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The start of a journey in football: 'I feel like I'm always chasing, and being chased'

Dubliner Killian Phillips tells The42 why fear and love are his driving forces as he aims to make his mark with Crystal Palace.

KILLIAN PHILLIPS FINDS himself on the cusp of a moment in a life that offers so much.

The sacrifices, pain and joy that he has experienced brings him to this point, where he will soon be faced with even greater demands entering his first full season as a professional footballer with Crystal Palace.

He knows it could be his last at the Premier League club.

Rather than be crippled by fear or stagnate through complacency, he is determined it will be the continuation of a journey in football that helps him realise all of the dreams which he scribbled on the wall of his kitchen growing up.

The 20-year-old is from Kilbarrack on Dublin’s north side. Born in San Diego, he returned to Ireland as a child with his mother, Cora. It’s where he and his three brothers – Aidan (22), Declan (19) and Colin (17) – settled just around the corner from her parents on the cul-de-sac where he greets The42.

His great uncle is the legendary former St Vincent’s and Dublin footballer Johnny Joyce, and while Naomh Barróg is just a short sprint away, a different kind of football captured his attentions.

Of more immediate concern on this Friday morning is the fact Phillips took out the wrong bin this morning after his Mam went to work. “She’s not impressed,” he laughs.

Phillips is back for the summer having been part of Palace’s Under-23′s since signing from Drogheda United in December. His manager, Paddy McCarthy, just happens to be a club stalwart who also grew up only a few miles away in Edenmore.

“He’s a winner, he puts demands on you – win, win, win,” Phillips enthuses.

The tenacious midfielder completed his first 90 minutes in March, played the final four games of the Premier League 2 campaign, and was called up by first-team boss Patrick Vieira for the week of training in preparation for FA Cup semi-final clash with Chelsea last month.

soccer-npower-football-league-championship-crystal-palace-v-middlesbrough-selhurst-park Former Palace captain Paddy McCarthy is now the club's Under-23s' manager. Source: EMPICS Sport

Progress is being made, but it is by no means a flawless, upward trajectory.

While he earned a call-up to Jim Crawford’s Republic of Ireland of Ireland Under-21 squad for the recent win over Sweden, he was omitted for the upcoming games with Bosnia, Montenegro and Italy.

“The easy thing to do is look around at others and compare where they are,” he says.

“Everyone does it, it’s human nature, but don’t dwell on it, don’t let that drag you down. Everything doesn’t have to happen straight away for you.

“I think of it a different way. Why am I here? What’s the purpose? The way I see it, someone is always chasing me, there is always more that I want. Someone is chasing me for my jersey, chasing to get to the next level. Chasing to get what I have. But I don’t really have anything yet. I have an opportunity, but that’s all,” he explains.

“I am chasing to improve myself and show that I am capable of achieving. Someone said to me when I got home a while ago that I made it. Nah, no way, man. I went straight back to the bottom when I signed at Palace. No one knew me there.

I swear some lads probably think I’m a millionaire or something because I signed. No chance. I’ve already seen it over there, there is always someone better than you than wants what you have. There is always someone else coming. So how can I be comfortable and think I’ve made it when I’ve seen what it’s like?

“There is no way I will let myself think like that. There are times when I can’t sleep because I stay awake with the fear that I won’t fulfil whatever potential that I have.

“I feel like I’m here for a reason but I don’t mind sitting here and saying that I am afraid of failing. Sometimes it’s all I think about. ‘I can’t fail, I can’t fail, I can’t fail’. That fear is there in me. Always.”

A reminder, Phillips has only recently turned 20. He speaks with consideration and clarity, an understanding as well as an appreciation of what is required to achieve. It is a mentality that has been forged by his mother’s example.

That is why we are taking this journey.

daniel-mandroiu-and-killian-phillips Phillips (left) in action for Drogheda United last season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

On the Dart from Kilbarrack to Connolly Station, the walk down Talbot Street, past the Spire on O’Connell Street and into the Ilac Centre where we will meet Cora for a coffee on her break from work, where she is as an accountant based on Parnell Square.

These are steps Phillips would take almost every day when the last school bell rang, and he would dash to town to meet his mother before she would drive him to evening training sessions in Drogheda.

Then she would wait until he was finished and they would return to Kilbarrack together.

It is a routine that has been broken but it’s a bond that cannot.

