New England man Kalvin Phillips has come on a bundle under Marcelo Bielsa… ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ can be the key for Leeds United in the Premier League
- Kalvin Phillips is Leeds United’s key man as they return to the Premier League
- ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ has become an England international before playing in top flight
- The 24-year-old has been transformed by adored manager Marcelo Bielsa
Leeds spotted Kalvin Phillips by accident. A very happy accident indeed while he was playing as a ringer for Wortley Juniors, who had suffered drop-outs for a youth tournament.
Scout Sonny Sweeney identified him and suggested he spend time with Leeds City Boys, whose alumni include David Batty and Stuart McCall, before joining the academy relatively late at 14. The decade since has been spent constantly punching upwards.
It has taken time to arrive — he became an England international before kicking a Premier League ball — but he can have a huge impact when Leeds face Liverpool at Anfield on Friday after 16 years out of the top flight.
New England man Kalvin Phillips can be a key man for Leeds United in the top flight this season
‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ has been transformed into a deep midfielder by manager Marcelo Bielsa
It has not come easy for Phillips, 24, who spent his scholarship years playing catch-up with the likes of Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt at Elland Road. He did not shine in that group and quietly worked on improving himself during extra sessions.
He was the only one of a cluster of youngsters left when former owner Massimo Cellino cashed in. Once Marcelo Bielsa arrived, Phillips went from a box-to-box runner who scored the odd goal to the stately, sitting midfielder; the fulcrum of a Championship-winning side.
The 20-second swaying embrace with Bielsa on clinching promotion, when the Argentine muttered rare words in English — ‘the best, the best’ — showed obvious mutual appreciation.
So too when Bielsa handed Phillips one of his Newell’s Old Boys shirts from the 1970s to commemorate a first England call-up, with a note of encouragement, that will be framed. Phillips has returned the compliment, giving Bielsa his shirt from Tuesday’s debut in Denmark.
The 24-year-old gave his England shirt to his club manager after making his debut this week
The boyhood Leeds fan (L) is a key part of the club’s Premier League-bound side
Plenty of people at Leeds deserve praise for the development of Phillips, nicknamed the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’, and who will surely captain his boyhood club at some point. Neil Redfearn, his former academy coach, gave him his debut in a 4-3 defeat by Wolves in 2015, a match in which a number of academy products played.
‘Technically, Kalvin was behind the rest,’ admits head of recruitment Terry Potter. ‘But he was totally committed. He could always play… but it’s your touch. You’re not used to the pace of games, moving it quickly, receiving it. He had to up his game. He could handle the physical side. He was an inner-city boy so he had that edge.
‘I can’t put into words how much Kalvin loves that club. We’re a special breed at Leeds. It’s in you.’ It was certainly noticeable he did not agitate for a move to Aston Villa last summer during a period of soul-searching after Leeds had blown promotion. And now he has been rewarded with his Three Lions debut.
‘He suits England’s needs. They’re crying out for a Kalvin Phillips,’ Kevin Sharp, a former Leeds player whose company Palm Sports now represent Phillips, tells Sportsmail. ‘He’s always handled pressure. You can’t misplace a pass in the warm-up at Elland Road! The ground is a hostile environment.’
Phillips is a popular figure in the community due to his character and infectious grin
Phillips grew up not far from the stadium, in Armley. He has a handful of friends around him from school, where he met his girlfriend. One of triplets, whose sister passed away when he was younger, he knows the value of family. One of 24 grandchildren, Phillips is very close to his grandmother, Val, who has become a hit with fans following a cameo in the club’s Amazon documentary.
He spends plenty of time in the community helping the elderly and has been prominent in raising awareness for a young fan, Sarah Emmott, who is waiting for a kidney transplant.
Everybody around Leeds references his character and infectious grin. ‘He has an air to him, this smile that takes you in,’ says Redfearn. ‘A selflessness. He won’t have changed since coming in — fact. What’s come on leaps and bounds is his game understanding. Having a manager in Bielsa who has total control over absolutely everything has been big for him. My old man took me to Leeds as a kid. I was brought up on the Don Revie ideology. Side before self. What Bielsa has done is not too dissimilar.’
Leeds’ first test on their Premier League return will be trip to last season’s champions Liverpool
England boss Gareth Southgate has been watching for 18 months as Phillips made steady progression before a final explosion under Bielsa catapulted him into a different realm.
Sharp told Phillips the national manager might be ringing. ‘He was very nervous, asking, “What do I say?” Just be yourself mate.’
The call lasted four minutes. Phillips then rang Sharp. The pair jumped in celebration, simultaneously dropping their phones — the first time Phillips has lost something in his possession for quite some time.