Nat Phillips – called ‘a monster in the air’ by Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp – is completely grounded when it comes to making big career decisions.
And there have been quite a few for the son of Bolton Wanderers legend Jimmy Phillips.
“Nat has always had a great determination to succeed as well as being dedicated and disciplined,” said Phillips senior (below), who made more than 300 appearances for the Trotters in addition to spending 15 years as a coach with the club.
It is an inner strength that saw him reject a US football scholarship, move to Germany on loan, recalled for a Merseyside derby and bounce back from an aborted move to a Championship club on transfer deadline day in October.
Two weeks later, he was thrown in at the deep end by Klopp for his Premier League debut against West Ham, following a Kop injury crisis.
He responded with a man-of-the-match performance and his delighted manager saying: “In the air, he is a monster – he was incredible.”
His Champions League debut will have to wait because he is not in the squad for the European big nights.
Dad Jimmy said: “He’s not registered for the Champions League. Liverpool had to name the squad on the Tuesday and transfer deadline was the Friday and they were pretty sure Nat wouldn’t be a Liverpool player.
“They were prepared to sell him to a Championship club, but the deal broke down. It looked like he would be staying at least until January and his game time would be very limited.
“But the next day Virgil van Dijk got injured against Everton and that created an opportunity for Nat and a few other players. There were other injuries and, a couple of weeks, later he’s playing against West Ham.”
Twists of fate have affected the central defender’s football life. Glandular fever and injuries slowed his progress in the Bolton academy, which he had joined as a nine-year-old.
Jimmy encouraged Nat to study.
“I told him nothing is guaranteed in football,” he added.
Armed with three A levels when Bolton’s finances dictated he had to be released, a change beckoned.
“I said, ‘Why not look at the US college system?’, it offered a great base for getting into the American game,” said Phillips senior.
“He liked the idea and got an offer from Charlotte University in North Carolina, went over and was incredibly impressed with the facilities.
“But, three days before he was due to fly out, Liverpool, who had been keeping tabs on him for a few months, invited him to join them on a pre-season trip to Germany.
“The only thing I asked Liverpool was not to just offer him a short-term contract because he did have this fantastic offer from America.
“If he wasn’t successful in the first month or so at Liverpool, then he’d also have missed out on America. To be fair, they offered him a two-year contract that gave Nat the chance to develop, which I felt he still needed.”
The raw Phillips was soon reunited with Germany – en route to a loan spell with VfB Stuttgart.
“Nat has to be grateful for Jurgen Klopp getting involved through his relationship with Stuttgart’s sporting director,” said Jimmy. “Liverpool looked to get him out on loan, but to get to Stuttgart, even if they had dropped into Germany’s second tier, was a great experience.
“There was pressure to get promoted back into the Bundesliga. They managed that and, when I went to see him, there were 50,000 fans. He spent the second half of the season in lockdown, but to be part of a promotion-winning team was fantastic.”
Then there was a Merseyside return in January – a young Kop side in the FA Cup third-round derby against Everton, embarrassing their neighbours with a 1-0 victory.
“Jurgen likes to feed one or two at a time into the first team where there is experience around them,” added his dad. “I wouldn’t have said four years ago that he’d play for the first team.
“But if you work hard, you never know what’s around the corner.”