This is an interview from the Season Preview 2020 issue of FourFourTwo - buy it here
For one brief moment as he speaks to FourFourTwo, Phil Foden is 11 years old again.
He’s thinking back to the day when he witnessed history right in front of his very eyes at the Etihad Stadium. The day in 2012 when a young fan’s dream came true. The day Manchester City became champions of England for the first time in nearly half a century, in the most dramatic fashion.
“I was directly behind the net when Sergio Aguero scored,” he says with a smile. “Then we celebrated on the pitch – I was on there at the end, with however many other people that afternoon. That was my main highlight as a City fan – it’s mad to think I play with those players now.”
Since making his first-team debut in 2017, Foden has spent almost three years learning from some heroes of that title-winning team. Aguero remains but Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany have since moved on – and now David Silva, too: City’s player of the season in that pivotal 2011-12 campaign.
The Spaniard was Foden’s idol, and still is. At just 20 years of age, he has been handed the torch and entrusted to follow in Silva’s midfield footsteps. “When David said it was his last year, I told the board that we have Phil, so we don’t have to invest,” coach Pep Guardiola explained recently. “In the next 15 years, Phil will be an outstanding player for us. I don’t have doubts.”
Eight years ago, Foden cheered City’s title challenge from the stands. Now, he’s been given the chance to live the biggest dream of all – to play a pivotal role himself, as the Sky Blues try to wrestle back the Premier League from Liverpool in 2020-21. Do that, and he could become a crucial figure for England at the rescheduled Euros in the summer. The last three years have already proved pretty special for Phil Foden. What lies ahead could be the biggest season of his life.
Once a blue
Such is the diminutive midfielder’s talent and technical ability, he had gained the nickname of ‘Stockport Iniesta’ even before making his first-team debut.
“Edgeley is a small part of Stockport, close to Stockport County’s stadium,” says Foden, one of six siblings. “I’m from a big family – I played football with my older brother a lot, but not many of them enjoyed the game as much as me. They liked to watch it, but I was fully committed, always playing out on the streets with my mates. I think that brought me on as a player, because I always played against people who were bigger and more physical than me. My family could tell from when I was very young that I really wanted to become a footballer.”
A teacher at Bridge Hall Primary School had noticed his skills in the playground, and that quickly led to his big break. “I was at primary school and I heard there was a City coach coming in to train the year six kids,” he says. “I was several years below them, but they didn’t see any potential in that age group so they asked, ‘Have you got any other players that might interest us?’ Our PE teacher told them about me, and the coach brought me to train on my own outside. He said he liked me, gave me his card to give to my parents and asked them to give him a call. Ever since that day, I’ve been at City.”
Foden joined the club’s under-9s setup, to the delight of his family – even though his father actually supported Manchester United. “Obviously going to train with City made me a fan straight away,” he says. “I told my dad that I wanted to be a City fan and he replied, ‘OK’, but I could see in his face that he was a bit disappointed. I think he saw it coming, though, once I was training with them.
“He was happy that I’d gone to a club, and especially one as good as City. He’s the main reason I got into football. He had football on the TV when I was growing up, then he took me to training every day. Without his desire for wanting me to play the game, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. I see some kids who probably could have been really good, but their mums and dads didn’t take them to training – so they couldn’t get as far as they would have done.”
His father remained a United fan, although Foden has been working on that ever since. “When derby days came around, it was me and my mum supporting City, then my dad and my brother supporting United – arguing and debating about who was going to win,” he laughs. “But since I’ve been in City’s first team and it’s been me against United, I think I’m turning him slowly into a City fan – he’s not as interested in United as he used to be!”
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Still only 5ft 7in tall now, Foden needed to overcome a size disadvantage to make his way through the Manchester City academy. That he never felt hindered by his stature perhaps says a lot about the modernisation of English academies, and the increasing emphasis on technique over physicality.
“I was always the smallest in the team, and also the smallest in games at the weekend, but I really didn’t think about it at the time,” he says. “The manager told me, ‘You use your brain well enough anyway. You don’t need your size and don’t need to do anything differently – just carry on playing your football’. They looked after me. When you’re young, they only want you to enjoy your football. Then when I was around 14 or 15, I started to focus on getting into the first team.”
