Football, like life, is full of sliding doors moments.
In a parallel universe, Nat Phillips would be closing out his first season as an MLS player in the United States after completing his economics degree and soccer scholarship at the University of North Carolina.
Instead, he was lining up at the San Siro for Liverpool, performing Cruyff turns on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, quite literally, sending Franck Kessie ‘for the Echo’ – leaving the Milan midfielder on his backside.
“I’m looking forward to watching that back,” he told the club’s official website post-match. “It is [a GIF] I’ll have to get hold of so I can send it around!”
This was Phillips’ first start of the season and just his fourth in the Champions League – two of the previous three being in a quarter-final against Real Madrid. It is, to say the least, one of the more unique football careers that the 24-year-old has had so far.
Five years ago, having been released by cash-strapped Bolton Wanderers, he was so close to heading Stateside to complete a scholarship in Charlotte that even the flights and accommodation were booked. His arrival had been announced by the Charlotte 49ers’ university team.
But two days before that flight, Liverpool offered him the chance to go on pre-season to Germany to train with them instead. “It was a bit surreal,” he recalled. “When you’re younger you don’t train all your life to go and play college football in the USA, it’s to be a professional footballer, ideally in the UK in the Premier League.”
Aged 19, Phillips was a strange signing for Liverpool and his first season saw Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori playing ahead of him for the under-23s. A loan move to second division German side Stuttgart followed before a mid-season recall saw him making his Liverpool debut in the FA Cup against Everton.
It looked like it would be his only appearance for the club. At least he’d always have that he played for Liverpool, at Anfield, in a Merseyside derby. Nobody could take that away from him.
But last season’s injury crisis at Anfield added another huge sliding doors moment for Phillips and eventually he was brought into the first-team XI, starting 14 of the Reds’ final 19 league games and playing a pivotal role in Jurgen Klopp’s side qualifying for the Champions League again.
The May signing of Ibrahima Konate, though, signalled quite clearly that Klopp had other ideas to some supporters who went overboard and heralded Phillips as the returning Virgil van Dijk’s new centre-back partner.
So again, it looked like his Liverpool career would be over. Five clubs were claimed to have interest, including Burnley, Brighton and Newcastle. Liverpool, though, were said to want £15 million – so perhaps no surprise that a move didn’t come to fruition, especially in a post-pandemic transfer market.
So Phillips’ first appearance of any sort this season didn’t arrive until early October, in the Papa John’s Trophy for Liverpool’s under-21s against his hometown club Bolton – a match he requested to play in.
But while Phillips has only made one start for Liverpool’s first-team this season, it is fitting that it was in the iconic setting of the San Siro Stadium, the ‘Bolton Baresi’ up against Ibrahimovic, blocking overhead kicks, out-muscling the ageing forward, and, of course, that Cruyff turn inside his own box.
This, you could say, was reward for his work in getting Liverpool into the Champions League this season. It is also, quite possibly, his final appearance for the Reds.
Adding to the cult hero status of Phillips is how Klopp speaks about him – just last week comparing him to Robert Lewandowski. “People often ask me which player made the biggest improvements under my leadership, and I say Robert Lewandowski,” Klopp explained. “That’s probably right, but not far off that is Nat Phillips just in a completely different department.
“He’s one of the smartest players I ever worked with. I told him ‘You know you are not the easiest on the eye, eh?’ but he improved in pretty much everything since, and he’s not playing.
“Life is sometimes not fair and I can’t blame him. We cannot keep him forever, that’s clear. We needed him, just to be safe, for that half-year. We will see what happens in the window.”
One of those teams who were linked with a move for the 24-year-old in the summer are expected to come calling in January, most likely newly-rich Newcastle. They’d be getting a solid player and quite clearly a good person.
Phillips will leave Liverpool as a true cult hero. His story is unique and he has earned the chance to play at the highest level. It’s also another feel-good story that football provides in abundance; don’t give up your dreams, take a chance, work hard, and with some luck, you might just get what you were dreaming of.