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The Ballon d'Or or 'working as a bin man!' - What's next for Liverpool's newest cult hero Nat Phillips?

5:00 pm AEST 24/6/21
Nat Phillips Lionel Messi Liverpool Ballon d'Or GFX
In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Goal, the Reds defender discusses his Anfield future, marking Karim Benzema and Virgil van Dijk's support

He may be Anfield’s newest cult hero, but Nat Phillips is under no illusions.

And he knows he could soon have a big decision to make.

Stay or go? That is the dilemma facing the Liverpool defender this summer. Despite a breakthrough campaign, in which he impressed everyone from Jurgen Klopp to Virgil van Dijk, the 24-year-old’s future remains uncertain.

He still has two years remaining on his contract, and he certainly has plenty of credit in the bank having helped the Reds secure Champions League qualification. In difficult circumstances, the former Bolton man stepped up for Klopp.

But with Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip all set to return from injury, and with Ibrahima Konate joining the club next month, Phillips knows opportunities are likely to be limited next season. Indispensable in May, he could well find himself fifth or sixth in the pecking order by the time August rolls around.

Not that he’s too concerned, at this stage. That’s something you learn quickly when you speak to Phillips: very little fazes him.

“The plan at the moment is to go back to Liverpool for pre-season and just go from there, really,” he tells Goal, having interrupted his close-season holiday for an exclusive, in-depth interview.

“Every player wants to be playing games, and at the stage I’m at, I need to be playing games for my development. I think if you look from my first game last season to my last, there was development and I felt a lot more confident and comfortable. I want to keep that progression.

“In terms of Liverpool, they obviously play a huge amount of games every year. Game-time is never guaranteed for anyone, but it would depend on whether there’s enough opportunity within those games for me, I guess.”

He would certainly not be short of suitors, should he decide to move on. Several Premier League clubs have already made enquiries, most notably Burnley and Brighton,  and he has admirers on the continent too, courtesy of a productive season spent on loan with Stuttgart in the German second division.

Incredible to think, then, that he was on the verge of joining Swansea, in the Championship, as recently as October.

“I remember driving to training on transfer deadline day,” Phillips recalls. “I literally had two massive suitcases filled with clothes in my car, ready!

“The coaches were talking to me about the move, saying how excited they were and how good it would be for me. In the session that day, I just did rondos and then came in early.

"The way I understood it, it was going to happen that day. We were just waiting for other things in the market to take place and then I was off.”

The move didn’t happen. For reasons unknown – and reasons which left Liverpool bemused – Swansea chose to sign two other centre-backs instead. With the greatest respect, it is fair to say that neither Ryan Bennett nor Joel Latibeaudiere ended up having the kind of season Phillips had.

“I was frustrated, initially,” he admits now. “I’d just had 12 months of playing football and loved every minute of it, getting my career going, and now I was looking like I wouldn’t have a competitive minute for three months.

“When you’re moving clubs, you have to mentally prepare yourself and get ready. I’d done that, then all of a sudden, it was off and I hadn’t really planned for that.

“I was thinking ‘Am I going to disappear off the radar and people forget about me?’”

He needn’t have worried. Within two weeks of the Swansea move collapsing, he was making his Premier League debut at Anfield against West Ham and Sebastian Haller, their £40 million ($56m) centre-forward. By the end of the campaign, he had played 20 times in all competitions.

“It’s just another example of how my career seems to be!” he says now, with pointed understatement. “There always seems to be something strange, something dramatic happening.”

Phillips finished the season as one of Liverpool’s star men, a key figure as Klopp’s side overcame a difficult winter to secure a top-four finish. The Reds won eight of their last 10 matches to overhaul Leicester and Chelsea; the only two they didn’t win, Phillips missed through injury.

The fans love him. ‘The Bolton Baresi’ is one nickname, ‘Chiellini’ another. When The Anfield Wrap, the influential supporters’ podcast, asked for votes for their ‘Embodiment of Liverpool’ award in May, it was Phillips who got the nod. Jordan Henderson, his captain, presented him with the award at Kirkby. A proud moment.

“Any player in the world would love to have that sort of treatment from the fans of the club they play at,” Phillips says. “The fact that it’s the fans of Liverpool, who are such a huge club and have so much success, makes it even sweeter!

“Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ve got way more to do before I earn those sort of accolades and that sort of treatment, but it’s still a great feeling and massively flattering that they have taken to me so much.”

As for his team-mates, they couldn’t think more of him. Phillips has been with the club since 2016, when he snubbed a university placement in America to join the club’s academy, and is a popular member of Klopp’s tight-knit squad.

“His biggest strength is his resilience,” says one staff member, and it is Phillips’ humility, and his desire to learn, which have enabled him to make his mark with Liverpool’s senior players.

“They have been massive for me,” he says. “Even someone like Adam Lallana, who has left the club, he still messages me now and tells me he watched the game, tells me what he thinks. He’s very complimentary. That means a lot.

“Milly [James Milner] is massive, always giving little pointers, things to improve on. He’ll give you a kick up the arse as well if it’s needed, so if he tells me I’ve had a good game, I know he really means it! I remember him saying it in his interview after the Real Madrid [home] game, and that gave me a big boost. He doesn’t have to do that, but he goes out of his way to.

“But they’re all like that. Even someone like Trent [Alexander-Arnold], who is younger than I am, is happy to take on that role. There have been times in games where he’s really given me support and boosted my confidence, praising me just for shelling the ball clear, stuff like that!

“That sort of thing means a lot to a player who is just starting out at that level.”

And what about the man whose shoes he has had to fill?

“Virgil has been amazing,” Phillips says. “If he was ever at a game at Anfield, he would come and speak to me and Rhys [Williams] at half-time, for example, and give us some advice. He’d say we could step up higher, or tell us to look out for something specific from the striker, which was a massive help.

“He sent me a message at the end of the season saying he thought I’d done really well in difficult circumstances, and that I should be proud of myself.

“To him, that’s a little thing to do, a small gesture, but for me to receive that sort of praise off the likes of him, it’s huge and I won’t lie, it put a massive smile on my face when I received the text. I was quite surprised, to be honest.”

He shouldn’t be. Van Dijk, a late developer himself, is right to be impressed by Phillips’ development. He may not have done enough to win a regular spot at Liverpool when (or rather if) everyone is fit, but he has shown he can handle life at the top level.

He’s had his wobbles, but he stared down Karim Benzema in the Champions League and shackled Edinson Cavani in the Premier League. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette barely had a kick at the Emirates, nor did Michail Antonio when Liverpool visited West Ham.

“It’s funny, really, because probably my toughest games were the ones you wouldn’t expect,” Phillips says. “I know myself that the Newcastle away game [in December] was a ropey one. I struggled against Callum Wilson. He didn’t give me a moment’s rest. He was hugely physical.

“It was my third game in the Prem, and it was a bit of a lesson for me really. When I think of tough opponents, his name is high on that list.

“With Benzema, going into the game, because he’s got that name, I knew I had to be on my highest level to be able to do a job against him. His movement is so good. He always plays on your blind side. Cavani was similar, he’d always look to run across you if he can, or stand on you and then peel off before you’ve reacted. You always have to be checking your shoulders, ready to react.”

And sometimes, even when you do react, it doesn't matter. Phillips winces as he recalls a tangle with Marcus Rashford at Old Trafford last month.

“He burst down the wing and I made sure I got my angles right, between him and the goal,” he smiles. “I did everything by the book.

"But as I’m slowing down, he just suddenly changed direction and stuck it through my legs, in an instant. I didn’t anticipate it because I didn’t think anyone would be able to change direction so fast!

"It was another moment where you think ‘OK, in the future, I have to be ready for anything!’ But as long as you learn from those moments, you’ll be alright.”

Phillips, one suspects, will be more than ‘alright’ going forward, whether at Liverpool or elsewhere.

Goal reminds him that the last time we spoke, in March 2020, he looked a million miles from where he finds himself now. Whatever happens this summer, he is far better prepared, and much more respected as a player.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” he says. “There’s no doubt now that I am in a better position than I would have been.

"To have played in the Premier League and Champions League for Liverpool, to have played in front of the fans in the last game and to have done the lap of honour feeling like I’d really contributed, it was special.

“I’m grateful that things turned out the way they did.”

So, what next, in this career of surprises? An England cap, maybe? A Premier League medal? A Ballon d’Or, perhaps?

He laughs.

“Either that or I’ll end up working as a bin man!”