Liverpool defender Nat Phillips has opened up to Sky Sports News about the disappointment he felt after failing to secure a loan move to the Championship this summer, earning the trust of his team-mates, and their top-four chances this season.
Phillips never could have imagined being anywhere near Liverpool's first team at the beginning of the season, but an unprecedented injury crisis in defence has seen him thrown in at the deep end.
In this exclusive interview with Sky Sports News reporter Vinny O'Connor ahead of Thursday's visit of Chelsea in the Premier League, Phillips discusses:
- Liverpool's bad luck with injuries
- Handling the pressure of new centre-back arrivals in January
- The influence of Virgil van Dijk
- His partnership with Ozan Kabak
- What his hopes are for the future
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What were your expectations at the start of the season?
At the end of pre-season, it looked like I was on my way out and going elsewhere to get some games and start my career, and carry on off the back of my loan spell last season.
Initially, when it first happened, everybody was fit, and it didn't look like there would be any scenario where I would be playing for Liverpool's first team this year.
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I was a bit disappointed because I was looking forward to going and playing football and just kick-starting my career.
But obviously things changed, and I don't think anybody could have seen what was coming, and it was like a typical example of how bizarre football can be sometimes.
I think it was within a month I was making my debut.
Was it a 'sliding doors moment' for your career?
I suppose so. It was obviously awful circumstances for the team, the club, and the boys who got injured themselves.
I'm just grateful that in the time in between, I kept myself ready and trained hard so that I was ready to take the opportunity when it came.
What was it like being awarded MOTM on your Premier League debut by Jamie Carragher?
I think any player would say before their Premier League debut that they're going to be nervous, but to be honest I was also feeling a lot of excitement because it's something that I have looked towards and sort of dreamed about throughout my whole childhood and youth career.
During the game, I was just fully focused on doing the job at hand and helping the team out. It was a nice little surprise at the end of the game to be awarded man of the match by Jamie Carragher. But to be honest, I was just most happy that we got the win.
How did the signing of two new centre-backs in January impact your mindset?
I think for me personally, that side of things I can't really have an impact on, so it doesn't make sense for me to focus on it or worry about it.
I think for the sake of the club and the team, bringing in the centre-backs was a good thing, because we were short of centre-backs. People were playing out of position and injuries were happening often.
So it was a massive help for the team, but I can only control how I train and how I play when I get those opportunities. That was the mindset I took: there's no point worrying about things that are out of my control and I just need to focus on what is best for the team.
Did Jurgen Klopp say anything to you about the new arrivals?
Not much, because it happened on the evening we had a game, I think. We'd just played against West Ham. But like I said, there's no harm in competition within a squad and when you are bringing in players in your position, then sometimes you might have to up your own game to make sure that you hold your own position in the team. So there are benefits to it as well.
Has Virgil van Dijk been a good source of advice for you this season?
Virg has been a big help when he's been in and around the dressing room on game days. He will give advice for certain situations that are happening in the game and how we might be able to alter things to improve those situations in our favour.
But I would say everybody in general has been a massive help, from the manager and the coaching staff, to the players, who are always talking to me throughout the games. Especially in my first few games, they were helping me through those, but as I've played more games and gained a bit more trust, I think the players haven't had to look after me as much because they feel like I'm capable of producing. From the start, everybody wanted to help me out, and they did that.
How important was it to bounce back after the Merseyside derby defeat?
It was massive after the loss from the derby to beat Sheffield United. All the players straight after the defeat couldn't wait to put things right and put out a better performance and get a win.
For me and Ozan Kabak, it was nice to get that clean sheet together.
How is Ozan settling in? Is this a partnership you see working long-term?
Yeah, I hope so. You can see with Ozan's performances that he's adapting in the games.
I had a similar sort of experience when I was playing in Germany last year on loan with Stuttgart to coming back to playing in the derby in the FA Cup against Everton. The first 15 or 20 minutes, I was a bit shell-shocked because I'd got used to the style of football and how the game was played over there.
To then play against Everton at Anfield, it is a bit of a shock at first but you can see that he's adapting in training and in every game he plays. Like you say, hopefully we can form a bit of a partnership.
Chelsea is a massive game for Liverpool in terms of what you want to achieve this season, isn't it?
Yeah, it's really big. To have the opportunity to gain three points and take three off Chelsea is a good opportunity for us.
Going forward in this season, we want to be winning every game. That's always been the mindset and that's not changed, no matter who the opponent is.
Given the injury problems that have hit the club this season, how big of an achievement would finishing in the top four be?
If you look over the course of the season, with all the injury problems we've had and the bad fortune that we've had, along with a difficult phase with results, I think achieving a place in the Champions League will be something we can be happy with.
But we are still in the middle of the season now, and I think our mindset has got to be, take each game as it comes and focus on that game and winning it.
There are still two routes to qualify for the Champions League, because if you win this season's competition, that also guarantees your spot next season…
Certainly, but I mean just because there are those two routes, it doesn't mean that if we achieve one then we are going to take our foot off the pedal for the other. I've said before that we want to be winning every game, so if we can do that, then we will get those rewards off the back of it.
We've shown that we have the quality in our squad despite the injuries with the game away at Leipzig, and we've shown that in the league as well with some of our performances. It's just a matter of developing that consistency from game-to-game.
What do you hope this season will prove to be, in terms of a stepping stone for your career?
I've tried not to look that far ahead because I want to be focused on the games as they come and when I'm called upon, making sure I can help the team by putting in good performances.
At the end of the season, that's when I can start considering what it might mean for me. But I think the most important thing for me is to be putting in good performances and helping the team when I am called upon.
It's a huge learning experience for me at Liverpool this season - more than I thought I would have had at the start of the season when I looked like I was going to go on loan to the Championship.
If you compare it to what I've done so far this year - having the opportunity to play eight games in the Premier League - it's been massive for my development and a great experience for me. I'm grateful for that, and I want to continue developing in the way that I am doing and continue to get the opportunities to do so.