Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips left his home city a hero and will return a national treasure, despite England’s Wembley Euro 2020 heartache.
By Graham Smyth
Nothing that happened in the final against Italy was ever going to diminish his reputation in Leeds but defeat to Italy, on penalties no less, should do little harm to a new-found, hard-earned appreciation for his abilities outside his birth place. In the biggest game of his career, on the biggest possible stage, he was everywhere, just as he has been throughout the tournament for Gareth Southgate.
It was the biggest test for a player who only made his international debut last September and walked out for the final of a major tournament with just 29 top-flight appearances to his name.
He had to go back to basics, relying on the grit and character instilled in him from the outset of his Armley upbringing, as much as the talent and footballing understanding nurtured and developed at Thorp Arch by Marcelo Bielsa. When the going gets tough, Phillips gets to work and he needed every bit of his character, as England’s perfect start gave way to a tense slog, England’s fate teetering between the stuff of nightmares and dreams.
Critics who pointed to Phiillips’ perceived limitations in a pre-Euros discourse that pitted him against Declan Rice for a place in the side, have been kept largely silent by the pair’s successful partnership during the tournament and, in the final, the Leeds-West Ham midfield axis were both the legs and the lungs for England. Nothing the duo have produced with the Three Lions on their chest will have surprised Hammers or Whites, but knowledge of their abilities that was predominantly local is now nationwide.
Luke Shaw’s goal in the second minute might have suppressed any nerves but England could not relax for one minute against Roberto Mancini’s talented side.
Midway through the first half Marco Verratti began to creep into the game as an influence, Phillips chasing shadows for two quick passes that pushed the Italians deep into England territory. Yet other than a Federico Chiesa shot that whistled past the post after he gave Rice the slip, England were relatively untroubled and retained a solid-looking defensive shape with their midfielders integral once again.
When the Italians did set up camp in the final third, Phillips worked hard out of possession to block Italian routes to goal.
He and Rice, who shone in the first half, were key to preventing Italy from finding joy on the counter attack or through the middle of the pitch, Phillips’ challenge on Chiesa just before the break typical of the vital interventions the pair made.
Phillips’ performance was more about vital tackles like that as the second half unfolded than it was what he could do on the ball, Italy taking control and deservedly levelling through Leonardo Bonucci.
The response, from Phillips, was to work even harder, putting a foot in, getting in the way, doing whatever it took, doing enough.
Rice continued to excel alongside him until his withdrawal, Jordan Henderson coming on as Phillips moved back into his central defensive midfield club role where vital work continued to find him. Since the tournament began the 25-year-old is yet to meet an assignment he has not understood or a tackle he has shirked.
He was outside his area, making blocks. He was in the middle, tracking runs. He was on the edge of the Italian box, thrashing a volley just wide. He was everywhere.
It was cagey and tight throughout so the need for penalties was almost inevitable.
Before the game Phillips’ family members looked into a camera and told him that no matter what happened, they were beyond proud. The sight of him embracing an inconsolable Bukayo Saka, the first on the scene to show solidarity with a teenager who had missed a decisive penalty, was just another reason for the entire Leeds United family to be proud of their midfielder.
In a moving BBC montage he revealed his pre-game thoughts would turn to his mum, his siblings and his Granny Val, who saw him achieve his dream of international selection before her passing in February.
“The Three Lions on my chest has always been a dream,” he said.That dream will go on for Kalvin Phillips The Euro 2020 journey has finished but Phillips is just getting started.