Pep and the sweet sixteen
Weeks after Foden’s 16th birthday, Guardiola began work as the new boss of Manchester City. Director of football Txiki Begiristain made him aware of a burgeoning talent in the club’s academy, and Foden was promptly invited to join the first team at training.
“I’d only just landed here and Txiki told me, ‘You have to meet one player, 15 or 16 years old’,” Guardiola later explained. “In the first season, he came to training sessions for one day, two days, and I said, ‘Wow, you’re right, Txiki – this player is good’.”
“When Guardiola was appointed, obviously I’d seen him on TV, but I didn’t really know how he was – so when I went to train with the first team, I didn’t know what to expect,” Foden tells FFT. “From the first day, I was surprised at how passionate he was, and how motivated he was towards his players. I wanted to develop under him and become his player, because I believed in everything he said.
“I was shocked on that first day I got a call-up against Celtic, because I didn’t train with the first team that time – I just got a call saying, ‘You’re going to be on the bench for the first time’. It was a big day for my family.”
Foden didn’t feature in the 1-1 draw against the Glasgow giants – an unused substitute alongside Aguero, the striker he had roared on from the stands against QPR a mere four years earlier. But his first-team bow was only a matter of when rather than if.
As he got more opportunities to train with the senior side, he relished the chance to link up with Silva, a boyhood inspiration.
"When you beat the champions everyone's confidence goes sky high." 🔵Phil Foden speaks to Sky Sports after his Man of the Match performance in #MCFC's win at Anfield. pic.twitter.com/tZrVrtMpeIFebruary 7, 2021
“I always liked David Silva – I thought he was a great player every time I watched him play,” says Foden. “I admired Jack Wilshere as well when I was growing up. I remember that Arsenal goal he scored [against Norwich] when he did loads of one-twos – everyone in my area used to go mad about his goal and how good it was. I just liked those kinds of players who kept on the ball in really tight areas, not the biggest players. I like to think I was the same as them as a kid.
“The first time I met David, I just realised how humble he was; dead polite and quiet; everything that you imagined. He has a huge knowledge for the game and can definitely be a coach in the future. That’s how he is on the pitch as well – he sees things before they happen and knows the spaces to move into.”
Foden continued to watch and learn. In the summer of 2017, Guardiola gave the young midfielder a starting spot for a pre-season game against Manchester United in Houston. “I think it was the most important moment of my career,” says the starlet. “Everything seemed to go right for me in that friendly – even though we lost 2-0, I played really well. I’d been waiting for that day as a lad growing up, especially for it to be against United. It was crazy. I think that game pushed Pep to put me with the first team.”
Early that season, Foden headed for India to represent England at the Under-17 World Cup, buoyed by the faith that Guardiola was showing in him. In front of nearly 67,000 fans in Kolkata, he scored twice as England came from 2-0 down to beat Spain 5-2 in the final. Foden was named player of the tournament for his performances – an honour bestowed on Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas at previous Under-17 World Cups.
“To win that as well as the World Cup was one of the best days of my life,” he tells FFT. “That tournament brought me on, just for the experience of playing in a huge game, which helps you when you’re playing in a cup final for City. It was good to get used to that sort of pressure in a big tournament – particularly with how many people turned up to watch the final, which was crazy for us because we were so young. It was a very special moment, and I wish I could go back and do it again.”
His role in that tournament triumph thrust Foden firmly into the public eye. Immediately, he was talked about as one of the brightest talents in English football – not only now, but potentially in a generation. As he moved into first-team football, the virtuoso suddenly had some expectations to live up to – not least that Stockport Iniesta tag.
“It was good to hear, but it’s a big name to live up to,” he says. “These days social media can put a lot of pressure on young kids and hype them up too much, so I tried to not read too much into all of that. I tried to just enjoy my football and not change the player I am – always wanting the ball, being lively, trying to impress on the pitch.”
As the youngster progressed with both club and country, he started to get noticed more, too. He can remember the first time he was asked for an autograph by a Manchester City fan. “I was just out one time and someone shouted in the street, ‘Can you sign this?’” he chuckles. “It was strange, because I was like them growing up. I still think it’s insane now that people ask for photographs and get me to sign things – but I’ve always got time to do that. I feel like people are scared to ask some players, because they’re worried that they’ll say no. But knowing who I am, people always feel welcome to ask me.”
