest and Champions League inevitable for Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips but Manchester United not among moves that would make sense
Leeds United midfielder Kalvin Phillips will be back out on loan next week.
Yet another international break is upon us and Phillips, more likely than not without team-mate Patrick Bamford unless the ankle injury has cleared up completely this week, will go to his other job, playing for England.
Few outside of Leeds and not that many in the city could have predicted exactly what the past year as an international would look like for Phillips.
His popularity with supporters of his boyhood club, people who consider him one of them, has been hard earned, it was not handed to him. They like a local lad in Leeds but only up to a point, you have to be good, reliably good, to ascend to the level of fan favourite and they knew he was good even before he kicked a ball in the Premier League or pulled on an England shirt.
Before he belonged to the rest of the country, he belonged to Elland Road, where ever since Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival he bullied tricky Championship attackers, scored the odd goal and crunched into countless challenges. They like a physical presence in Leeds.
His passing ability has still not fully been proven to England supporters, through little fault of his own and more due to the style and position he plays for Gareth Southgate, but Leeds fans know. They’ve watched him ping the ball from deep in his own half straight to the feet of Jack Harrison and take an entire midfield out of the equation with a pinpoint cross-field switch of play. They like a ball player in Leeds.
His personality, thanks in part to Southgate’s willingness to let the country get to know his players, has shone through just as much on England duty as it has in the colours of his boyhood team. That and his steady, reliably good performances as England made their way to the Euro 2020 final, endeared him to more and more of the nation’s football fans.
You’ll never convince them all - if Lionel Messi cannot make the whole world his admirers then no one will - but people around the country have slowly but surely come round to the idea that a player outside the top six might just be very good. Of course, the people hammering him for ‘only passing backwards’ would be the same people changing their Twitter profile picture to his face if he ever signed for their club.
Leeds fans have been reasonably happy to loan one of their own to the nation, chiefly because they know what it means to the player and his family. And despite concerns that he might come back from international duty broken in some way, they’re really very proud of him. In his first year as an England player, anything related to his performance that was uttered on the website of his city’s newspaper drew a huge audience and serious engagement. If a pundit needed telling, they were told, loudly, by hundreds and thousands of Yorkshire voices.
Now, the rest of England has a stake in one of those who carried the most responsibility during the Three Lions’ run to a major tournament final, but Phillips still belongs to Leeds.
This week the starter pistol was fired, in earnest, on what will be a never-ending race to the story of his Elland Road departure.
That exit feels likely, eventually, unless Leeds as a club manage the seemingly-impossible-at-present task of aligning their trajectory with his. He’s Champions League bound, it has the same inevitability as Premier League status did, when he was making Championship football look like that game he had this summer against some kids in a promotional video for a purveyor of fast food.
Yet just like his pal and England team-mate Declan Rice, only a small number of possible moves will ever make sense.
The boxes to be ticked include Champions League qualification, a more-than-reasonable chance of playing regularly and wages that don’t just make eyes water but send them cascading out of sockets in a flood. If not, why bother moving from the club you love, where your next contract might not be top-six money but will still make you richer than you could ever have dreamed?
There are only a handful of clubs, at home, who could provide what it would take for Phillips to leave Leeds and even one of those does not make sense.
For a Leeds born and bred player, from a Leeds-supporting family, a move to Manchester United appears to have more downsides than the money could soothe, even before you consider a four year trophy-less period and their inability to match some of their big six rivals. The damage to his reputation in a city where his roots are so deeply embedded, the permanent severing of a relationship with Leeds United that began when he was a boy and the difficulty it would bring for his loved ones still living in and around Leeds appear nigh on insurmountable. Alan Smith is quite the cautionary tale in that regard.
If the day arrives, Manchester United will not be his only option in any case. Make no mistake, this is not a player expressing interest in a move. He’s living the dream with Leeds United and England.
One day if he dreams a new dream, one that cannot come true at Elland Road, Leeds fans will understand, especially if their club comes out of it in as strong a position as Aston Villa did with Jack Grealish.
Phillips helped take Leeds back to the Premier League and if it took his sale to take them to the next step of their journey, financing the arrival of players who could strengthen the team in more than one position, it would be a sad day but one that could just about be stomached.
Right now and possibly for a very long time to come, he belongs to Leeds. Every day that remains true is to be savoured.