The walk from his front door to Kilbarrack Dart station should take no more than five minutes.

At the top of the road is Kilbarrack United’s base, the club he played for as a child but also returned to as a 16-year-old when both Shelbourne and Bohemians didn’t take him on their books for the new Under-17 National League.

The old FAS course for Transition Year students – one which helped produced Roy Keane 30 years previously – also proved crucial to his development.

It was in Cabra, under the tutelage of Harry McCue in the FAI’S ETB Player Development Course, that his focus sharpened.

He joined Drogheda United’s Under-19s, managed by Wayne Groves, and eventually got in and around the first team when they earned promotion to the Premier Division under Tim Clancy.

Last season saw his emergence as a regular in the Premier Division and a trial with Palace was one of the rewards – a starring performance against Union Berlin as well as adapting to the requirements of training proved crucial.

image0 (5) Phillips (left) with Smartie (right) and his son (centre).

David Sneyd: What are the emotions like when you go over?

Killian Phillips: It was all calm until I was told they wanted to sign me. My agent [former Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers] came to the hotel room and said they wanted me. He left the room and I phoned my Ma straight away.

I could hear the emotion in her voice and that set me off. We sat on the phone crying together for 10 minutes. Without her I am nothing and would not have done anything to get here. It was the first time I felt like celebrating something happening to me in football.

I find it very hard to celebrate anything because I feel as if it should be ‘ok, what’s next? What’s next? What’s next? That was my first ever trial at a club but I only felt like celebrating because of my Ma.

A man crosses from the other side of the road near the entrance to the Kilbarrack United clubhouse with his young son, who is devouring some ice-cream. Preparations are continuing for two upcoming Cup finals the two senior teams are involved in.

KP: Ah, Smartie, howya?

Smartie: Ah, Killian. How ye getting on? You home for the Cup final to try and get a game?

KP: Ah yea, 100 per cent. They don’t need a banger, though.

Smartie: Are ye loving it over there in England. Must be some sun there, that’s some bleedin’ colour. Or are ye doing the beds?

KP: Stop! London was like Dubai for the last two weeks.

Smartie: But you’re getting on alright, yeah?

KP: Yeah, love it.

Smartie: Have ye met Vieira an’ all?

KP: Yeah, yeah. I got to train with them a few times. It’s good, yeah.

Smartie: Ah, that’s great. Very good. Go on, best of luck to ye. Great to see ye.

There’s a shout back for a quick photograph as we cross the road.

Smartie: Say thanks to Killian.

Smartie’s son: But I didn’t ask for the photo, Dad!

[LAUGHS]

The Dart to Connolly arrives just as we get to the platform.

DS: Why didn’t you just say to Drogheda that you needed lifts to and from Dublin instead of going into town to meet your Mam and go up with her?

KP: I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else. I hate being late. I hate it. I knew if I was the one making sure I had to be somewhere than it would happen. And my Ma was always there for me.

DS: Did it affect school?

KP: Sometimes, yeah, but I loved school. Some of the teachers didn’t understand why I played football or why I would say to them I wasn’t going to have a Plan B. If you’re thinking of a Plan B you are thinking of failing. They thought I was mad. I did the Leaving, though, my Ma made sure of that.

DS: But would you have seen at Palace now before coming back home lads being released and why it’s important to have some kind of fall back?

KP: Yeah, I’ve seen that. You’re going to have those set backs. I had it when I was younger at Shels and Bohs. It’s a different level but you still have to believe in yourself. The fall is quicker than the rise, you’re not just going to get where you want to in life straight away. There will be times you have to suffer for it.

image1 (1) Phillips outside Kilbarrack Dart station.

The dart continues to rattle as it approaches Clontarf Road.

DS: How have you suffered so far?

KP: I’ve left my Ma at home, I’ve left my brothers at home. I’ve left my friends who I know I can trust. But you have to leave people behind and make these sacrifices. My Ma has done nothing but make sacrifices for me all my life.

It’s always been my Ma. She has worked so hard for all of us and when you see that strength in her, I have no fucking excuse not to work hard. She is a single parent with four lads. No matter what I give to her I don’t think it will ever be enough.

When you’re a kid and you see your mate’s Das going to matches and kicking a ball with them. Yeah, that got me a bit. There were times I’d love if he was there kicking a ball with me when I’d see the relationship other lads had.

