It’s been a good summer for Liverpool’s youngsters – and it could be about to get even better for one of them.
The name Nathaniel Phillips will still be unknown to many, even among Reds fans. But as Jurgen Klopp’s side prepare to get their Premier League campaign underway, the 21-year-old defender could find himself unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight this weekend.
Phillips is on standby to make his professional debut against West Ham at Anfield on Sunday, the absence of Dejan Lovren , coupled with injury concerns over Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Ragnar Klavan, potentially giving the Bolton-born centre-back an unlikely chance on the big stage.
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What a big moment it would be. What a remarkable few months it has been. From U23 anonymity to first-team prospects, Phillips’ rise has been as swift as it has been surprising.
“Nat has played an outstanding pre-season,” Klopp said after Liverpool’s win over Torino earlier this week. The Reds boss has been wholesome in his praise for his young players over the summer, but Phillips is perhaps the man who has caught the eye most.
He was as surprised as anyone when he received a text message instructing him to report to Melwood, rather than Kirkby where the Academy players are based, for training at the beginning of July. But since then he, along with teenage prospects Curtis Jones and Rafa Camacho, has played a full part in Liverpool’s preparations for the new campaign. He appeared in all nine of their friendly matches, and staff have been impressed by the way he has handled the step up in class. The early nerves have gone, replaced by a confident, mature performer ready to grab any opportunity which comes his way.
Phillips initially trained at Melwood at the back end of last season, drafted in as Liverpool looked to bolster their numbers during an injury-hit end to the campaign. Conor Masterson, his partner at U23 level, moved up before him, but the Irishman suffered an injury in May and his yet to return to action. In his absence, Phillips has moved ahead.
It is only two years since he joined Liverpool from Bolton, recommended by the former Newcastle and Republic of Ireland defender Andy O’Brien, who is now the Reds’ north of England scout. O’Brien, a centre-back who made more than 250 Premier League appearances himself, flagged up Phillips’ ‘old-school’ qualities; his aerial presence, his willingness to put his body on the line defensively, and passed on glowing reports about the player’s attitude, work ethic and mentality.
Bolton had opted not to offer him a professional contract, with financial issues at the Macron Stadium biting hard at youth level. Phillips’ father, Jimmy, was in charge of Wanderers’ academy at the time, but when Liverpool came calling, his son was on the verge of accepting a four-year football scholarship at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. A hastily-arranged trial with the Reds changed that, Phillips signing a pro contract in time for the 2016-17 season.
"I signed it the day I was due to fly out,” he later told the Liverpool ECHO. “It was a crazy few weeks but I couldn't imagine a better way for it to turn out."
Still, he faced a battle just to establish himself at U23 level, with the likes of Tiago Ilori and Mamadou Sakho regularly dropping down. Phillips took a while to find a regular spot, though he would later reflect that it gave him time to adjust to his new surroundings, and adapt to a higher standard of football. The work of coaches Neil Critchley and Mike Garrity, and Academy chief Alex Inglethorpe, in guiding him through that period should not be underestimated.
Last season, too, was difficult. A stress fracture in his back cost him a lot of football, but after returning to action in March it has been all good news.
One image in particular from Liverpool’s tour of the USA stands out. It is that of Phillips, at full stretch, making a goal-saving challenge to deny Alexis Sanchez as the Reds beat Manchester United 4-1 in Michigan Stadium. There were 101,000 people inside ‘The Big House’ that day, and Phillips had the majority on their feet. Not bad for a rookie.
If he is to make his debut this weekend – or even in the coming weeks – then it will ask a lot of both his talent and temperament. Staff have noted how his distribution has improved, but young centre-backs rarely get away with minor errors against top-level opponents. Phillips was caught napping by Andrea Belotti for Torino’s goal at Anfield this week, and knows that to play for Klopp’s Liverpool requires the highest of standards, week in and week out.
Nonetheless, he already represents one of the success stories of the summer. And, if his chance does come, few will begrudge him it.