Watching Phil Foden’s Manchester derby masterclass with his first junior coach – The Athletic

Daniel TaylorMar 4, 2024

The chap on the next table does not sound too happy. It is derby day in Manchester. Phil Foden has put in a world-class performance and, in a bar heavily populated by United fans, the blame game has started.

“This is your fault, Joe, that he’s playing for City not United,” he says. “You’ve ruined my day. Foden… bloody hell. Best player on the pitch by a mile. You’ve got a lot to answer for.”

Joe Makin smiles back. It’s a heard-it-all-before smile, which leaves the clear impression this is not the first time they have had this kind of conversation. They are old friends and, at the heart of this exchange, there is a shared understanding they have just witnessed something special.

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Foden has played as though determined to leave his fingerprints on another City victory. His first goal is an absolute peach. The second is not too shabby either. He has left the pitch to a standing ovation and these are the moments, surrounded by United-supporting friends, when the man who helped Foden on the way to stardom can be seen shaking his head in admiration.

“Where’s it going to end?” Makin wants to know. “The Ballon d’Or? Seriously, what’s next? More and more, you have to think he’d be one of the favourites for the player-of-the-year awards. I don’t want to sound biased, but just look at how he’s playing and who he’s playing with. At this stage, he could be anything he wants to be.”

Foden applauds the home support after dominating the derby (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

To introduce him properly, Makin is the talent-spotter who took Foden to Reddish Vulcans, his first junior team, on the upward trajectory that has made the boy from Stockport a treble-winner with Pep Guardiola’s team, a five-time Premier League champion and, at the age of 23, a “legendary figure”, in the words of his manager.

We are watching the derby at the Moor Club in Heaton Moor, just up the road from the old Peel Moat leisure centre where Foden had his first training sessions with the Vulcans. The leisure centre has long gone, replaced by housing and a primary school, but the artificial pitch is still there, overgrown with moss and weeds. Many of the locals will have no idea about the talent that once played here, but Makin will never forget it.

“I remember one of his first coaching sessions,” he says. “Every time the ball went up in the air it seemed to drop to him. One of the dads came over at the end. ‘That new boy with the left foot’, he said, ‘Where has he come from?’. I put my hands together in a praying motion, looked up to the sky and said, ‘Heaven’.”

In the under-sevens section of the East Manchester Junior Football League, another game took place at Curzon Ashton one Sunday morning. And, for the sprinkling of parents and other spectators, there was another ‘I-was-there’ moment.

“The game kicked off and — bom, bom, bom — Phil went past all their players to score,” says Makin. “The next time he got the ball, the same again. He didn’t even celebrate the goals. I was standing on the touchline and, clear as day, I heard one of the parents from the opposition saying, ‘You’d pay to watch this, wouldn’t you?’.”

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The player in question has just scored his 17th and 18th goal of the season, his best-ever return, in a City team that has realistic aspirations of being recognised as the greatest club side of all time. His team-mates have started calling him “The Sniper” because of the accuracy of his left-footed finishes, as demonstrated by the low, angled shot for his second goal.

Foden celebrates after putting City ahead (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

For England, he has 31 caps and a decent argument could be made that there should have been considerably more.

Gareth Southgate, the national team manager, was at the Etihad Stadium with his assistant, Steve Holland, to watch City’s 3-1 defeat of United. What they witnessed was the latest evidence of Foden playing at the point of maximum expression, but this is nothing new and, from here, it would feel almost implausible if Southgate’s plans for this summer’s European Championship did not feature Foden as an automatic starter.

If anything, it feels long overdue when all that brilliant potential is fully flowering and the player in question proves he can shape and influence even the most important fixtures.

“It’s like poetry in motion,” says Makin. “Even now, my heart skips a beat when I see what he is capable of. His goals today, for example. You visualise it from such an early age and then see it all coming to fruition. Then there’s my friend sitting behind me, a United fan, telling me, ‘You’ve ruined my day’.

“These are my best friends but, in the nicest possible way, I’m pleased to ruin their day if it means Phil is dictating everything.”

It was the 56th minute when Foden decided it was time to stop toying with his opponents and provide something more substantial and meaningful.

His team were losing 1-0 to a firecracker of a goal from Marcus Rashford. Erling Haaland had missed a first-half chance, set up by Foden, that he would usually score blindfolded and United were sensing an away victory that might have caused grievous damage to City’s ambitions of four Premier League titles in a row.

Kevin De Bruyne looks on in awe at Foden’s equaliser (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Now, though, the ball was on Foden’s left foot. He had to create an extra yard of space to elude the nearest defender, Victor Lindelof, and get his shot away. The ball was still rising as it hit the net. And, in Makin’s position, how can you even begin to describe all the pride and other emotions attached to such a beautifully delivered equaliser?

