Phil Foden: Coming of age

Phil Foden could barely contain his smile.

“It meant everything,” he beamed.  “I’ve waited so long for this opportunity and it meant everything to me.”

The boyhood Blue had just replaced the legendary Yaya Toure to make his Manchester City debut in a 1-0 Champions League win over Feyenoord.

It was, quite simply, a dream come true.

But, like players, dreams develop and three and a half years on from that memorable night, Foden’s aspirations are considerably loftier.

Champions League glory is now the aim for the midfielder, who only turns 21 on the eve of the final and it is a sign of his rapid development that he goes into the showpiece game having played a key role in a landmark European campaign.

Indeed, for a player whose first team journey began in the competition, it seems fitting that in a season in which Foden has come of age, so too have City’s performances on the continent.

Foden’s first taste of European football arrived 11 months prior to his City debut, when he was named among the substitutes for the final group stage game of the 2016/17 season against Celtic.

He was just 16 years of age.

With qualification for the knockout stage already secured, Pep Guardiola selected a youthful side including fellow Academy graduates, Tosin Adarabioyo and Pablo Maffeo but it was Patrick Roberts, on loan at Celtic and on target against his parent club who dominated much of the post-match discussion.

It was just about the experience for Foden, another stepping stone in what has felt like an inevitable rise to the first team.

Nonetheless, it was a major moment in his fledgling career and one which came as a surprise given just three days earlier he had been playing and scoring in an Under-18 Manchester derby.

“I think he might have been training with us the day before,” recalls City winger Luke Bolton, who was part of the same Under-18 squad and spent this season on loan at Dundee United.  

“It was just a random call-up so everyone was shocked and obviously dead happy for him. He had been doing so well for us.

“When he came back to us it was like nothing had changed, he wasn’t a big time player or thinking he was better than anyone. He just let his football do his talking.

“That’s the thing with Phil, you could put him in with the Under-16s and he would try and do the most he could do. He loves football that much.”

It is a recurring theme.

It seems everyone who has encountered the midfielder has a story which evidences his unbridled passion for the game and Bolton, who played alongside him from the age of 12, is no different.

“What sums Phil up is, we went on tour to Barcelona when I first joined at Under-12s,” he recalls.

“We had a long wait in the airport and someone bought a small ball and we put our bags down and were playing Wembley doubles.

“Phil did nonstop running, trying to play his best football, not taking the mick, but trying to show how good he was.

“Even in that, you put a ball at his feet and he just couldn’t be stopped.”

A year on from the Celtic game and a month after winning Player of the Tournament at the Under-17 World Cup, Foden fulfilled his lifelong ambition with that debut appearance against Feyenoord.

The youngster certainly wasn’t an unknown amongst City fans, but scoring in the final as the Young Lions were crowned world champions brought him into the wider footballing consciousness and that was only heightened when he came off the bench for Toure.

Aged 17 years and 177 days, he was the fourth-youngest English player to feature in the Champions League.

It was very much a cameo appearance, but in his 15 minutes on the pitch there were small signs he was very much at home as he completed every one of his 19 passes.

“It’s an honour to be involved in the squad,” said Foden afterwards, whilst Guardiola’s comments suggested he was already acutely aware of the talent he had at his disposal.

“If the result would have been more clear, it would have been more minutes. They [Foden and Brahim Diaz] are young talents. Hopefully they can stay for a long time and help to develop the club.”

A fortnight later the City boss gave the precocious teenager his first start and again it came in the Champions League.

Having already secured top spot in Group F, Guardiola named a much-changed side against Shakhtar Donetsk, with Foden included on the left of midfield.

He was 17 years and 192 days old and it made him the youngest Englishman to start in the competition, whilst he also became the first player born in the year 2000 to start in the tournament.

Shakhtar won 2-1 to consign City to our first defeat in 29 games, but there were flashes of promise from our No.47 who was clearly growing in the first team environment.

“Everyone knows he is an amazing player,” said Bernardo Silva at the time.

“Very young but with a lot of talent. We are all very happy for him at this age, playing at this kind of level and I hope he can keep going like this, working and learning a lot to, in a few years, be one of the best midfielders in the world.”

It was quite the prophecy from the Portuguese midfielder, but there was no chance a player highly regarded for his exemplary attitude would let such praise go to his head.

