Briefly, the stage belonged to Kalvin Phillips. Grey Goose on tap, he chucked vodka down Jack Grealish‘s throat. Microphone in hand, he told an adoring crowd at Manchester City‘s Treble parade that John Stones ‘f****** hates United’.
Star of the show for a few seconds. Having won it all, Phillips allowed himself time to celebrate and then embarked on a European tour with childhood sweetheart Ashleigh, who recently gave birth to their first child.
Ibiza for five days, Athens for a couple. Mykonos for another five and then almost a week in Santorini. He relished the little tavernas off the Greek capital’s beaten track. He gave in to the romance of the islands.
Enjoying one reality while momentarily forgetting the other. A Treble winner, yes, but a Treble contributor? Not so much. Phillips simply hadn’t featured for City as they made history. He gleefully clutched each medal but that gold reflection must have been tinged with something. Seven months later, he is out of the door, on loan to West Ham United.
‘Even though I’ve not played, I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life,’ the 28-year-old reasoned to Mail Sport as he returned to pre-season five days earlier than any of his team-mates last summer.
Manchester City midfielder Kalvin Phillips will join West Ham on loan this month
Phillips was star of the show for a few seconds as he lapped up their Treble celebrations
He was always philosophical about the first season under Pep Guardiola and went into it with his eyes wide open. Phillips knew his minutes would be limited and was not overly shocked by the dramatic lack of them.
He was more surprised at how an Amazon documentary focusing on him would take over his life, ruing that they couldn’t even take the dog for a walk without a camera crew following.
He felt that once Christmas had passed, the campaign becoming increasingly manic and training sessions reduced to as little as half an hour to prevent fatigue, chances of him fighting a way in were slim to non-existent.
But there was conviction that year two would be different, as it has for countless others who went before him under Guardiola. Leaving was not an option.
After recharging, he looked robust and with a crisper pass during a pre-season victory over Bayern Munich in Asia. Those close to him were positive that opportunities would arise.
They haven’t, not really. Eighty-nine minutes of Premier League football later, he has finally bitten the bullet. ‘Kalvin doesn’t have any regrets about the move,’ one source stressed.
Phillips knew his minutes would be limited and was not overly shocked by the lack of them
But there is an admission that he hasn’t seemed himself recently as it became clear that his future would lie elsewhere. Around City, they say he just simply hasn’t been good enough for them in the limited opportunities given.
Phillips would find it hard to argue that but despite just six starts in 18 months, he genuinely believes that he leaves City a better player than the one who walked through the doors, a little startled by the technical ability in training after leaving boyhood Leeds United for £42million.
He endured mock howling from his team-mates when beaten in a warm-up drill during his first session. Welcome to City.
Soon after, he was dislocating his shoulder for the second time in a year. And then a third time two weeks later, mixed in with a strained calf. Guardiola told him to have surgery. He ultimately made the World Cup, but that initial window to leave an impression was lost. He never recovered.
Before pushing the button to sanction the move, the champions did thorough due diligence with the FA’s support staff, who returned glowing reviews.
They had sought counsel from his former manager, Marcelo Bielsa, about a central midfielder who had been voted England Player of the Year in 2021. On the surface, it seemed a no-brainer. Homegrown, good price. Guardiola trusts the Argentine implicitly but may look back and wonder if he was provided selective answers.
Phillips believes that he leaves City a better player than the one who walked through the doors
Phillips’ character was a big tick and so too the ability to take on information and adapt, according to Bielsa. Phillips has since privately admitted that he struggled to understand Guardiola’s tactical instructions in his opening weeks. He broke down in tears, phoning Bielsa, after one sub-par substitute appearance against Leicester City.
Inside his own head, worrying about mistakes and perception. He even blamed himself for the injuries – wondering if he was drinking enough water or eating right – not that anybody around the training ground would have known that.
On an England camp, Phillips confided in Aaron Ramsdale at how much of a change it all was. Ramsdale said similar about Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, with the pair now viewing the game in a wildly different way. Their careers have gone in similar directions since that conversation.
It is easy to say the decision to join City was wrong. Phillips, who after painfully deliberating the switch simply couldn’t turn it down, would disagree.
