Sunday 18 August 2019

Big season for the Messi of Manchester

Manchester City's English midfielder Phil Foden. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
Manchester City's English midfielder Phil Foden. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

James Ducker

Before Manchester City left for China on their pre-season tour last month, Phil Foden attended a charity event in his native Stockport. When it came to the presentations, though, the guest of honour was nowhere to be seen.

People looked around the room for sight of the City midfielder before someone decided to venture outside and discovered a bare-chested Foden playing football with a group of awestruck kids on the adjacent field, his shirt serving as one of the makeshift goalposts. If Foden had had his way, he would have spent all day kicking that ball about.

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Speak to anyone who knows Foden and they will tell you that scene perfectly encapsulates the player Pep Guardiola, the City manager, described only 10 days ago as the "most talented I have ever seen as a football player or manager". Quite an accolade from a man who oversaw Lionel Messi's rise at Barcelona. There are plenty of young players who seem more interested in the trappings that come with being a top level professional than the game itself, but Foden cannot get enough of football - whether that is against Liverpool in the Community Shield today or on the local park - and for a fellow obsessive such as Guardiola, that strikes a particular chord.

It was a similar story on the night City completed an unprecedented domestic treble with a 6-0 thumping of Watford in the FA Cup final in May.

City were staying at the Hilton Hotel next to Wembley and had set aside a room that doubled as a soft play centre for the staff and players' children, complete with small footballs and mini nets. While the celebrations were in full flow next door, Foden was busy orchestrating a five-a-side match and relishing the banter with the opposition goalkeeper, Vincent Kompany's wife Carla.

That had been a bittersweet day for Foden, too. Having done so much to help get City to the Cup final, the disappointment of being left out of the squad against Watford was acute, especially after making starts in a number of high-profile Premier League games over previous weeks, but there was no need to be too despondent.

Guardiola has grand plans for the 19-year-old and this could be the season when David Silva - preparing for his 10th and final campaign in City colours - hands over the baton to his heir apparent or, rather, the season "Merlin" hands over his wand to young Merlin as the club chase a third successive title.

That does not mean Foden is going to start every week, not when the competition constitutes Kevin De Bruyne, back to full fitness, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Silva, but City supporters will see him starting bigger games more often. When Guardiola, sitting beside Foden, delivered his eulogy about his young prodigy in Tokyo last week, he made a point of telling the player privately that the statement was not for show and that he meant every word he said.

It was still an extraordinary thing for Guardiola to come out with given his profound appreciation of Messi, but it says a lot that the senior members of City's squad did not consider the manager's remarks about his latest pint-sized, left-footed wonderkid with a five-letter surname to be excessive. Silva, like Sergio Aguero, has always taken a very keen interest in Foden's development and is treating his mentoring role more seriously than ever. Foden has been encouraged to be patient - an underrated quality nowadays - and regularly reminded he is in good hands.

Few outside his immediate family and friends want him to succeed quite like the City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, a keen advocate of the academy system who is convinced Foden will be "a top, top superstar for this club" and cited the teenager's goal in the 1-0 win over Tottenham in April as one of his moments of the season.

"The best thing he has done is take the decision to be patient and learning from and working with one of the best managers in the world who is dedicated to help him reach his potential," Al-Mubarak said. "I said I hoped I would be at the stadium when Foden scores his first Premier League goal and thank God I was there. I was so happy because for me that's a moment of history and a moment we'll look back on many years from now."

Foden certainly seems in a good place, and over the disappointment of England's group stage exit from the European Under-21 Championship finals in Italy, when manager Aidy Boothroyd inexplicably dropped the City midfielder for the second game against Romania and duly watched his team crash out. As harebrained decisions by England managers in tournaments go, it was up there with the best of them.

A Messi-style wonder goal from Foden, when he slalomed in and out of five defenders before producing the sort of dead-eyed, side-foot finish the Argentinian maestro has turned into an art, could not spare England from defeat in their opening game against France. But there was still everything to play for against Romania and Foden's omission from the starting line-up bemused players who considered him to be comfortably the best in their ranks.

Rather than return home after the tournament, Foden and his family, including parents Phil Sr and Claire, remained in Italy on holiday. Foden became a parent himself earlier in the year with the birth of his baby son, Ronnie, who is named after his late grandfather, although it is worth noting that Foden's loved ones also refer to him as Ronnie (his second name is Ronald).

A holiday in Cornwall followed and there was, of course, time for Foden to indulge his other favourite pastime: fishing, with his dad, excitement reaching fever pitch recently when the younger Phil caught a 26lb carp.

Of course, it is on the pitch that Foden is hoping to make the real splash. Guardiola has no doubts he will. "He has everything to become one of the best players, not just in England," he said.

The stage seems set for Foden to take the next step.

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