On May 19th 2012 Matthew ‘Matt’ Phillips lined up for Blackpool at Wembley. This was the Championship play-off final, the 90-Million-pound match. It was a game Blackpool seemed destined to lose, with underdog status guaranteed against West Ham who stuck a crucial blow in the 87th minute, winning 2-1.
Yet this score line, despite its air of inevitability, forgets that the Tangerines created and wasted great opportunities. In just a 35-minute spell, Matt Phillips summarised his own career, not only up to that point but until this season. After about 15 minutes the best passing move of the game saw him race through one versus one with Rob Green, only to shoot tamely with the ball stuck under his feet. 48 minutes in, the same player produced the pass of the game, a high diagonal ball allowing fellow winger and then room-mate Tom Ince to equalise with a first-time finish. Mercurial one minute, hapless the next.
Fast forward four years and Phillips has finally reached the peak of English Football for a third time. Signing for West Brom in the summer at a cost of around £5.5 million. A long term target of the club, he has already repaid their faith in him. Recent performances in particular proving that he belongs in the Premier League. Tony Pulis and the Baggies coaching staff deserve much of the credit, utilising a flair player in an often defensive system whilst drastically improving his decision making and finishing in such a short space of time; finishing in particular having hampered his progression in the Championship.
This season Matt has started 20 of 21 league fixtures, scoring four and assisting eight and has been directly involved in 12 of his side’s last 19 goals. At 25 years of age, these are the kind of stats expected of a player entering his peak years. As an attacker who can play on either wing, run directly at full-backs and provide accurate service to the aerially formidable Rondon, Phillips has set the bench mark vis-a-vis forward players in an ever-evolving new look West Brom.
For years his talent had been clear but talked of only as potential. Wycombe Wanderers saw it when they signed him as an 8-year-old, as did Ian Holloway 11 years later. When bringing him to Blackpool Holloway said: “He is definitely one for not only the long-term future but the immediate future. I am getting quite excited about what he might be able to produce.”
That transfer showcased both Phillips’ potential and Blackpool’s in equal measure, but the jump from League 1 to Premier League was vast; truly testing Matt’s ability and temperament. Holloway used the Winger 27 times that season, 21 of those as a substitute and playing 90 minutes only twice. From limited minutes and considering his inexperience a return of two goals, three assists had justified his acquisition and place in the squad.
Unfortunately, one appearance in particular stands out from that season and it isn’t for positive reasons. Entering the match on 68 minutes, with his side 2-0 up against eventual league winners Manchester United, Phillips appeared mesmerized by Ryan Giggs and co. Within 5 minutes the score was tied, finishing 3-2 in United’s favor. Of course it would be unfair to blame Phillips for the defeat. It was however a stark reminder that he was a raw, unrefined talent; the image of him standing in motionless awe as Giggs repeatedly waltzed passed him has stuck with me since.
The season resulted in relegation but brought the promise of a new start for Phillips. With some of the squads’ prominent players poached by Premier League sides there was an expectancy that the Winger would be a key player. Instead he found himself again limited to substitute appearances; even left out of the squad on three occasions before a loan move to Sheffield United in League One materialized in October.
The loan, while only a month long was a resounding success as Phillips averaged a goal every 90 minutes over six appearances for the Blades.
From December on wards he featured in most fixtures, scoring a hat-trick in both the league and FA Cup. Prior to reaching Wembley the winger switched national allegiance from England – whom he had represented at U-20’s – to Scotland, Eligibility provided by his grandparents. In that 11/12 season he had remarkably similar stats to Tom Ince. Both players scored or created 13 goals in the Championship from 33 appearances.
However the following season saw Phillips decline as Blackpool dive bombed from promotion contenders to 15th. Meanwhile Ince excelled; notching 18 goals, 14 assists and completely overshadowing his team-mate in the process of becoming the sides’ main man.
Despite this the summer brought fresh opportunity as relegated Queens Park Rangers bought Phillips as they looked to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Under the guidance of Harry Redknapp and another season of extravagant spending – including £5 million on the ‘Scottish’ winger – the side were promoted via the playoffs. Unfortunately for young Matt who had again showed promise, he would miss out from early February after fracturing his leg against Burnley.
Regardless, three seasons on from his surprise introduction to the top, Phillips had returned. Yet for the second time it would end in misery and relegation. Once again his own story correlated with that of the team; exciting in spells but unable to consistently perform at highest standards. Still, in a spell from February with QPR almost permanently in the bottom three, Matt found form; proving that his attitude was not a problem and reminding potential suitors of his quality. In a 13-game stretch he assisted eight times, netting three himself, a standard being repeated this season at the Hawthorns.
Prior to his third Premier League return – each with a different side – Phillips had another opportunity to impose himself on the championship. However as QPR struggled following the departure of talisman Charlie Austin, his own contributions declined. Fortunately for the winger this didn’t dampen Pulis’ efforts to bring him to the West Midlands.
Now there will be more expectancy as the season moves forward, but if Phillips continues a trend of showing the characteristics of the side around him, an improving, attacking West Brom may be the best place for him. As Pulis himself has said this week: “He loves the football club, the players in the dressing room, and that almost evaporates all the anxiety that Matty has maybe had in the past.”
This increasing confidence has helped erase wild shooting and misplaced passing from his game. Anyone involved with West Brom or Scottish football can be excited about further potential being unlocked as Phillips cements himself as one of the top wingers in the Premier League.