Phil Foden: "Some people see footballers as arrogant"
The Man City star on his meteoric rise.
Phil Foden’s story originally appeared in i-D's The New Worldwi-De Issue, no. 363, Summer 2021. Order your copy here.
Phil Foden is busy battering an orange to smithereens in a village hall in Edgeley, just outside of Stockport. With no football in sight, he has taken it upon himself to raid the fruit bowl on set and begins playing keepy uppys with it, in a pair of now fruit-stained Nike Cortez. Today, Phil has a rare day off from the game he has spent countless hours perfecting: he is on his way to becoming one of the most exciting England players in recent history, as well as to appearing on his first-ever magazine cover, and yet, the only thing that is on Phil Foden’s mind is the same thing that has permanently been on his mind since he was a toddler: kicking ball.
The hall looks like it hasn’t seen much action since the 80s, and Phil’s look today could blend seamlessly into that era. Above the pumps – “rubbish for doing kick ups with” – are a pair of Martine Rose jeans and a crisp v-neck Pringle jumper. Phil is looking more This Is England 84 extra than former England U17 World Cup Winner.
He’s been nicknamed ‘The Stockport Iniesta’ by the Manchester City faithful, and it’s becoming more and more apt with every passing game he plays. His ability to play football with unrestricted self-expression, safe in the knowledge that the ball will stay glued to his foot, mirrors the diminutive Barca legend. And while he might not yet have the FIFA rating of Kevin De Bruyne, or the international pedigree of Sergio Aguero, Phil Foden now stands out as one of their foremost players in a world class team who are about to win the Premier League – and he’s one of their own.
“My transition from fan to player for City has just gone so quickly,” Phil says, of a rise from a ball boy watching Aguero score that goal, to playing alongside him. “One minute I was in the academy, the next minute I was playing with the players I was supporting. There are days when I walk into City and I pinch myself, thinking ‘I’m actually playing with these guys for a living’ – but I’m gradually getting used to it.”
‘Gradually’ is an understatement. He has taken every opportunity afforded to him in his rise from academy starlet to the fully-fledged world beater, but that’s not been without professionalism and patience. While he’d demonstrate his ability every time his manager, Pep Guardiola, picked him, he had never really been given a consistent run of games by his boss.
But this season Foden has been busy living up to all the early potential. The “starboy” status, given to him by Football Twitter, is looking assured, while the “generational talent” backing from pundits is looking more certain with every passing game. He’s made the Premier League title an absolute formality this season with consistent displays of greatness, readily slicing the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea apart with razor-like precision on-pitch.
He bailed City out of another early Champions League exit against Borussia Dortmund, where he conjured up a late winner in the first leg of the quarter final tie. And when Dortmund looked to be heading through in the second, it was Foden who scored again to secure their passage into the semis, leaving fellow world-beating wonderkid Erling Haaland whispering, “I’m the one who was supposed to score the goals” to him in his ear at the final whistle.
Anyone would think that level of performance would inflate his ego stratospherically, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He might be posing for pictures, but he’s enjoying being back home today, where he feels totally himself. “People here just treat me the same way as they did growing up,” he says, full of smiles between outfit changes, “I’m just Phil who grew up in Stockport who they know.”
Ask any of the people who have helped him on his rise from a council estate in Grenville Street – just round the corner from today’s shoot – to being his country’s most electrifying young talent and they will tell you it is his elite mentality, as much as his staggering natural ability, that singled him out as something very special. “Dedication” and “hard work” are the two qualities he himself identifies as key to the self-improvement that has hardened the higher his star has risen. “I know people say these two things all the time, but you’ve got to do those things properly if you want to make it work in life. I would always do more than necessary after training to ensure I would make the most out of the position I’m in.”
