Phil Foden: One of their own
Spotted by Manchester City aged 6, Phil Foden, a boyhood Blue, is on the brink of becoming their next big thing
As Phil Foden zipped up his coat and made his way to the bench, applause broke out from the supporters in the lower section of the Colin Bell Stand. Away towards the South Stand, a few cries of "he's one of our own" were briefly heard.
It was a bitingly cold December afternoon. Manchester City were seconds away from sealing a 3-1 win over Everton - a result which would see them displace Liverpool at the Premier League summit.
Foden, despite the acknowledgement from the crowd, had played no part.
For the best part of ten minutes he had stood beside Pep Guardiola on the edge of the Etihad technical area, waiting to be introduced as a late substitute. The moment didn't arrive. An unusually long passage of play was eventually interrupted by an Everton corner. Sensing this was no time to send on a 5'7" teenager, Guardiola held off, reluctantly ordering him back to the bench soon after.
This incident, insignificant though it may have seemed at the time, was a microcosm of the last year of Foden's career. He is close - agonisingly so - to establishing himself as a regular at City and there is an eagerness from supporters to see it happen soon. Patience is required - from Foden and fans alike.
"The level of support he has from the fans is extraordinary," Ian Cheeseman, a lifelong City supporter and former BBC reporter, tells JOE. "When he made his first appearance, the cheers for him coming on were louder than they've been for any City debutant in a long, long time.
"There’s a hell of a lot of goodwill for him out there."
At the heart of the affection City fans hold for Foden is the fact he is, as their chant makes clear, one of their own - a local lad, born into a family of Blues a short distance away from the Etihad Campus in Stockport.
"As Mancunian City fans, nothing would give us greater pleasure than for him to have 15 years of success here," Cheeseman explains.
Foden's rise to the periphery of Guardiola's team has been a long time coming. Even at the age of six there were signs he was destined for big things.
He had already appeared on City's radar while an infant at Bridge Hall Primary School. Too young to enrol with the Premier League club's academy at this point, he instead registered with local junior side Reddish Vulcans. Attending his first training session at Peel Moat High School and Leisure Centre, Foden swiftly made an impression.
"You could tell straight away that he was at a different level to every other player," Steve Williams, Foden's first coach, tells JOE. "It’s difficult to assess exactly how good they are at that age. Some lads have only just learned to kick a ball and have no idea. But Phil was phenomenal.
"I had some good players in that age group - some very good players - but Phil stood out because he had everything. His touch was outstanding, his balance was exceptional. He could pass, shoot, dribble. Everything."
Foden was part of Williams' team at Vulcans for the best part of two years before leaving for City. In that time, they won everything - a goal scored in the Broadheath Tournament at Altrincham proving to be a particular highlight. Gaining possession in his own half, he slalomed his way past all six outfield opponents before finishing by scooping the ball over the goalkeeper.
"The goal itself was memorable," Williams says. "But what’s stayed with me is the gasp from all the parents on the sidelines at what they’d just seen."
Williams coached for 14 years, leaving Vulcans when the team Foden had been part of eventually broke up years later. While he stresses he was fortunate to have worked with many talented players in his time, Foden was the only one he truly believed had the attributes to make it as a professional. There was, however, one reservation.
"I didn't doubt his ability or his character, because he was always a genuinely lovely, humble lad - shy, if anything. My only doubts were if he had enough about him physically, because he was quite small.
"Fortunately, I think football - or the way people viewed football - changed around that time. Barcelona were at their best around then. Lionel Messi was coming through and people realised size doesn’t matter that much when compared to technique.
"At that age, Messi was the player you’d liken him to. The ball would stick to his feet and he’d dribble past everyone for fun. He’s got that ability, as he showed with England Under-21s against France in the summer. He can beat a man with a drop of a shoulder and an injection of pace."
Leaving behind Reddish Vulcans to join City's academy, by 11, Foden had enrolled at St Bede’s College, the independent school in Manchester where City’s young players are educated. The following year he was a ballboy the night Vincent Kompany's header secured a 1-0 victory over Manchester United, putting City in the driving seat for their first Premier League title.
His reputation growing as he progressed through City's youth ranks, Foden played in the same team as Brahim Díaz from the age of 13. Jadon Sancho, who joined City from Watford in 2015, also became his teammate. With a dearth of academy players breaking through to City's first team in the preceding decade, there was genuine belief at the club that the trio would all make the step up - backed up by Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak's comments after they had reached the final of the FA Youth Cup in 2017.
"You look at Sancho, you look at Phil Foden you look at Brahim Díaz, just to name a few, these are players that are extremely talented," the chairman had said. "These are players who have a very good chance of making it to the first team."
"Foden was a consistently good player at that age," remembers Cheeseman, who saw him play regularly for City's youth teams and Elite Development Squad.
"If I’m being honest - and maybe this is just personal preferences - he didn't quite catch the eye in the same way Diaz and Sancho did. They would take the ball and run at opponents and Foden, at that stage, didn’t do that.
"There was no question about his quality though, even then."
Only weeks after Al-Mubarak's comments, hopes of seeing all three youngsters starring in City's senior side disintegrated. Fearing his route to the first team would be blocked by the wealth of talent already at Guardiola's disposal, the ambitious Sancho moved to Germany with Borussia Dortmund. Dìaz would make his own exit 18 months later, returning to his homeland with Real Madrid.
Though plenty of the continent's top clubs reportedly showed interest in Foden, his allegiance to City meant he was never likely to depart.
"He’s a City fan and he wants to make it here," adds Cheeseman. "I don't think leaving has ever crossed his mind."
By the time of Sancho's departure, Foden had caught the eye in a defeat to Manchester United on City's pre-season tour of the US. By October, his stock had soared after he was named player of the tournament as England won the Under 17 World Cup in India. His competitive debut for City came the next month, replacing Yaya Toure in a Champions League group game against Feyenoord.
Though starts have been a rare occurrence in the past two seasons, Foden has featured more regularly over time, Guardiola opting against loaning him out. Clearly, he is highly regarded by his manager, who recently went as far as describing him as "the most talented player" he had ever seen.
Such comments from his manager will do little to quell the growing sense of anticipation from City supporters. As precociously gifted as Foden is, his problem is simply that he finds himself part of a squad brimming with world-class talent.
"I’d estimate there’s about 60-70% of City fans that want him in the first team right now," says Cheeseman. "Others are happy for Pep to bring him through gradually but, anecdotally, the biggest percentage seems to want to see more of him.
"The issue is the squad. You ask them who he’d replace - De Bruyne? Bernardo Silva? David Silva? What about Gündogan? - and it becomes much more difficult."
While this is the conundrum Guardiola faces at the start of another long season, it now seems inevitable that Foden will, in time, be a mainstay in the team. And it's that, despite the many things there currently are to be positive about for City supporters, that is the most exciting thing. For all the hundreds of millions poured into the club to make them the force they now are, their future may be shaped by a teenager from down the road, one of their own.