“I never thought I’d be able to do this well,” admits Kalvin Phillips.
In just a few short years, the 23-year-old has gone from a talented homegrown prospect to the keystone in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side, reportedly attracting attention from a host of Premier League clubs including Manchester United.
Handed his debut by Neil Redfearn in 2014, he spent his formative years in the first team as a central midfielder, but since the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa in the summer of 2018, he’s flourished to such an extent in a defensive midfield role that the Elland Road faithful now warmly refer to him as the Yorkshire Pirlo.
The arrival of the Argentine head coach has, arguably, heralded the most settled period at the club since Simon Grayson’s spell in charge from 2008 to 2012, with Phillips’ positional transformation one of the most eye-catching decisions of his reign to date.
But what has changed behind the scenes to facilitate the move and the subsequent success?
“I wasn’t the best player,” he laughs during an interview with the Sky Sports EFL Podcast. “The manager has come in and chosen the players that he wanted and obviously he’s done very well with me.
“I felt like I could have played anywhere in midfield, but he knew what position was best for me and he knew where he wanted me to play. I think, with his style and the way that he’s nurtured me into playing in that position, I think it’s been a massive help to me.
“He makes us train 100 per cent every day. He makes us watch videos on games, goes back and tells us what we’ve done wrong, what we’ve done right, mostly focusing on the stuff we’ve done wrong! But when you do something right, you know you’ve done well.
“He’s an honest guy and tells you how it is and what you need to do better. He won’t take anything less than 100 per cent and if you are doing that then you’ll be punished for it and if you are doing well, then the results will come.”
For Phillips, the results have come in abundance. Ahead of Tuesday night’s clash with Reading – live on Sky Sports Football – he’s made more tackles than any other player in the Championship and has already created five more chances than he did in the entirety of last season.
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But he’s so focused on the job at hand that he takes little notice of the figures that accompany the performances that have helped Leeds to second in the table, just two points behind Slaven Bilic’s West Brom. He does, however, take inspiration from the exploits of a Leeds legend of the 1960s and 70s.
“Billy Bremner…was the captain of a very successful side. He was quite small but feisty as anything and that’s what I love, playing with people that get stuck in and don’t get bullied by other teams. He’s one of the players that I’ve always looked up to and thought I’d love to be like him.
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“When I was younger, I was always that person that loved to get stuck in. When my mum and grandma used to come and watch me, I used to make sure that I wouldn’t let anybody push me around and not let anybody bully me. I’m more or less a bully, in some cases.
“I hold back a little bit now because I think the game’s gone a little bit soft. I just feel like when I come up against another team, I’ll always look at their best players and I’ll think, if I can stop these doing what they are doing, then I’ll get noticed and I’ll help the team as well.”
Phillips was part of the Leeds side that lost to Derby in the play-off semi-finals in 2018/19 having occupied top spot for large swathes of the season. This season, he’s adamant his boyhood club will achieve automatic promotion from the division and return to the Premier League for the first time since relegation in 2004.
He continues: “With us doing so well throughout the season and then going 1-0 up in the first leg, it’s hard to think about those situations, but they happen and it just makes us stronger and better to go on and do one better.
“The Championship is wide open at the minute but it’s a busy period over Christmas and we’ll be looking to do well over that period and maybe go a few points clear of maybe second. There are so many teams in and around it, anybody can beat anybody. Just so long as we don’t lose to most of the teams then that’s fine.
“I think this year we’ll get promoted – that’s the aim. I don’t think there’s many teams as big as us outside the Prem and I think, once we get in there, we’ll look to build and just make Leeds be the team that they used to be. Be fighting for the top half of the Premier League and hopefully progress from there.
“My family are all Leeds fans, they always tell me about the times when Leeds were in the Premier League. I’ve been around the place for 10 years now and you’ve got people who are just wanting Leeds to get back in the Premier League. Even people from other teams are.
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“It would be a proud moment for me, but one step forward for the city. I think it would bring the whole city together. I think Andrea [Radrizanni – Leeds chairman] has done very well putting Leeds back on the map. If we do get promoted then it’ll just be the icing on the cake.
“I never get comfortable so I always want to do one better. I’m that type of person; I don’t like to be happy with what I’m doing now, I want to do more. I think that’s a big thing for the manager as well. He never wants people to get comfortable, he always wants us to, not feel out of our depth, but we’re working towards something special and I believe we are doing that.”
A special personal moment came last month, when Phillips scored the winner in a 1-0 victory against Birmingham, in a fixture that marked the centenary of the club. “It was just a magical feeling and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that,” he says.
With that in mind, international recognition appears to be a very real possibility. Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount was called up for England during his loan spell at Derby last term and there’s been a growing clamour for Phillips’ contribution to be recognised by Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate in recent weeks.
But with little more than six months until Euro 2020 gets underway, he remains coy about his chances of earning a first cap.