But I had my Ma. I was lucky. Every Father’s Day I wish her a happy Father’s Day.

But there has never been any pressure from her to do anything that I never wanted. She was always there to support me. The energy and love she has, yeah it is inspiring.

DS: What about those journeys together to Drogheda.

KP: I loved that time being together. Messing and joking. We’d listen to the Talking Bollox podcast. I still listen to it now cause it’s my bit of Ireland in England.

I’d meet her at work in town and she’d wait for me to finishing training that night. It would be late getting home, that’s what I mean by sacrificing. She gave up her evenings for me.

As we alight at Connolly and head down the steps to cross over onto Talbot Street, the conversation continues.

DS: When you see what your Mam did for you do you feel that extra sense of responsibility in England?

KP: Of course, yeah. Some people might look at where I’m from and think you behave in a certain way. I’ve done absolutely nothing in football when you think about it but in a way maybe I could be a bit of a role model to younger kids.

You don’t have to sell drugs, don’t have to do drugs or drink. I’ve done stupid shit, of course, but everything you do in your life is your choice.

At Palace, yeah, you are always trying to improve and impress. Whether it’s in training or just by walking around the place and how you talk to people. It’s about being respectful.

tim-clancy Former Drogheda United manager Tim Clancy. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It feels as tough mentally as physically. You always have to be switched on because if you are on doing your best, doing more after training, someone else will be. It’s what I said, you are always being chased.

It’s funny, but I’m back to getting the bus to training again. I’m waiting for a driving test over there because there is long wait because of Brexit and my passport. When I first went over and was on trial the club had cars that would bring us but players are over every week and there are only so many cars.

So some people probably think I’m a millionaire with a fancy car but I’m getting the bus to training from Bromley.

                                                                         …

CRYSTAL PALACE have become the first club in the country to offer a three-year aftercare programme to help scholars cope with the ‘trauma’ of being released.

The service will be available to players who are released during or after the Professional Development Phase (17 to 21).

“A dedicated Player Care Officer will be in contact with all affected players for an extended period of time as we support them on their journey – typically helping them find a new club, education programme or a job,” Palace explained in a statement.

Palace Chairman Steve Parish has outlined the rationale behind his own club’s plans.

“We have a duty and moral obligation to nurture and guide all the 200+ players within our care,” he told the Palace website. “We recognise that when an older Academy player is released, it may feel like the end of the world for that young man and we must do our utmost to offer support to affected players through that process and guide them with the next stage of their journey.”

The Training Ground Guru – February 2022

Sitting in a coffee shop in the Ilac Shopping Centre, Cora will soon be with us on her break from work on nearby Parnell Square.

Phillips is enjoying being home but is already beginning to get restless away from the environment he has grown accustomed to.

He can’t play football of any kind for the next fortnight as per the recovery programme laid out as part of his pre-season plans.

Before they went their separate ways for summer, he and the rest of the Palace youth set-up were visited by former Ireland international, and current RTÉ analyst, Richie Sadlier.

It wasn’t just for a discussion about being a young footballer.

kp2 Phillips in a tunnel at Connolly Station.

Sadlier’s latest book, ‘Let’s Talk’, is aimed at teenage boys and covers everything from porn to sexual consent, it’s about starting discussions on such topics which were previously ignored.

DS: Palace seems to be the ideal environment for a young player making their way in England?

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KP: We have it all. Any help we need we get it. There is a psychologist we can use. He’s there at the training ground every day and we have access whenever we want. I’m lucky that I can go and talk. It makes me feel better. I’ve said there about the fear of failure.

Being open about that and going to talk to someone makes me feel better about myself so it’s not a weakness to admit that. Now people say you are strong for speaking up, others are not so lucky to be able to have that, they could be suffering but don’t know who to talk to.

Everyone at the club, it does feel like a family. From the Under-16s right to the first team and all the coaches. It feels like everyone knows each other.

I love south London because it feels like home. It feels a lot like Kilbarrack. Around the training ground, you humble yourself and take on as much information from the people who have done far more than you in the game. Kill your ego, that’s what you have to do so you learn from others.

It was the same at Drogheda. The manager (Tim Clancy), Deega (Gary Deegan) and Dane Massey. The standards they set there, you had to learn all the time.

