On the eve of the Euro 2020 final, with Kalvin Phillips about to play by far the most important match of his career, a raft of good luck messages were pinging into his phone.
One video message stood out, however. It was from Andrea Pirlo, the Italian playmaking midfielder, nemesis of England in 2012 and the player after whom Leeds fans nicknamed Phillips, The Yorkshire Pirlo.
For a man who hadn’t played at any level for England prior to September 2020, the ensuing 10 months had been a pretty remarkable rise anyway.
Kalvin Phillips (left) received a message from Italian Andrea Pirlo (right) before the Euro final
To have the player you aspire to be messaging you, wishing you luck was somewhat astonishing, not least because the opponents the next day were Italy.
‘I just got the video the night before the final and I was like ”Oh my God!” said Phillips.
‘[Leeds team-mate] Jack Harrison, who used to play at New York with him, sent me it. It was a video to me saying good luck in the final and he wishes me all the best. It was a very nice feeling.
‘Obviously I thought it was going to say something about Italy but, no. He wished me well. Full respect for that.
Despite losing the final on penalties, Phillips had been on an incredible journey with England
‘I’ve never met him, I’d like to meet him to be honest. I’ve seen he’s a very cool guy, but I’ve heard he’s a nice guy as well. To have someone on the other side, on the other team, wish you well and especially a player like that, it is always a great feeling.’
Phillips has adapted to exalted circumstances so naturally in the last year, taking each step in his stride, that you have to remind yourself that last season was his first in the Premier League and it culminated in that lost Euro final.
His instinctive leadership was evident in being the first to comfort Bukayo Saka after the vital missed penalty in the final, running behind the sprinting and celebrating Italians to ensure he wasn’t alone among the melee.
Yet he retains an air of innocence about him too. He wanted Marco Verratti’s shirt after the final.
Phillips was one of the first to comfort Bukayo Saka (centre) after missing the crucial penalty
‘I knew it would be hard to get someone’s shirt. I did ask for Veratti’s. I’ve always loved him and think he’s an exceptional player.
‘Obviously, he might have wanted to keep it as well as a souvenir for himself. There’s no hard feelings on that one.
‘When I watch him, the way he controls the game and if he needs to rat about, he can rat about.
‘He’s very physical. He’s not very tall but he’s very physical and he gets into the game really quick and gets stuck in, which I like.’
Equally, even in defeat there was an acknowledgement in what had been achieved. Some criticised England’s players for removing their runners’ up medals — losers’ medal to some — immediately they had been awarded to them at the final.
Phillips, as disappointed as anyone, kissed his, though he did remove it soon after and now has it on display in his trophy cabinet.
‘I took it off but I gave it a kiss,’ he said. ‘When I took it off I never meant it to be disrespectful to what we’d done.
The England international asked Italian Marco Verratti (left) for his shirt after the game
‘It was just frustration of losing and the fact I gave it a kiss showed how much it meant to me. I knew my family was there and obviously they were disappointed as well.
‘But it was still a major thing that happened. It was the best thing that ever happened in my career so to get to the final of a tournament and be awarded a medal at least is something very special to me.
‘It’s in my kitchen, on the mantelpiece. I have like a trophy cabinet there. That’s the place I spend the most time. Every time I walk in, I want to see it.’
And Phillips didn’t saunter off once the presentations were over. He stayed to watch Italy celebrate. ‘To be honest, I think I hung around quite a bit.
‘There was me, Ben White, a few other lads. I just wanted to see what it was like to win a major trophy. I wanted to see their reactions at winning it and the fans’ reactions as well.
‘I think – no disrespect to Italy or anything like that – but if England had won it, the celebrations would have been a lot better than theirs!’
Phillips stayed to watch Italy’s celebrations but claimed England’s would have been better
It also was a memory to use next year at Qatar, to add to that burning sense of unfinished business.
‘Yeah, definitely. The team over the last two to three years has done exceptional to get to where we’ve got, the semi-finals of the World Cup and the final of the next tournament.
‘We’re hungry for more. We want to get a taste of what it feels like to win, to win a trophy and win a major trophy at that.
‘We’ve got amazing talent in the squad and we’re all hungry to do the best we can and we’re all fighting for the same thing. And we’re fight together and hopefully make country proud.’
The numbing sense of what might have been hard to escape.
‘I still think about it now, I think about what could have been if we’d won. I can remember a certain chance in the game when I had a volley on the edge of the box and obviously it’s fairytale stuff, but just think, imagine if that had gone in?
‘Stuff like that. But it weren’t to be and it’s part of learning, part of being involved in these major tournaments and we want to go one better next time.’
The 25-year-old in action during England’s World Cup qualifier against Albania on Friday
Phillips though can take some comfort in the journey. In Qatar, he will be key to England’s progress.
Three years ago, when they reaching the semi-final in Russia, he was a mid-table Championship player, his celebrity status confined strictly to West Yorkshire.
‘[In 2018] I had a house in Leeds and had all my friends over to watch the quarters, semis.
‘I can remember Kieran Tripper’s free-kick going in and I think I wrecked my living room. And then after I was tidying up, disappointed that we lost.’
Fair to say, Phillips wouldn’t be playing at this level without the coaching education of Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds.
Phillips was so touched by his manager’s presentation to him of one of his former Newell’s Old Boys shirts, gifted to Phillips on his England debut, that he returned the favour, giving Bielsa his first England shirt.
Phillips would not be playing at this level without Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa (left)
Bielsa’s intensity and quirkiness remains undimmed. Asked for his best Bielsa story, Phillips tread carefully.
‘There are a few, to be fair. I don’t want to throw him under the bus. He used to walk to the training ground from his old house in Wetherby. It’s probably a half-an-hour walk on a big, long country road.
‘He has a friend over from Chile, Cachu. He likes to know how far he is walking. And he [Bielsa] is not one for technology.
‘So he had Cachu follow behind him, with one of those things that clicks every time you walk one metre, counting how many metres it was from his house to the training. That’s one of the maddest things.’
More pertinently, Phillips insists that the Bielsa’s beliefs will restore Leeds to the force they were last season, the side currently 15th and three points off the bottom three.
Bielsa led Leeds to promotion in 2020 and Phillips believes the boss will rally the side this term
‘I think everyone knows Marcelo by now. He’s very stubborn about his ideas and stubborn about how he wants to play and that’s the reason we’ve done so well in the last three years.
‘So for us to turn around and say maybe we should try something else is almost like insulting him in a way.
‘We’d never do that and we know if we get it right…I think the last two performances, against Norwich and especially against Leicester, it felt like performances are getting back up there.
‘And once we start winning and getting a few points on the board it will be a lot easier for us.’
First Leeds, then England and then, perhaps, the world.