KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: England’s winning start to Euro 2020 against Croatia was delivered by a single, second-half winning goal by Raheem Sterling but that victory was built on a midfield foundation created by two comparative international unknowns from unfashionable clubs in Leeds’ Kalvin Phillips and West Ham’s Declan Rice.
The partnership will be crucial in the ‘Battle of Britain’ against Scotland at Wembley in Group D on Friday.
Phillips had been a doubt for the finals before the end of the season when he damaged a shoulder, after having missed a month in midseason with a dislocation Fortunately the damage was not serious and one of Marcelo Bielsa’s all-action star pupils at Elland Road was cleared to take up Jordan Henderson’s old role in manager Gareth Southgate’s England midfield.
Not only that but Phillips quickly proved himself the right man for the occasion. His low drive forced an early excellent save from Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovoc as England established command. Then it was Phillips who forced a path through the Croatia midfield shield to provide the assist for Sterling’s decisive goal.
The 25-year-old Leeds midfielder came from a humble, council estate. He was one of triplet, alongside his sister Deren, and another sister who died young; he has a tattoo on his arm to honour her memory. His mother, Lindsay, held two jobs to pay the family bills but always ensured that her son was on time for training for his local football club.
Ironically considering tomorrow’s Euro 2020 duel, it was a Scottish scout named Walter Sweeney who recommended the teenage Phillips to Leeds. Three weeks later Phillips was a Leeds player.
Rice’s story is very different. He almost did not become an England player at all.
The 22-year-old was born and raised in south London but his father’s family came from Douglas, County Cork, in the far south-west of Ireland. An outstanding schoolboy footballer, Rice joined the Chelsea academy when he was only seven but they released him in 2014 so he joined West Ham – and has never looked back.
Family history qualified Rice to play for the Republic of Ireland at youth level and also in an international friendly against Turkey. But by then his talent was so obvious, as a centre back or defensive midfielder, that Gareth Southgate persuaded him to opt instead for England with whom he made his debut in 2019 against Czech Republic.
Rice was outstanding in West Ham’s sixth-place finish last season, promoting speculation about a multi-million return one day to Chelsea. He credits the footballing education he has received from manager David Moyes – a Scot. Pre-match comments by Croatia goalkeeper Livakovic also provided extra motivation on Sunday.
Livakovic thought Croatia had a superior midfield to England. Rice said later: “I did see the comments but I didn’t say anything, just wanted to go out and show what we could do. I thought our gameplan was excellent. Mason Mount and Kalvin and I have been working on our ‘distances’ with Mase and Kalv pressing and me sitting just behind them so they had the freedom to do what they want.
“I think it worked really well.”
Now for a repeat against Scotland?