He is the son of his city. His fairytale rise – signing for Leeds United aged 14, making his debut just three years later and leading the club’s resurgence back to the top flight – made him the talk of the town. Now, a little over a year since he received his first international call up, he’s something of a sensation.
Having just been crowned England’s 2020–21 Men’s Player of the Year, we return to the streets of Leeds to discover how one of the continent’s most ferocious football cities fuelled the rise of Kalvin Phillips. As we uncover what one of the world’s most highly rated midfielders intends to do next.
Photography: Filmawi Efrem
Styling: Carlotta Constant
Stylist Assistant: Aliesha Vian
Hair: Liam Duggan
Words: Tom Everest
“If someone new comes into the dressing room, one of the young lads, we put them right in the middle of everyone. Right in the heart of it all, they’re in the comfiest seat, the safest place, and they get to be surrounded by all the older pros who know what it means to be at the club and have been through it all in their careers. It makes it easy for them to get advice from the people they need, when they need it.”
Growing up, Kalvin Phillips admits to having a soldier-like mentality. As a kid, ‘waking up, going to school and kicking a ball at every moment in between,’ he would go anywhere and everywhere to complete the mission of simply playing football. “I was too focussed on football to ever be distracted by anything else,” he explains. “I used to train for three different teams during the week. I trained with my normal age group and the age above for Wortley Juniors and then I used to train and play for Leeds boys, too. Then, every Saturday I’d set off walking at 9am to my local Goals to play again all-day.”
Even though he did not emerge on the radar of Leeds United until he was fourteen, his predisposition, in his younger years, already had him leaning towards the club. The interest, the focus, the fearlessness was there. And that ultimately shaped his philosophies. To this day, the honour, risk and sacrifice for the good of others – his views on life and how to look out for people are heavily influenced by those first footballing footsteps that led him across the city.
“When I played Sunday League with my brother whoever tackled him, I would go above and beyond to get them back,” he says with a smile. “I’ve always been that player. I am that player. I’m just that type of person, to be honest. A protector.” Even today, when you see clips of debutants in the England camp taking their first tentative steps into St.George’s Park, they’re usually shadowed by Kalvin. He’s often the first to put an arm around them, to put them onto new music and to make them feel at home. When you consider he only earned his first call up a little over a year ago – becoming only the third player this century to win an England cap without kicking in the ball in the Premier League – then his selflessness and supervision is all the more impressive.
By now, because of his exploits on the biggest stage with England this summer, Kalvin’s story is known. Born and raised in Armley, in the west of Leeds and within walking distance from Elland Road, he is part of a Yorkshire footballing tradition that stretches back to Don Revie’s Leeds of the late 1960s. He learned to play on a flat patch of grass in Armley known as ‘the mushy’ and, despite having three-weekly teams to play for, he didn’t get picked up by Leeds United until he was 14. After progressing through the club’s youth academy – and even completing separate work experience for the club – he signed his first professional deal in 2014. So, what does he think Leeds saw in the 14-year-old Kalvin who had never set foot on a proper academy pitch before?
“I think it was just in the way I worked,” he begins to explain. “Where we’re from, the way we like to play football is to get hold of the ball, to get around the pitch, to show desire, to tackle people, to get into the box.
“Thinking back to when I first broke into the first team, it was a tough time. The club were just coming out of a period where they’d gone all the way down to League One and were trying to find a way back to the top in The Championship and were going through so many managers. When I first got in the team there were five of us, five mates basically, that got flooded into the first team and we just started performing. Then, the team got better and better. You know, at the moment, it just taught me that no matter what happens, how low things can get, how far off things feel, you can always turn things around, make things right.”
All anyone really knew about Kalvin at this time was that he was a box-to-box midfielder, athletic, aggressive, who could do something remarkable, like bend one in from twenty yards, or sweep a ball out wide on the half turn. But, he was haunted by the same question that clouded his club at the time; would he, and would Leeds United, be able to make the next step to the top flight? Some players are fuelled by their own self-confidence and, consequently, become haloed in a level of greatness that convinces the world of their talents. For Kalvin, the moment that he realised he was good at football arrived a lot later than you would imagine.