Being back in Edgeley today – having conversations with locals about everything from barm cakes to his skin faded barnet – gives him a lot of reasons to smile, and it’s clear his roots drive him on a daily basis. “Where I’ve come from has helped me achieve what I want in the game. Playing football with my mates everyday on the streets, or when I’m at home constantly doing keepy ups, I think I’ve always been obsessed with football. It helps when you just love football like I do. I wake up buzzing to get into training, so when I’m there I make sure I listen to people who want to improve my game.” His down to earth and humble nature immediately makes everyone at ease on set today. While there are no speakers to blare out music to set the mood right for the shoot, Phil asks if I could play Ja Rule off my phone while cameras click around him. Put It On dropped in 2000, the same year he was born. Does the pressure of having a new generation of City fans looking up to him get to him? “Not really. I just play my game and believe in my ability. I think that I can make the difference in every game I play in, and take every opportunity I’ve got,” he says with self-assured conviction. But now there’s an entirely different scale of anticipation just around the corner this summer. England expects. The nation’s football fans eagerly await his performances in the Euros, delayed a year because of the pandemic.
England fans have a bit of a history when it comes to hyping up their side in the lead up to a major tournament, and Foden was also swept up in that sentiment as a youngster: “One of the first tournaments I remember was England in 2006. We had a very talented squad – Scholes, Gerrard, Rooney – we should have won more than what we did with those players.”
While lessons might have been learned by England fans following the disappointments of that Golden Generation, the game is in a very different place right now to what it was back then. And there is something even more inspiring about the current crop of players. Foden is part of a group of England players that are doing things differently to any other generation before them, they are in touch with fans and their feelings and are truly having an era-defining impact on the footballing future of this country.
Foden’s Manchester City colleague Raheem Sterling has been one of the more powerful voices against racism in the UK media; in turn, helping foster it in the game itself. Sterling’s thought leadership off the field has also seen him become a trusted confidante for Foden. “Raheem has been massive. It’s great to share the changing room with him, because he’s been through the same things I’ve been through at such a young age when he was at Liverpool,” he says, conscious of his own rise. “He had all the media on his back when he was just starting out – and I have had my fair share of that too, but not like him”.
“If I ever need any help with anything, I always go to him for advice. He’s a leader. He’s always backing what he believes in, and he’s expressed that to the world and shown that people should never be afraid to speak up.”
Marcus Rashford is another player proving that footballers’ influence in 2021 extends beyond their day jobs. Having helped ensure a government U-turn in his fight to end child food poverty, on his way to being awarded an MBE, his England colleague is another source of inspiration for Foden, despite him playing for his Manchester rivals. “Some people see footballers as arrogant sometimes,” Foden says, “but you only have to look at what
been doing to switch the public’s perception on, to prove that we’re not all the same. His work with the kids, his work in politics, all his work off the pitch is unbelievable, really. It’s been proper inspirational to me.”
“The fact that one footballer has been able to shift perceptions like that has been hugely inspiring for my generation of players,” Foden admits, “I think we’re all looking up to him now, safe in the knowledge that we can also help the world in the same way.” Foden has seen the effects of Rashford’s work on his local community. “You could literally see his impact… I saw ‘Marcus Rashford’ spray painted on walls around here everywhere. He’s really become the nation’s biggest role model to the young ones.”
Foden’s a father himself despite his tender age, and he feels a strong sense of responsibility in leading the next generation, “I want to make my kids proud with everything I do” he says. “I wake up and do what I’ve dreamt of doing every day, and I would definitely encourage anyone growing up to pursue what makes them happy. Not everyone gets to where they want to in life, but as long as you know you’ve given it your all, I think you’ll be happy.”
But It’s not just the prospect of another title win that is exciting Phil. Along with the potential of an England team that contains the likes of emerging world class talent in the form of Jude Bellingham, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Mason Mount, the Euros is expected to welcome back fans en masse again. Noone will forget the Summer of 2018, when an England team dependent on migration and multiculturalism united a nation divided by Brexit. It was the first time in many people’s lifetimes that there had been a collective feeling so bright – now, with the easing of lockdown there is a chance to add positivity and hope at the end of a bleak year.
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Styling Max Pearmain
Hair Matt Mulhall at Streeters.
Make-up Anne Sophie Costa at Streeters using M·A·C Cosmetics. Photography assistance Lex Kembery and Simon Mackinlay.
Styling assistance Emma Simmonds.
Production Ragi Dholakia Productions.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.