Catfish and the trophy men
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Just three weeks after his World Cup success in India, in November 2017, Foden made his competitive Manchester City debut in a 1-0 Champions League victory against Feyenoord. A fortnight after that, he made Guardiola’s starting line-up at Shakhtar Donetsk – at 17 years and 192 days, becoming the youngest English player to start a Champions League fixture, and the first 2000-born player to start a match in the competition. Foden was soon named BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year – an award previously won by Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott, Andy Murray, Jenson Button and Tom Daley.
Foden made five substitute appearances in the league that campaign, becoming the youngest player to receive a Premier League winners’ medal. On the day that City sealed the title, he opted to go night fishing – politely declining captain Kompany’s offer to join the players at the pub, after closest challengers United suffered a surprise 1-0 loss at home to struggling West Bromwich Albion.
“Yeah, that’s a funny story actually,” smiles Foden. “The lads all went out celebrating, but because of my young age, I went fishing with my dad instead of attending the party. I felt like I wasn’t really involved in winning that title – even though I played enough, I didn’t feel like I deserved to celebrate with them.” Fishing, however, has long been a passion for Foden. “I still go with my dad now,” he says. “When we’re there, I just like to forget about football and relax.”
He’s been pictured on social media with his catches, including a monster 8ft fish during an expedition to the Zaragoza region. “That was over 100lbs, a catfish – it took three of us to hold it because they’re massive things,” adds Foden. “We go to Spain for that – the River Ebro goes on for ages, so you can really go anywhere and catch them. We went to a little town called Caspe.”
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Foden became a Premier League champion again in 2018-19 – making 13 appearances and heading home the only goal in a crucial April win over Spurs. In all competitions, he netted seven times in 26 games, becoming the youngest Englishman ever to score in the Champions League knockout stages when contributing to City’s 7-0 stuffing of Schalke.
But there was increasing talk in the media that Foden’s talent deserved more than the three Premier League starts he’d been given that season – especially when Jadon Sancho, only two months older, was starting regularly at Borussia Dortmund after opting to leave City. Both Sancho and Chelsea starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi – Foden’s team-mates at the Under-17 World Cup – had gone on to make their senior England debuts.
Foden says he was surprised by the criticism that Manchester City received for not offering him more game time, however, and insists a loan move was never discussed – despite newspaper links with temporary switches to Leeds, Rangers and the Bundesliga.
“No, that was never an option,” he stresses. “I always wanted to stay and Pep wanted me to stay, so that was never discussed. It didn’t need to happen.
“Hearing some of the things that were said, it was crazy because I was still so young and people were saying, ‘He needs to be playing more’. But if you look at the team and players we had, it was obviously very difficult to play. I’d have to perform better than them, and at such a young age, trying to play better than these professionals who’ve done it for many years, it’s tough.
“I knew myself that I had a lot to learn and improve before I could push on for a starting place. I wasn’t too disappointed in myself – I was still training the best I could every day, simply hoping for more to come. Training well made me feel better about myself, because I couldn’t be doing any more than I was. If I didn’t try my best, I would have beat myself up about it – but I could say, ‘No problem if I’m not in the team, I’ve done all that I can’.”
He was left in no doubt that Guardiola still firmly believed in him, when the pair sat next to each other at a press conference before City’s friendly with Yokohama F Marinos last summer. “Phil is the most talented player I’ve ever seen in my career as a football player and manager,” declared Guardiola. This from a man who managed Lionel Messi.
“Because of the players he’s worked with, for him to say that, especially in front of me, it made me think, ‘Wow... I hope he’s telling the truth!’” says Foden, bursting into laughter. “It makes you feel wanted when a manager speaks that highly of you.”
The midfielder feels his game has improved massively thanks to working with the Catalan.
“Sometimes it’s hard to explain, but it’s the small details,” he continues. “It’s literally just one yard difference, in possession and where he wants you to move into space – the little things that some managers and some people miss. Those tiny details make a big difference. If we’re struggling in a match, he’ll change something straight away. He’ll get a message on, and the game will immediately change. But he never really seems to get his tactics wrong, and if he does he holds his hands up. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s very rare that Pep does.”
