England and Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips is keen to prove Three Lions naysayers wrong by going one step further than their Euro 2020 achievement – winning the World Cup.
Gareth Southgate’s side gripped the nation on their journey to the European Championship final in the summer as they fell short of bringing football home after suffering defeat to Italy at Wembley.
With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar just around the corner, England won’t have to wait long for another shot at silverware and another chance to silence their critics.
Heading into upcoming games against Hungary and Andorra, England top their qualifying group, and Phillips feels there are many out there waiting for them to fail.
Cut Phillips in half and he would bleed Leeds United but he is also a proud Englishman. So proud in fact that he still can’t quite believe England have their critics after going so close to winning a major tournament.
The midfielder, the Three Lions’ breakthrough star at the European Championship, has watched the final against Italy and uses the doubters as motivation to drive himself on.
‘I watched it back a week after the game once I’d been on holiday,’ he tells Metro about the 1-1 draw and subsequent penalty shoot-out defeat at Wembley in July.
‘I was just proud of the team and everyone around us who did so well to get us there. I was disappointed but also very proud of myself for being involved.
‘After the Euros, we felt we knew what it took to win and lose the big games. We just want to prove everybody wrong. I think a lot of people want us to fall or to lose in qualifiers.
‘We have come out and shown the rest of the world what we’re all about and we are not going to lie down on our backs after being beaten in the final. We’re going to try to win (the World Cup).’
Imagine that. England going one better and finishing the job in Qatar next year. It is a tantalising prospect, maybe because manager Gareth Southgate’s men went so close to a first European title this summer.
If Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka score their penalties… okay, let’s not do it to ourselves. We know how it goes by now. But England were in front for more than an hour and the opportunity was there. But for rugged old Italy.
‘The final was there to be won, they were a good team and a very solid team but if you’re going to get to a final you want to play someone you feel you can beat and I feel like we could have beaten Italy,’ insists Phillips.
‘I don’t really look back on it too much now, I try to look forward to the World Cup and the qualifiers.’
Wise perhaps. Too much looking back on what could have been would drive you insane. Phillips is a relaxed character but even he notes his meteoric rise — from Championship player to England mainstay in the space of just over a year — is special.
He says: ‘There have been times when people around me have said, “Kalvin, can you believe what you’re doing”. My best friend tells me all the time, “You’ve been in the final of the Euros”.
‘I’m that laid-back that it doesn’t really faze me. People ask me about it but I tell them it’s just a game of football. I said at the time, “It’s something I’ve got to try to win”.’
The 25-year-old’s pain at being unable to do that is palpable. When we speak, on the day he arrives back from England’s 1-1 draw in Poland, the only time his shy smile disappears is when he mentions ‘that game’.
Meanwhile, Phillips credits his club boss Marcelo Bielsa for his rapid progress. ‘Without Marcelo, I would never be here now and would never be involved in the England set-up, so I’m very grateful to him and all the coaches I’ve played under,’ he adds.
‘I’m very honoured they trust me and have played me as much as they have.’
Southgate, like Bielsa, has shown faith in Phillips’ ability. The recent World Cup qualifier in Warsaw marked one year to the day as an England player.
The call-ups of Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood may have taken the headlines at the time but the Leeds midfielder is the one who has nailed down a spot, featuring in all seven of his country’s matches at the Euros. ‘My girlfriend texted me that! Back then, I was on my way to training one day, on the motorway and my agent called me,’ he explains. ‘I wasn’t going to answer because he likes to talk for 25-30 minutes but I answered and he just said, “Somebody’s going to call you in the next five minutes, make sure you pick up”.
‘I was wondering who it could be. I knew it must be quite important as he wouldn’t tell me himself. When I answered, I heard the “hello” and knew it was Gareth Southgate. I still thought somebody was playing a trick on me.
‘I can remember screaming to the top of my voice in the car and the very proud feeling it gave me. Then I called everyone and they were ecstatic.’
With a good family around him, Phillips can never let praise — such as Southgate describing him as ‘high performance, low maintenance’ — go to his head.
‘I’m laid-back, always have been. A lot of people praise me but also a lot of people say bad stuff about me,’ he adds. ‘The praise comes and I’ll take it but there are a lot of things I can improve.
‘People are praising me now but I feel I’ve got a couple more gears. I’ve only been playing in the Premier League and in the national team for a year and feel I have a lot further to go.’
Inspiring his hometown team to greater heights this year is looking a big ask.
After winning plaudits on their return to the Premier League last season, finishing ninth in the table, they are yet to win in 2021-22, drawing three and losing three of their opening six games and sitting third-bottom ahead of tomorrow’s fixture at home to Watford.
Difficult second season? Have they been found out this time around?
‘I feel we surprised a lot of teams in how we worked, how fit we were, and that was a major factor last season,’ Phillips says.
‘This time it’s going to be a lot more difficult. Teams know how we work, and not necessarily know how to beat us, but know how to keep us at bay, so we have to come up with a few different ideas.’
And the aim for this term? ‘Just to keep on playing the way we are, to win as many games as possible, and work hard for each other,’ he insists. ‘There’s no reason why we can’t have another amazing season if we do that.’
Phillips is speaking on behalf of McDonald’s Fun Football, having put on a training session for five to 11-year-olds, something I suggest they may have been grateful for given it was him and not notoriously intense Leeds boss Bielsa who was in charge that day.
He laughs and agrees before outlining just how much he owes the maverick Argentinian. A genius? ‘I believe so. He’s worked with us for three or four years and you can just see in the results we have had in that time how well he has done and how much hard work he and his coaching staff have put in,’ Phillips continues.
He sees the McDonald’s kids playing for fun and when I put it to him that can’t be easy to maintain as you progress through to the top level, he disagrees.
‘I still play football for fun,’ he says. ‘You are playing something you love doing. Every time I play for my hometown club, I’m out there enjoying myself — even if it doesn’t always look like that.
‘There’s nothing more fun than being out on the pitch doing what you’ve always wanted to do.’
Phillips will just be hoping that is the case tomorrow against Watford so Leeds can start having fun again too.
■ Kalvin Phillips is a proud ambassador of McDonald’s Fun Football. To find your local session head to mcdonalds.co.uk/football
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