“I’ve always been that player. I am that player.
I’m just that type of person, to be honest.
“When I first got into football I never, ever thought I was good enough to play for Leeds but it was always my dream,” he begins. “It wasn’t until I was probably 21 that I started to think differently but I never thought that I was going to eventually exceed everything I have ever dreamed of. Getting to the Premier League is when it all changed.”
The arrival of Marcelo Bielsa to Leeds United in 2018 – the man to turn Kalvin from a dynamic number eight into a more combative number four – transformed the fortunes of the club and the hometown kid; securing the club’s long-awaited return to the Premier League whilst consolidating Kalvin’s reputation as Pirlo reincarnated. Kalvin earned his first England cap in the Nations League against Denmark in August 2020 before becoming a permanent fixture in the side in the run-up and in the duration of the European Championships this summer. A journey that was once unfathomable was just the start of something even more unlikely in his eyes.
“I saw Declan Rice walking towards me and you can see by the look on my face that I think he’s playing a joke on me,” Kalvin chimes. “I thought he had one of those pies in his hand and he was going to smash it right into my face! For him then to reveal that award [England’s Player of The Year], it was an honour.
“This is my home. They gave me the opportunity to start playing football.”
“I went into the Euros not knowing that I was going to play but I had an idea that I would be playing some part. To play every single game was unreal. And then to be handed that award, was just something else. ”
The summer of 2021 will inevitably, and uncontrollably, flash in the minds of many for years to come. Kalvin’s man of the match performance in the first game against Croatia, England finally overcoming Germany in a knockout tie, the inflatable unicorns, the unity, the love, the leadership. The example set by this current England side supersedes all others; for what they stand for together, individually and forever.
For Kalvin, the single thread of selflessness that ties every inch of his story together explains why he feels so proud to be part of this group. But, for how he got there, he thanks his family. Through his first few competitive games growing up Kalvin’s mother, Lindsey, would place a feather in his boots to bring him good luck while his brother can be credited for playing some small part in helping Kalvin become an enforcer in the middle of the park.
“There’s this story that my brother tells all the time,” Kalvin begins. “When we were younger, we used to play one-on-one in the corridor next to our living room and I used to smash him all the time. He’s a lot bigger than me now, though. So, whenever he tells that story he always finishes it by calling me out saying; ‘come on, let’s get into the corridor now!
Today, before every England and Leeds United game, Kalvin watches a video of his late Granny Val singing Billy Ocean’s ‘When The Going Gets Tough’. “It’s my soundtrack,” he explains. “It gets me in the mood for playing football, to feel free, to feel inspired before stepping out on the pitch. I just always remember my Grandma in that way so it gives me a special feeling.”
You feel it, too. When he talks you listen. He’s clear in his convictions and calm, comfortable, in the way he can flit from explaining the midfield pivot to the ‘telepathic connection’ he shares with his twin sister and his dream of taking a trip to the giraffe hotel in Kenya with his girlfriend. Because, Kalvin is part of this England squad that are intent on doing things differently than those who have gone before them. They are in touch with their feelings, their philosophies, their fans and have a truly era-defining impact on what the future of football looks like in this country. Above all else, they know exactly where they want to be.
“This is my home,” Kalvin explains, as he zips up the double-zipper on his jacket and prepares to take us on a tour of Leeds. “They gave me the opportunity to start playing football. Having been introduced to this football club and into the team, I feel it. I always want to do as much as I possibly can to push this team as far as I can.”
“If you want to do something, don’t let anyone tell you that
As he looks to push Leeds even further, and after enjoying a year like no other, we asked him if there is one thing – one goal – that sticks with him and seems to matter over everything else? What Kalvin always remembers, and what he wants you to remember too, is to just focus on this very moment.
“Growing up, you cannot let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything,” he explains, with an air of assurance that gives flight to his soft cadence. “If you want to do something, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. But, just don’t think so far ahead. That’s what I always focus on now. I just want everyone around me to be happy.”