“Ooofff,” Kalvin Phillips says, smiling as he usually does but feeling the question in his gut. Like a low blow. What was the toughest moment for him at Manchester City? “There’s a few …” Phillips wants to look forward. To his new challenge at West Ham where he is on loan for the remainder of the season. To Sunday’s derby against Arsenal at the London Stadium. To the European Championship with England in the summer.
The 28-year-old knew that he had to get away from City in January because had he stayed and continued to warm the bench, he “definitely” would have relinquished his place in Gareth Southgate’s squad. He opens up on how the England manager influenced him to stay in the Premier League, leading him to shun Juventus for West Ham. More on that later.
First and foremost, Phillips wanted to play again at club level. He talks of feeling “a lot more alive” at West Ham, even if his first two appearances for them have featured errors that led to goals against Bournemouth and Manchester United.
But we are here, having a conversation at West Ham’s Rush Green training ground, because of what happened at City under Pep Guardiola. The context is unavoidable. To look forward, Phillips must address the past; share it so that people might empathise. Perhaps, even, to make his own peace with it.
The numbers are there for everybody to see. The £42m fee when he signed from Leeds in July 2022. The years on the contract – six. The number of starts he would make for City in all competitions – also six. The minutes played in the Premier League – 380. What has been less visible is the emotional rollercoaster he has ridden.
“I think …” Phillips says, and there is a long pause. “After the World Cup was probably the toughest, when Pep came out and said I was overweight. He was right to do so but there are different ways to go about it. I did not disagree with him but obviously I took a big knock on my confidence and how I felt at City. And my family were not happy about it, either. Especially my mum.”
According to Phillips, he had been given a post-World Cup return date in December 2022 by the City staff and he was always going to come in before then because he had barely played during the first half of the season due to a shoulder injury. But Guardiola wanted him to report immediately after the tournament in order to be involved in City’s friendlies before the domestic restart.
“I never got that information because if he asked me to have been there, I would have been there,” Phillips says. “It was just a misunderstanding and I think he was very frustrated with me coming back 1.5kg over my weight target.”
Did Phillips talk about the misunderstanding with Guardiola to smooth things over? “Erm … no,” Phillips replies. “I just took it on the chin. Me being the right professional, I probably should have gone in the day after the tournament finished but it’s one of those things that you live and learn.”
One consequence of the much-publicised affair was that it gave rival supporters an open invitation to mock Phillips, one they are still taking if last Sunday’s Old Trafford crowd is any guide. “I’ve had it my whole career, especially at Leeds with Marcelo Bielsa … not being overweight but saying I need to look after myself in a professional manner,” Phillips says.
“I’ve always been the one that would enjoy myself the day after a game if we were off. But I’d still work twice as hard to work it off. I think it just stemmed from that. Pep spoke to Bielsa and Bielsa mentioned it and so on. It doesn’t bother me in any way as I’m still hugely professional.”
Phillips cites another City low as being when he expected to start against Burnley in the FA Cup last March only to be taken into a room by Guardiola and told otherwise. Then there was the league game against Leicester in April when Phillips was partly at fault for the goal that City conceded in a 3-1 win.
“I just felt shit,” Phillips says. “It was probably the low-point, confidence-wise. I spoke to Bielsa afterwards. He called me back via a translator and we had a conversation for around half an hour. He said he’d watched every game I’d been involved in since I moved from Leeds and he told me what he thought I should do to become the player I was at Leeds.”
Phillips’ face lights up when he talks about Bielsa and his Leeds career in general. It should also be stressed that the “down moments” at City when, as he puts it, he could “not be bothered … just the same thing, go in, train, go home and not have anything to be excited for” were balanced somewhat by the big days and nights en route to the treble. Particularly the Champions League final victory over Internazionale and the wild parties that followed.
Phillips says that he “100%” became a better player under Guardiola and yet it is impossible to feel he ever won his trust. “To be honest, I probably lost that fire within me over the past 18 months,” Phillips says. “Don’t get me wrong – I still go into games and want to smash people as much as I can, get stuck in and run about.
“But when you’ve not demonstrated that in a game for so long you kind of forget what it feels like. It was only against Bournemouth and United that I felt it again. I’d describe it as ‘losing my head.’ I start to get more vocal and a little bit angry. It’s not actually losing my head because that’s when I’d do something stupid. It’s more trying to push myself and my teammates.
“It wasn’t a nightmare at City, it was just stressful. We won the treble. But when you’re sat on the bench, you don’t feel like it’s your medal to take, although they can’t take them away from me so I’m happy about that!
“Over the last 18 months … I still loved the game, it just changed my way of thinking a little bit. The game wasn’t letting me down but the fact I had nothing to look forward to kind of pushed me away. Now I’m here at West Ham and playing, I feel a lot more alive. It’s not starting from scratch, it’s starting afresh.”
Phillips realised last summer that he needed to leave City. “The manager said: ‘We think you should go out on loan to get game time,’ and I agreed with him,” Phillips says. But he and his girlfriend, Ashleigh Behan, were expecting their first child – Kaelo, a boy, would be born in November – and Phillips did not want to uproot mid-pregnancy. “I explained my situation and Pep said: ‘That’s perfectly fine,’” Phillips adds.
Yet as January approached, it was a question purely of where he would go, with Southgate’s input pivotal. “I spoke to him about a few teams,” Phillips says. “Juventus were there … I think they were going to leave it until the last minute. I mentioned Newcastle, which could have been a possibility. I knew that West Ham would probably come in a bit later.
“He told me that he wasn’t going to tell me what to do but he said the Premier League is a lot more difficult, a more competitive league. He said to be playing in the Premier League versus playing anywhere else … it’s just that little bit of a step down in quality. So yeah, he influenced me to stay in England. And when West Ham came in, I thought it was the right place to go.
“It was just the size of the club and the manager [David Moyes] influenced me a lot. He told me he’d wanted me for the last few transfer windows. I felt like if I wasn’t going to play at City, I want to go to a club where I’m wanted. Not that City didn’t want me but I wanted to go somewhere where the manager was really keen and where he really wanted me.
“I spoke as well to Declan [Rice, his England teammate and the former West Ham captain] and he said it’s a massive family club. That’s what I’m all about. I want to feel like I’m at home wherever I go.”