Silva linings playbook
Foden has matured for another reason, too – becoming a father at the age of 18, after his childhood sweetheart Rebecca Cooke gave birth to baby Ronnie in 2019. “He’s one now and is getting to that funny age where he’s started picking up on certain things,” smiles Foden. “You have to be fully aware and have eyes in the back of your head.
“Having a kid at such a young age, people don’t think it’s going to be easy – and I had to grow up very fast and be mature about it. But I feel comfortable. If you come home and you’ve not had the best of games, just to see him smiling, it makes you realise that there’s much more to life.”
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With a happy home life complementing his immense footballing talent, Foden’s time was always going to come at the Etihad Stadium. After being named the man of the match in March’s League Cup final victory over Aston Villa, he finally started to get regular starting opportunities when English football returned from lockdown in mid-June. Unsurprisingly he flourished, netting five goals and delivering a string of star displays during the domestic run-in – not least against Liverpool, when he exchanged one-twos with Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne to bag City’s sumptuous third in a 4-0 rout of the champions.
“I’ve been really happy with my form,” he admits. “When you score and assist goals, it makes you happy about yourself, and makes you feel that you’re playing well. After coming back from lockdown, I’ve been playing higher up the pitch, on the wing more, so it’s allowed me to get more goals. I’ve been enjoying the new role so far – it’s great when you can play in different positions and do well. I’m a good finisher so I’m trying to repay the manager’s faith by scoring goals. I feel like my preferred position is still in midfield, but I won’t mind playing out wide next season if it happens.”
The likelihood is that he will return to the centre of the pitch, where a space has now opened up after the departure of Sky Blues icon Silva. It’s a space that Guardiola has long since earmarked for Foden. The 20-year-old admits he was flattered once again when his manager declared the club didn’t need more substantial investment to replace the man known as ‘Merlin’.
“It was a big statement,” explains Foden. “To spend this last year with David has been special for me and I’ve enjoyed it, because of the club legend that he is. But it’s not as easy as just replacing a player like him. There are several who can play in that position, such as Bernardo [Silva]. Pep’s always a believer that whoever trains well, he will pick. I’m going to prepare myself as best as I can to be ready – I’d love to be a key player, but it’s going to be difficult because of the standard here. I’m a squad player, so I have to earn that place.”
He takes the same view when it comes to England and the European Championship next summer. Foden’s involvement seemed unlikely if the tournament had gone ahead as planned this year, but a 12-month delay could give him a chance of not just making the squad, but even the starting line-up.
Boosted by recent form, he feels ready for his senior England debut if the opportunity arises soon. “I’ve been performing well in the best league in the world, and I feel ready,” he insists. “I’ve been playing well and I couldn’t have done myself any harm – I’ve definitely given myself the best opportunity. It would be another dream come true if I played for England – it’s something I want to do every day of my life.”
But as with the talk of being Silva’s direct successor, Foden is keen to downplay media claims that he could be the missing piece in Gareth Southgate’s jigsaw – the attacking midfield link to the Three Lions’ ace forward line, and the player who can help dominate possession in the centre of the pitch. It was a tag previously bestowed on Wilshere with mixed results.
“There are a lot of special talents coming through, so I’m hoping all of them can be the missing pieces and we can come together as a team,” states Foden. “When they get into a big game, England have been missing that experience to keep the ball and see games out, so I hope that with kids coming through, the young team we have can adapt quickly and get over the line.”
Either way, a major role in a title-winning Manchester City team would certainly help his chances of featuring at a Euros on home soil. Guardiola’s men are aiming to overhaul Liverpool in 2020-21, after falling a surprising 18 points short last term.
“We can’t lose it by as many points as we did last season,” says Foden. “It’s not easy to keep winning the Premier League every year. It’s the hardest thing to do, so we’re not too down on ourselves – we still finished second. But we’re going to give it everything we’ve got to come back stronger.”
Should Manchester City emerge victorious this season, there may be no need for Foden to invade the pitch at full-time, like he did in 2012. This time, he hopes he will already be there taking centre stage. The youngster will never forget that moment as an 11-year-old, when Aguero scored his famous 94th-minute goal against QPR. If he can play his own key role in Premier League glory, the feeling will be even sweeter.
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