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“That was a Reddish Vulcans goal,” Makin explained afterwards. “Get the ball, move it to the side with the outside of your foot and you get that extra space. You don’t have to go past a player, you just go level, then you can get your shot away. You ping it outside the far post to bend in and finish inside it. We work on that with the Vulcans. We put out cones for them to dribble around and always teach the kids to go with the outside of their boots first.”

The production line has been rolling since 1980 when two friends, Geoff Meadowcroft and Eddie Clarke, decided to set up a football club in Reddish, on the northern edge of Stockport. The two men were colleagues at the old British Aerospace factory in Woodford and named the club after the Avro Vulcan, a Royal Air Force bomber for almost three decades.

Makin, now the Vulcans chairman, is in his 30th year at the club, doubling up with his work in the recruitment department of City’s academy. He can reel off a long list of former Vulcans who have been spotted at a young age and made a career in the sport.

The latest success story is Rory Finneran, who became the youngest player in the history of Blackburn Rovers when he made his first-team debut in January, aged 15 years and 312 days — so young, indeed, that he was not allowed to have the sponsor’s name, a vape firm, on the front of his shirt.

With Foden, however, it was obvious he was different ever since he was invited to have a look at Platt Lane, City’s old academy, through a school programme in 2006. “The first time I ever saw him, he was running down the touchline at Platt Lane,” says Makin. “He had two players chasing after him and he suddenly did a Cruyff turn to get past them both in one movement. He was six years of age.”

The slightly confusing issue is that Reddish Vulcans, with 200 children aged four to 16, are no longer based in Reddish. Burnage Rugby Club, where they train, is not in Burnage, either. It is all in Heaton Mersey these days, in between the two. Foden grew up a few miles away in Edgeley, so close to Stockport County the floodlights were visible from his bedroom window.

The Fodens’ house in Grenville Street (Daniel Taylor/The Athletic)

He and his family now live in a footballers’ enclave in Prestbury, among Cheshire’s ‘golden triangle’.

Yet a visit to Foden’s old house, 117 Grenville Street, tells its own story about his background, in a family of staunch City fans, near Edgeley Park. The Fodens grew up opposite what is now a boarded-up kebab takeaway. There is a vape shop and a bookmaker on the same strip, as well as a pub, The Royal Oak, with both City and United flags behind the bar. Some of the other properties on this parade of shops and small businesses are also boarded up.

“What a grounding though,” says Makin. “It’s the classic old football story: back-to-back terraced houses and playing on the street with older boys. He had a wall to kick his ball against. He used it to develop his touch. Look what it produced.”

Makin with Foden after the Under-17s World Cup in 2017 (Vulcans/Makin)

As Makin is talking, the television screens are showing replays of Foden’s goals and Guardiola is on his way to a media conference in which he will eulogise about the player wearing a shirt, number 47, that can still look slightly too big for him sometimes.

“Right now, he is the best player in the Premier League,” was the standout line from City’s manager. “To be world-class, you have to win games. He’s winning games. Always he scored goals, but now he’s winning games. When you do this, you reach another level as a player.”

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At City, they talk about the days when Guardiola used to stand on the touchline and instruct Foden to slow down rather than always being on the move. Over time, Foden has come to understand the Catalan’s instructions of “pausa, pausa” and why it was good advice.

“He is already a legendary player because of his age, the games played, the minutes, the goals scored, the titles won,” said Guardiola. “He loves to play football, he lives for football. He is a joy. He is from here and that is why the connection with the fans is unbelievable.”

Foden (bottom left) with Reddish Vulcans (Vulcans/Makin)

In the Moor Club, Makin’s phone is buzzing with messages about Foden’s performance. A couple of times during the match, Foden pulls off a little flick and Makin rocks with laughter.

It is not just about the player’s skills though. Makin talks about Foden’s temperament and how he rarely reacts to being kicked or roughed up. He also makes a point about Foden’s competitive courage. “When City go behind, I’ve noticed he takes on the mantle. Even though he’s one of the younger ones, it will quite often be him who pulls everything together.”

‘I want to be a City legend’ — the rise of ‘The Stockport Iniesta’

The trophies have been coming Foden’s way since Vulcans’ under-eights, in their orange shirts, won the North West Junior Champions League in 2008. And, to go back to Makin’s earlier question, where does it all end? How many more titles, glories and achievements? 

“Phil came to see me a while back and, at one point, he asked me a question. ‘You can be honest with me’, he said. ‘Did you really think I was going to make it?’. I explained that, when he was eight years old, I put an article on the Vulcans’ website. I can remember, word for word, what it said: ‘Remember the name of Phil Foden — a left foot to die for’.”

(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

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Daniel Taylor is a senior writer for The Athletic and a four-time Football Journalist of the Year, as well as being named Sports Feature Writer of the Year in 2022. He was previously the chief football writer for The Guardian and The Observer and spent nearly 20 years working for the two titles. Daniel has written five books on the sport. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DTathletic

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