In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe speaks about Kalvin Phillips, following his great performance for England against Croatia.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
You might think Kalvin Phillips has changed recently, but he hasn’t, you’re just seeing more of him. It’s easy to make assumptions that people automatically become self-centred and arrogant when they achieve success and money and celebrity, but they don’t. You just hear more about the ones that do. And if people think they can change Kalvin Phillips then they haven’t done enough research, which seems clear already. Because everyone who knows him and who has followed his career from an early stage, is comfortable with the fact that you won’t find a more grounded, humble and genuine footballer, and a more inspiring story. If that is the type of story that inspires you.
Kalvin Phillips has been catapulted into a different level of public scrutiny. He is like your favourite band who you and your mates saw in a room above a pub along with one man and his dog, and you were entranced by their character because you could see the whites of their eyes and feel the energy they emitted right there. Now the cat is out of the bag, they are public property and everybody wants a piece of them. With a band this can bring resentment. To you they have changed; the connection has gone, they’ve sold out and are not talking to you anymore, they are talking to the whole world. So how can it mean the same?
With Kalvin Phillips there is no resentment, or jealousy, just gushing pride as if he was your own flesh and blood, and an insatiable appetite to read every glowing column inch, even if they’re saying the same thing again and again. There is no sell out and no loss of connection, because he’s still ours and because he will never change.
Kalvin Phillips isn’t your average modern day footballer, but that is not to say he is unique. Many footballers are thankful to their families, proud of their upbringing, self-aware, articulate and have a social conscience, but that doesn’t fit the identikit image that is sold to the general public by our ‘thought leaders’. Instead we get confidence portrayed as self-importance, even though a footballer wouldn’t get anywhere near what Kalvin Phillips has achieved, or be able to do it in front of millions of watching people, without confidence. And we get heritage and upbringing suggested as being volatile and chaotic, when it has actually helped form the most stable and measured footballer you could wish to know. If you bothered to get to know him.
The difficulty for Kalvin Phillips now, following his sensational performance for England in the Euros opener against Croatia, is what level of support he can expect from here. On his journey so far he has had support close by, and at every level. The Leeds public form an impenetrable bubble around their own, and Kalvin’s close family unit provide the release and salvation from pressure that he needs.
Playing for England can be isolating and lonely. Somehow it becomes open season and all hope of earning some understanding, empathy and humanity are lost. It seems your claims on being treated as anything more than a disposable commodity picked up and played with merely for our brief entertainment, are gone. And that is when you’re doing well…
Kalvin is fortunate, in a professional sense, that he has robust and erudite figures such as Marcelo Bielsa and Gareth Southgate to guide him, both of whom can barely hide a withering tolerance of the media, through much first-hand experience.
Anyone who watched the recent ‘Football Focus’ segment on BBC with Ian Wright will have been introduced to what drives Kalvin Phillips. He is no stranger to the streets he grew up in, he still lives close by and is often seen in and amongst the same community that helped to form him. And he is still surrounded by the same people.
Those people helped to keep him at Leeds United when everything else screamed at him to leave. In the summer of 2019 it felt like Leeds and the Premier League were repelling forces that were destined to never meet. It was the same old story, and even Leeds fans were resigned to another player packing up and sailing off to a middling career at a middling Premier League club. But perhaps then we didn’t know Kalvin Phillips as well as we thought we did.
And there is no way Kalvin Phillips could get carried away by success with his family around him. Granny Val famously questioned his footwear on the day he signed his new contract, and mischievously asked him if he’d read the deal, as he was actually signing it. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps you grounded, being made fun of by loved ones in the middle of your biggest professional moment to date.
Of course the story goes that it was Granny Val who still had faith in Leeds United and particularly Marcelo Bielsa, even in those desperate, harrowing days that followed the Derby Play-Off defeat. Kalvin would forever be a hero in the streets he grew up in if he stayed and completed the job at Leeds. He would forever be remembered and his name would be defined as meaning something. Honour, loyalty and success; three words carved below ‘Kalvin Phillips’ in a stone gatepost somewhere in LS12.
Home truths obviously resonated with Kalvin and it’s not something you forget, particularly when it transpired in glorious fashion and Granny Val was true to her word in everything that happened after that, and is still happening. And Granny Val will still be guiding Kalvin today. He has achieved more than he could ever wish for by staying at Leeds United, and everything on top of that is still available to him, as a Leeds United player.
It doesn’t get much simpler than that, because the story of Kalvin Phillips is a pretty simple one; of a pure and wholesome soul unsullied by ego, wealth and a clamour for status. There is very little purity left in the world, and particularly in football, which can be savage, unforgiving and cold-blooded. But then you get someone like Kalvin Phillips and you realise that purity can still give you everything, and that earning success by never changing, is perhaps the greatest story of all.