Humbling yourself to take on information. Kill your ego and take on the information to learn from people who know more than you.

Everything I do now makes me think ‘is this going to help me, is this going to affect me, will this knock me down a few pegs or bring me up me a few pegs’.

Someone who has been crucial doing both of those things bounds towards the table.

“Ye said you were in Jervis on the phone,” Cora laughs.

“Ah, did I? Sorry. I got mixed up,” Killian replies.

DS: Do you want a tea or coffee?

Cora: Ah, no, I’m grand.

DS: Ah, sure go on. Will ye get me a latte please, son?

KP: No worries, ma.

DS: Do ye miss him?

Cora: Ah, of course. I miss the matches too. I miss the Friday nights and the atmosphere. Driving up to Drogheda I do not miss because of the traffic.

That time with him was great, being with him. But you’re always under pressure to get there with Killian. He never wants to be late. Never. Even from when he was small he would be there sitting at the bottom of the stairs with his boot bag, ‘come on, Ma, come on’.

DS: You did your fair share of waiting on him when he was training.

Cora: I know! And he would always be last one out, manky dirty too. The manager and everyone would be gone and I’d be saying ‘where is this young fella?’ You’d see other fellas running out and then he would come out.

Killian returns with the coffee and takes a seat beside Cora.

imago-20211130 Palace boss Patrick Vieira. Source: Imago/PA Images

DS: Was he always a single-minded?

Cora: All of his teachers would say that when they asked him to write a story in school it was always the same. ‘I’m going to be a footballer’. They’d say ‘can he write about anything else other than that?’ But that’s all he did.

KP: My first manager at Drogheda, Grovsy (Wayne Groves) he got me into the habit of writing goals down, sticking them on a wall or in my bedroom and ticking them off.

Cora: Not really now, Killian. You were doing that since you were little. You were writing on the wall in the kitchen that you were going to play in the Premier League, that you were going to score in the Premier League. That’s all on the wall and I never painted over it because it’s in different hand writing from different ages.

I wanted to kill him when I saw it first but it’s there forever now.

KP: I’d forgotten about that. There is nothing more satisfying than ticking off something you said you’d do.

DS: It’s clear from speaking to him that you are an inspiration.

Cora: Ah, it’s always been himself who has done it. He’s had knock backs and no matter what it didn’t faze him. He just wanted football, football, football. When bad things happen, when you have your struggles in life, you just have to try your best to get on with it.

If you really want something you have to try and go and get it because no one will hand it to you. I’m happy because my goal was to get him to do his Leaving Cert, and he did. He has that if he needs it.

DS: How has it been for you since he has gone? He talked about being emotional with you when he signed.

Cora: It gave me peace of mind to see where he was staying. The woman he was in digs with was like a second Mammy and he was settled. We talk on the phone and he sounds ground but you still wonder.

It was emotional when he left. But he wasn’t a kid going over at 16 when you’re still not sure of yourself. At that stage they don’t know where they are, they’re not men and not kids, they’re in between.

But Palace is a great club and he seems really happy. I’m happy with that.

Cora is due back in work so we make our way out the Moore Street exit and go our separate ways, as Phillips gives his Mam a hug before heading back towards Connolly Station with The42.

The Dart to Kilbarrack provides a chance to look back somewhat on the last five months in London, as well as the season that is to come.

Patrick Vieira included Phillips in first-team training working on shape to prepare for Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final and glimpses of that environment have only made him more eager to build on a strong finish to the Under-23s’ campaign.

image3 (1) Outside Connolly Station.

“Life goes so fast,” he begins.

“One minute I’m sitting on the corner in Kilbarrack with the lads playing squares on the road, the next I’m sending a message into the group on WhatsApp saying I’m leaving in the morning.

“I kind of understand now why some people do quit football or want to be away from it. It’s not for everyone, it’s so draining and so tough, you can’t let any motivation drop.

“Having discipline outside of football is so important. There is always temptation and you can never be perfect but you can still control a lot of stuff that will help you.

“When we spoke before about not having that father figure, I should have spoke about my Ma’s Da, my grandad, Frank Joyce. One thing I wish is that he is still alive because he was always there when I was younger.

“He’s looking down on me now but I wish he was here to see me play and have nice moments with my Ma.

“I always played because I love it and you should play because you love it. I don’t want to fall out love with it.”

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