Leeds United: Kalvin Phillips to Manchester United – could it ever happen?

Leeds United: Kalvin Phillips to Manchester United – could it ever happen? post thumbnail image

Manchester United have long been credited with an interest in Kalvin Phillips but the sense that a formal approach could finally happen in this summer’s transfer window is gathering substance. Strengthening midfield has become a top priority at Old Trafford, with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba both set to leave, and Phillips fits the bill for the kind of defensive screen the team has needed for several years.

Sources say Manchester United have begun exploring, via intermediaries, the prospect of a transfer worth £50 million, although there has been no direct contact between the clubs, and none with Phillips either.

Incoming new manager Erik ten Hag will have a major influence over any signings but it is expected there would be support for an approach from interim boss Ralf Rangnick.

Phillips has also been admired by assistant manager Mike Phelan since he watched Leeds United beat Salford City 3-0 in the Carabao Cup in August 2019. Sitting alongside Nicky Butt as well as Gary and Phil Neville, Phelan was impressed as Phillips controlled the game. Manchester United then scouted Phillips as he rose to full England international status and became an important part of Gareth Southgate’s side.

There is, however, one Elland Road-sized elephant in the room: Phillips and those close to him grew up as massive Leeds fans, well aware of the fierce rivalry with the club down the M62 motorway.

Last September, Leeds striker Patrick Bamford gave an insight into the Phillips dynamic. “All his family hate (Manchester) United,” Bamford said. “They’re probably telling him, ‘Make sure you tell the lads how big and crucial this game is. One of them where the rest of the season, while being important, this game is the main focus’.”

If push comes to shove, would Phillips really make that move?

There are, of course, precedents for players braving the transfer from Leeds to Old Trafford — and none more lastingly bitter than the one made by Alan Smith in 2004. Smith would never consider joining Manchester United. He said so himself. But when the hypothetical became a reality, the striker did exactly that.

There are differences between Smith and Phillips, though. Smith, according to school friends of his, grew up as a Liverpool fan. Phillips is a life-long Leeds supporter, with countless family members who also follow the club. He lives in the center of the city and has done since he was young, closely tied to the Wortley area. As one source told The Athleticif the day arrives where Phillips leaves Elland Road “he would want to come back through the front door rather than the back door.”

Marcelo, Phillips’ coach at Leeds for three and a half years, had a soft spot for the Bishop and gave him one of his old Newell’s Old Boys shirts after Phillips was called up by England for the first time. In Bielsa’s opinion, Phillips was wise enough to know how to handle any departure from Leeds diplomatically and to avoid his choice of new club creating bad blood.


Kalvin Phillips grew up as a Leeds fan (Photo: Chris Vaughan – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“One day, he’ll stop playing for Leeds and the way he does it will convert him into an idol forever,” Bielsa said earlier this season. “I have a feeling. It’s intuition. I’m sure he would only leave if he sees that the link to the place he was born remains intact. He’ll know how to do this.”

Around the time of those comments, in the run-up to Christmas, Leeds indicated to Phillips that they wanted to begin discussing a new contract with him. Phillips was receptive and made it clear that he would be happy to consider an offer. He is tied down until 2024 at present anyway, on the five-year deal agreed by him in 2019. He is not the highest earner at Elland Road but an uplift in wages after Leeds’ promotion from the Championship two years ago put him among their bigger hitters in terms of basic salary.

Since then, however, there has been no progress on an extension and nothing in the way of a firm or formal proposal. Leeds ran into relegation trouble, Bielsa was sacked, and a conversation about Phillips’ future will wait until this season has finished, once the club are certain of their league status. Both sides appear relaxed about the situation and Leeds are hopeful that they will convince Phillips to take new terms and stay for another year. But they understand, too, that Phillips’ value will diminish if his current contract is allowed to run towards its final 12 months.

In the background, Phillips is understood to be strongly considering changing the agency which represents him.

For many years he has been on the books of Palm Sports Management, a West Yorkshire-based company in which former Leeds player Kevin Sharp is a leading figure. Phillips’ contract with Palm Sports Management is set to expire this summer, however, and The Athletic has been told that Stellar Group, one of football’s biggest agencies, is a leading contender to take him on. The subject is described as being still up in the air.

Sharp told The Athletic: “Kalvin’s under contract with us until the summer and I’d be disappointed if he didn’t stay with us. I haven’t heard of anything about a change. It’s just noise, like we get with him in every window.”

Stellar was responsible for negotiating Jack Grealish’s £100 million transfer from Aston Villa to Manchester City last summer but sources say Phillips’ potential switch of agents should not be seen as a prelude to him leaving Leeds. It is very possible that it will be a precursor to him signing a new deal, provided Leeds are not relegated next month. Stellar has other clients at Leeds including Bamford and Dan James. The agency also has links to Manchester United in Luke Shaw, Anthony Elanga and Dean Henderson.

Leeds, England


Phillips impressed for England at last summer’s European Championship (Photo: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

At no stage has Phillips ever asked to leave Elland Road, although a move to Villa was strongly mooted before he signed that new deal in 2019. As it stands, Leeds have had no direct contact from Manchester United either.

In January, enquiries for Phillips were made by Villa and West Ham United via conversations at executive level. Leeds rejected those approaches out of hand and insisted that no official bids were tabled. There was also interest from two major continental clubs while Phillips was shining for runners-up England during the European Championship last summer but nothing in the way of concrete offers. Although Phillips has been injured for a large part of this season, he continues to be seen as a positive presence at Leeds and was drafted into the club’s senior leadership group by Bielsa’s replacement as head coach, Jesse Marsch.

Marsch insisted last week that his interaction with Phillips was purely focused on the player’s own game and his contribution to the Premier League run-in. “I don’t speak much with agents,” Marsch said. “I don’t speak much in broad perspective with players about their careers. They have plenty of people around them to do that. I just try to help them understand, when they’re here with us, how to maximise their potential.

“Since I’ve been here, even though he wasn’t training from the beginning, he was a big part of every day and every video session and every meeting. His energy around the team was also massive.”

On Monday night, Phillips played his first 90 minutes since November 30, helping Leeds to an important 0-0 draw away to Crystal Palace. His form in the closing weeks of the season might determine if Manchester United push the button on what would be an pursuit.

What then of Phillips? To paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until you get the offer of European football and a significant pay-rise. Despite Manchester United looking like throwing away Champions League qualification for next season, those are the typical career boosts available at Old Trafford.

When faced with a similar proposition 18 years ago, Smith decided the sporting and financial aspects overrode loyalty to Leeds.

Phillips may be tested in the same way — albeit with a different outcome.

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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