Last month, Killian Phillips started for Crystal Palace against Liverpool in a pre-season friendly in Singapore, the latest chapter in his remarkable journey that began in Kilbarrack.
hillips may not feature when the two teams meet again tonight but his story is one of fearless determination to make it as a professional footballer, backed by unwavering family support.
“I was playing Sunday League three years ago,” he told the club’s media after his first-team debut. “I just wish my Ma was here tonight, but I’m sure she’s watching back home in Kilbarrack.”
The 20-year-old joined the club’s academy in January, playing under former Palace captain and U-23 boss Paddy McCarthy, who grew up in nearby Edenmore.
Often, when a young player makes such a move to a Premier League club, they can get ahead of themselves, develop an ego, and think they’ve ‘made it’.
None of the above apply to Phillips. In fact, his mindset is quite the opposite.
The midfielder is fully aware of the dedication required just to make it to this point, as well as the pitfalls. After all, he came through it the hard way.
“When he signed, he told me, ‘I’m starting from the ground up again Mam, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole’,” said Cora, Phillips’s mother, who you get the impression would be just as proud if he was still playing Sunday League in Kilbarrack.
The midfielder began his journey at Kilbarrack’s academy aged five, before stints at Corduff and St Kevin’s. Phillips returned to his native club at 16, after Shelbourne and Bohemians decided not to sign him for their U-17 sides. Undeterred, Phillips put his head down and persevered, a trait he’s carried with him all his life.
“I remember at Shelbourne, we left the ground and the manager called to say they wouldn’t be taking him,” Cora reflected.
“He was disappointed, but he just got on with it. He always knew what he wanted. ‘If I have a plan B, I’m already failing,’ he’d say. That was his mentality from a young age.”
Phillips, who can also play in defence, enrolled in the FAI’s ETB Player Development Course in Cabra, before joining Drogheda’s U-19s under Wayne Groves.
He thrived with the Louth club and quickly made an impression, soon signing his first contract in 2020 as the club earned promotion to the Premier Division.
“He’s come through it the hard way,” Groves admitted.
“He hasn’t been that 14- or 15-year-old destined to go over to England, he’s gone the late-developer route. He worked hard away from the pitch, and quickly overtook the U-19s.
“He came back, and I knew straight away he was too good for me, so he went straight to the first team.
“Every player comes in and tells you all the buzzwords you want to hear, but very few act on it. Throughout his schoolboy career, all he’s been doing is fighting to try and make it, not just for him, but for his mother and family. His mother brought him everywhere and would still do to this day.”
Under Tim Clancy, Phillips made 31 appearances for Drogheda last season, his first in senior football.
A trial at Crystal Palace followed before Christmas and proved successful, as the 20-year-old signed a two-year deal at Selhurst Park.
“It’s his dream come true,” smiles Cora. “What more could a parent want? I can’t put it into words, I’m so proud of him. Even now, if he were allowed, he’d be down at Kilbarrack astro – playing. It’s all he’s wanted to do.”
Cora has been central in his journey, from driving him to every training session to supporting on the sideline at every match.
“As long as he was happy, I was willing to drive him,” Cora added, conscious to place the credit on Killian, the second eldest of her four sons.
“I knew how committed he was. We’d listen to podcasts on the way up to Drogheda. He was able to vent if he did well or was disappointed,” she added.
Lar Harmon, who coached Phillips for four seasons at Corduff, agreed.
“His Mam was absolutely unbelievable,” he said.
“Killian came to us at U-13s, and I made him captain within a month of knowing him. The other lads were as good, but he really had a drive about him. He’ll make it anywhere.”
Since signing for the South London club, Phillips has featured 11 times for the U-23s. He was called up by Palace’s first-team boss Patrick Vieira in April for a week’s training in the lead-up to their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.
“He’s a kid who’s working really hard,” said Vieira of Phillips, after playing against Liverpool in front of 50,000 people.
On the international front, the midfielder earned a second Republic of Ireland U-21 call-up last March and will be hoping to be included for next month’s Euro 2023 play-off against Israel after being omitted from the squad last June.
Phillips returned home after finishing his maiden season with Palace, and it wasn’t long before he found himself back to where it all began – at Kilbarrack United’s astro pitch.
Kilbarrack coach Liam McDonnell has known Phillips since he was five years old and explained he’s become a hero to the local kids.
“He came back last June and coached,” said McDonnell, who managed Phillips until U-11s.
“The kids were getting photos and autographs. He’ll be helping me when he comes home again. I’m with the U-10s now to see if I can find another Killian. His heart will always be in Kilbarrack.”
Phillips featured in the Crystal Palace U-23s’ 3-2 win over Brighton last week as he embarks on his first full campaign in English football and, on Friday, scored twice as Palace’s U-21s beat Manchester United 5-1 in a superb display.
It’s the sort of performance that could earn him a place on the bench tonight but, even if that doesn’t come to pass, his form and attitude is continuing in the right direction.
His immediate focus will be to keep climbing that totem pole.