Even the other week, after the dramatic 3-2 win at Newcastle United, he was celebrating as much as anyone else. Jumping on colleagues’ backs, pumping the fists. ‘The players will miss him,’ a source said.
A neighbour of Erling Haaland and Grealish, he’s at the hub of the group, playfully interrupting television interviews after matches or being enlisted for pranks on the club’s YouTube channel. His initiation, a rendition of George Ezra’s Budapest, brought the house down.
Phillips struggled to make his mark during the last 18 months under Pep Guardiola (right)
On the flight back from Abu Dhabi from their warm-weather camp on Tuesday, he made sure to say farewell and thanks to all 100 staff members on board the plane. He’s a good egg, Phillips. He always smiles, Phillips. At least in public. Good trainer, never any bother.
It is testament to his personality that he still felt involved, parking his ego at the door. And perhaps that has been part of the problem. The hinges on Guardiola’s door always remained intact. ‘Going in and arguing is just not Kalvin,’ said a source. ‘He gets his head down and grafts. He’s very respectful.’
He flat-out refused to criticise the way the City boss announced that he had returned from the World Cup – and then a short break in New York – ‘overweight’, an episode which Phillips believed was a misunderstanding, explained by a lack of circulation on the seven-hour overnight flight.
Phillips had been told to stay away from training for a few days but was actually back with the group by the time Guardiola’s quotes had surfaced in the press.
Around the FA, they call a hugely popular Phillips ‘low maintenance, high performance’. Could he have been higher maintenance at City? There has never been a murmur of unhappiness.
While Guardiola has wasted no time in jettisoning those who cause trouble – Joao Cancelo a primary example – there are others, like Riyad Mahrez, whose discussions with the manager have prompted a run of games. It is, and will never be, the style of Phillips to go in and start asking questions.
‘He has exceptional character,’ Guardiola said. ‘I’m so sorry I have not picked him. I visualise my team and select a team and I struggle to see him.’
Phillips often watched from the sidelines following his £42million move from Leeds in 2022
The game was up in early December and centres on Rodri, the fulcrum whom Phillips always knew he’d never dislodge. ‘The manager is always rotating,’ Phillips told Mail Sport last year. ‘Except for Rodri, who plays every game!’
He hasn’t this term though. Rodri missed three matches through suspension at the end of September. Phillips started in the Carabao Cup at Newcastle when City were knocked out. He then sat on the bench in defeats at Wolves and Arsenal.
Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic, the two summer signings, had jumped ahead of him for Wolves. Nunes was hooked at half time on his return to Molineux and benched for Arsenal.
Where he sat next to Phillips, who watched Rico Lewis take on midfield responsibilities instead. But it was December, and an abject display at Aston Villa, when this all ended. Really truly ended, the small remaining flicker finally extinguished.
Rodri was suspended again. Kovacic and Nunes weren’t match fit. City fielded two goalkeepers on a bench of eight, which included Phillips. Guardiola chose an unfit John Stones, Lewis and striker Julian Alvarez as his three in the middle.
That’s a message and one fully understood. As much as Phillips wanted to keep fighting, the battle was lost. His final appearance was a 13-minute cameo in a Club World Cup semi-final already won.
His last start in a Champions League dead rubber at Red Star Belgrade, where he was handed a penalty to chalk up his first goal for the club.
Eyes will be on him at West Ham. The onus will be on him to get them moving from deeper positions. David Moyes – who tried to sign him in 2020 – will closely monitor his fitness. Phillips’ physical output will test the idea that training with the best is like a matchday.
There are some who don’t think he moves the ball quickly enough for an elite side like City, not sharp enough on the half-turn, and we’re about to see what he has learned.
It is testament to Phillips’ personality that he still felt involved, parking his ego at the door
It could be to England’s benefit ahead of the European Championship, with Gareth Southgate taking a keen interest in his development from here.
Southgate values credit in the bank and loyalty, so it’s likely that Phillips would have been off to Germany regardless of this month.
Yet how much he wants to impact England is the driving force behind this. He remained on the periphery in Qatar – albeit partially due to fitness – and doesn’t want a repeat.
The last 18 months cannot be a waste.