“The lads who had grown up with him were buzzing for him,” remembers Bolton.

“He handled it brilliantly. He stayed the same and carried on doing the same things. He has always been that sort of player who likes to shoot and score, but he is a team player.

“I had a good relationship with him on the pitch and it was never the case where he stopped passing to me to try and do it all himself. That is a credit to him because some people could think they’re something.

“It was a massive achievement but there are many people who have only made one appearance.”

Speak to anyone who’s dealt with him and you quickly realise the young man from Stockport was never only going to play a handful of games.

His first season in the senior set up ended with 10 appearances and a world record as he became the youngest player to win the Premier League.

The following campaign he played 26 times as City won back to back titles and he was very much a fully-fledged first teamer.

“Phil went away [with the first team] on preseason the year prior to me, but was there when I first went to America with them [in 2018],” explains Bolton.

“I trained with them and it is a nerve-racking experience, especially when you’re a City fan like me and Phil. He just took it in his stride and when I came up the year after him, you could tell he felt part of it.

“Even the first team players, you could tell they thought he was a player."

“He went there with the attitude that he should be playing there and is good enough to be there,” adds Aro Muric, another youngster who made five appearances in the 2018/19 season.

“He didn’t think he was too high, his presence was that he should be playing there. He always believed that he should be there. This was his attitude from the first day.

“I remember when Phil was in the Under-16s and came to the Under-18s to train. He was shooting at me but couldn’t score. Not because of him, but just because he was smaller and weaker, but you could always see from his movement that he had talent and would be something.

“He was so quick, and after three or four weeks he just went *bam* (makes quick hand movement up) so I felt like ‘yeah, that’s it’.”

Foden opened his City account during that 2018/19 campaign.

He got off the mark in a Carabao Cup victory over Oxford United and followed it up with goals against Rotherham, Newport County and Burton Albion before another Champions League milestone.

It was goals galore as City cruised to a 7-0 victory over Schalke in the second leg of our last 16 tie to complete a resounding 10-2 aggregate win.

Foden got the sixth on the night, collecting Leroy Sane’s threaded pass and rounding the keeper to finish with aplomb.

He was still 77 days shy of his 19th birthday and the goal made him City’s youngest Champions League goalscorer and the youngest Englishman to score in the knockout stage.

 “I am happy for him, his first goal in Europe,” said Guardiola, taking the opportunity to reiterate the high esteem in which he held the young playmaker, whose progress had been the subject of much discussion in the media.

“People continue saying he should be on loan,” added the City boss.

“Phil Foden is not going to be on loan. All the time he is here he will be close to me because he is an incredible talented player.

“Congratulations, for the minutes he played and his part of the goal, he did really well.”

Fast forward two years and Foden has been in the form of his young life to help City reach the Champions League final for the first time in our history.

He has started 11 of the 12 games in our European campaign, scoring three times and providing three assists.

In a season in which his influence has visibly grown, his goals in both legs of our quarter-final victory over Borussia Dortmund were a sign of how far he has come.

It was Foden who made the difference when it mattered against the German outfit as City qualified for the last four for the first time under Guardiola.

“I think everyone is now taking notice,” says Bolton.

“He can change a game. He can assist, he can pick the ball up in his own half like he did against Brighton and go all the way and score. He can drive through people and slip someone in.

“He is like David Silva but I think he scores more goals. City fans must be buzzing that he cost us nothing and is a City fan as well.

“He has had a huge impact this year. Phil, Mahrez and Dias have probably had the biggest impact and for Phil to be at that point at such a young age is unbelievable for him.”

With a fully fit squad to choose from, Guardiola has something of a selection headache ahead of Saturday’s final against Chelsea, but Foden's superb form means he is very much in contention to start amongst City's illustrious midfield cohort.

It’s Roy of the Rovers stuff for a player who celebrates his 21st birthday the day before the game and his former Academy team-mate Bolton wouldn’t bet against him writing another remarkable achievement into his City story.

“I feel like he will assist or score and it will be like a fairy-tale. Hopefully it will bring home our first Champions League.”

As the song goes, receiving the keys to the door was the traditional way to mark a 21st birthday, but, play a starring role on Saturday night and it could well be the keys to the city for Phil Foden.