Kalvin Phillips is many things. Multi-millionaire footballer. Leeds United legend. Treble-winning Manchester City midfielder. One of England’s most consistent players. But Kalvin Phillips is also a working-class young man from Leeds. A man who grew up in poverty. A footballer with a strong bond with his family. Someone whose dad spent much of his childhood in prison.
More and more footballers are having documentaries made about them. The new film Kalvin Phillips: The Road To City is the latest on Prime Video. Like sporting biographies, these films can be a mixed bag. They don’t always go much beyond the depth of a platitude-filled post-match interview.
From the outside, a film about Kalvin Phillips leaving his boyhood club to join Manchester City in a blaze of publicity before the 2022-23 season might not appear to be maximum box office. Sure, he was Leeds United’s captain, a local boy done good, and England’s player of the year in 2021-22. But is it too soon for a film? After all, he would be one of many stars among the Manchester City constellation (and, as we see, much of his first season was plagued by injury).
Suddenly, all preconceived, tabloid-filtered ideas of Dele as a party boy wasting his talent fade and instead, we discover he has been dealing with serious trauma his whole life. And that after six weeks in rehab, and after overcoming an addiction to sleeping pills, he might just have his love of life and football back. Surely all fans will be supporting Dele next season.
Similarly, it is off the field where this film about Kalvin Phillips goes beyond the ordinary. Phillips talks about his own childhood. We hear how his mother would work two jobs and would skip meals to ensure there was food on the table. Phillips also talks about his complex relationship with his father – who is and was in HMP Wealstun, across the road from Leeds United’s training ground. A prison that Phillips used to drive past every day. The impact on Phillips should not be underestimated. We see his nerves as he prepares to go into the prison to see his father for the first time in a while.
Because of the ferocity of football fandom, films like this and interviews like Dele Alli’s can be a vital corrective. Reminders that these football players, though well-paid, are still human and still very young. In this film we see Phillips and his girlfriend Ashleigh Behan nervously, tentatively plotting their first move away from the safety of their families in Leeds to a new Manchester apartment.
We talked with Kalvin Phillips about the new film.
You’ve never been someone who courted the limelight off the pitch – why was this a film you wanted to make?
For me, it was just to show a different side of me as a footballer. It’s to show me as a person, and how my family and friends are involved and how much they help and support me along the way. And it’s also about my childhood.
Who are you hoping will watch the film?
I hope kids who might be in similar situations and might be looking for a little bit of inspiration will watch it. It’s basically to inspire them. You get little glimpses of what my childhood was like. To me, my childhood was the best childhood I could have had. I really enjoyed it. But there was a different side to it that I didn’t understand until I was a bit older.
I had a single mother who was working two jobs and my granny Val was also looking after us. Now I’m working every single day to try and make my family proud. Ultimately, they got me to this point in my career where I’m a treble winner and playing for my country.
And your father, we hear a lot about him in the film, and how he was in prison for a lot of your childhood?
If anyone hears my story, how my father has not been there for me when I was younger, and can relate to that in some way and see how successful I’ve been, how proud my family are of me – and how proud I am of them – I hope it could give them a little bit of inspiration. Just to believe in yourself.
No matter where you come from, your ethnicity, your background, or if one of your parents isn’t able to be there with you, if you work hard, you will be able to reach your dreams. Whether that is as a footballer or as a mechanic or anything.
Do you feel like you are representing your background, like you are a figurehead?
Well, I think so. I’m not too sure. But I like to inspire people. Especially kids. The next generation is so important. So if I can inspire even one person that is something good that I have done. I love taking time out to speak to fans. I like to show them respect, speak with them, interact with them – it is a big thing for me.
We really see the community around you – like when they are all watching the last game of the 2021-22 season where you help Leeds stay up…
My family’s probably on the bigger side, to be honest. There’s a lot of them and they’re all massive Leeds fans. I didn’t even know they were all around my house at the time. So when I called after the game, I was just happy that the result made them all happy and gave them a reason to party.
Are your generation of England footballers encouraged to speak out on your big issues?
This generation of footballers now, if we can inspire young kids and interact with young kids by telling our story and what we’ve gone through, and if it helps them get through certain situations in life which might not be positive, it’s always something we can do. Overall, my main target audience was to inspire young kids, but if older people watch this and they’re in a negative situation, or are going through a hard time, they can look and know there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.
My older cousins Bobby and Levi were big role models for me. They were the ones that introduced me to football – we used to go down to Goals [5-a-side pitches] all the time in Kirkstall and play football every day. We would spend hours and hours there. And they helped me become the person I am today.
Your profile is higher these days, what do you want to do with it?
I love doing stuff for the community. I love helping people. That is the person I am. And you can see in the documentary that I was brought up to be that way because my mum is exactly the same and my gran was exactly the same too. So with the profile I have and the following I now have, I want to do that a lot more.
You spoke of your mum missing meals, and she talks about popping back between her two jobs to give you your tea – that’s a huge sacrifice isn’t it?
I feel like everything she sacrificed is the reason I am here now. So if I can do anything to help her, make her life less stressful and more enjoyable I will always do that.
Marcus Rashford has a similar story to tell – is he someone you look at when you think about trying to make a difference (even if he plays for the other team in Manchester)?
I get along with Marcus very well! His following is unbelievable. It is amazing when he comes out and speaks about certain things – he is a great guy. Obviously a great footballer and an even better person. He does a lot for the community and is someone I look to and think, I could do a lot more like him to help other people.
Fans can get very, shall we say, passionate. Are films like this important to show your human side?
That’s a very good point. Even though I am a footballer and we make x amount of money and get to play football for a living, which not many people do, and we work less hours than everyone else, there are still very tough things that happen to footballers. At the end of the day, we are normal people, we have families, we have friends.
And how are you feeling about next season – how do you top winning the treble?
We’ll probably try and do it again. That would be nice. I’m not too sure how well it will go. But there’s very good lads at Manchester City, they are amazing people. I’m going to go in a week early to get my running in and hopefully come back as fit as possible when the training starts. As last season went along, I got more positive in myself. And they knows that even if I’m not involved in certain games, I will always be there for the team. I’m a team player. I’m just excited for the pre-season tour and to get the season started.
Kalvin Phillips: The Road to Manchester is on Prime Video from 19 July
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