“Sky is the limit” reads the tattoo that stretches from Phil Foden’s left ear down to the bottom of his neck. He had it done just over a year ago, after scoring a crucial late winner for Manchester City against Everton in the Premier League.
The words reflect the mindset of the precociously talented player, whose lofty ambitions are far from sated. Since making his first-team debut at the age of 17 in 2017, as a substitute in a 1-0 Champions League victory over Feyenoord, Foden has reveled in the spotlight.
Now 22, he already has a packed trophy cabinet that includes four Premier League titles, one FA Cup and four League Cup winners’ medals and back-to-back Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year awards.
“All the time I think about what has happened, what I’ve achieved, I’m just grateful to be where I am now,” Stockport-born Foden told Arab News during an exclusive interview. “I always look at that and it’s crazy because it’s gone so quick.”
Foden says he has enjoyed every moment of his career so far and just wants to keep on enjoying it as much as possible.
“I came from a rough area and not many people make it from my area,” he said. “So to come out of that and see what I’ve done, I’m obviously proud of that.”
But he wants more. And in his pursuit of that, he demands more of himself.
“It’s so special to be part of this City team,” said Foden, who has been with the club since he was nine years old. He was even a ball boy.
“Hopefully, in years to come, I can talk about my experience to my young kids and tell them how it was. Hopefully I can be remembered as a legend here when I finish, hopefully get a statue … I want that, definitely,” he adds with a beaming smile.
“For now, I’m just enjoying every moment.”
There are three statues at the Etihad Stadium already, honoring former captain Vincent Kompany, club-record goalscorer Sergio Aguero, and Foden’s idol, David Silva, the Spanish attacking midfielder they called “Merlin.”
It is now Foden who provides the magic, a role he accepts with relish while displaying a growing maturity and willingness to take on greater responsibility in a team packed with world-class players.
He is the boy who dared to dream and achieved his goal of playing for his beloved club, where the supporters now laud him as “one of our own.”
Feted for performances for club and country that are reminiscent of former Newcastle, Tottenham Hotspur and England hero Paul Gascoigne, with the ability to excite and excel in attack, there is a lot of pressure resting on Foden’s young shoulders.
“I think there are expectations, definitely, because I’ve set my standards so high in the last few seasons,” he said.
“People expect me to be the game-changer now and I don’t mind that … you know,” Foden said. “I want to be that person who scores and decides a game. I thrive on it; it makes me better and I like the pressure. It’s definitely hard to keep level-headed but I felt I’ve dealt with that pretty well over the time.
“I’ve always tried to put the hard work in training as much as I possibly can to get the rewards. That’s the mentality I have and will just keep trying to do that.”
Foden has returned to fitness and form following the World Cup in Qatar, during which England were beaten in the quarter-finals by France. Manager Gareth Southgate’s squad this week begin another quest for a first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup, with Euro 2024 qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine on Thursday and Sunday.
Passionate about the game, Foden hopes to display his top qualities for both club and country in the remaining three months of the season.
“It’s stressful not playing, of course — the manager knows that, with all the players that we have got who just love playing football,” he said. “We are all, just in the changing room at City, two-touch or whatever we are doing, (we) just love to play football.
“Like Bernardo Silva, for example, in the game against Newcastle (on March 4). He didn’t start but when he came on, he made the difference with the second goal. I feel that’s the group we are building now. We all have each other’s back and work for each other.”
With their lives under ever-greater scrutiny, trying to remain level-headed can be hard for young footballers in the modern era.
Foden, however, is already the father of two young children and said: “I think it’s helped me, yes, being a dad, (it has) kept me focused on football.
“It’s always nice, if things don’t go right on the football pitch, you can go home, see your kids and everything gets back to normal. So it’s definitely kept me grounded.”
At the same time, his family also provide a great inspiration for him to continue to strive to reach ever-greater heights, he said.
City are sitting second in the Premier League, eight points behind Arsenal, and thrashed Burnley 6-0 on Saturday to book their spot in the FA Cup semi-finals, in which they will face Championship side Sheffield United at Wembley on April 22.
The Champions League is the one trophy that has eluded Foden, and City, so far, with a 1-0 defeat by Chelsea in the 2021 final the closest they have come. That loss was painful, as was a foot injury later that summer that ruled Foden out of the delayed Euro 2020 final in which England lost to Italy on penalties. There were some tears, he admitted.
“I don’t like to show it but, definitely, behind the scenes there are emotional times,” he said.
Having been drawn against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions League, and with the prospect of facing holders Real Madrid or Chelsea in the last four, City have another tough task ahead of them this season if they are to claim the biggest prize in European club football.
Foden, whose game has evolved under Pep Guardiola, with roles across the forward line, said: “I hope it’s this year. Definitely, the Champions League is the one we are all looking at now.
“We want to take a step further. We have been in a final and obviously it was heartbreaking to lose. Hopefully, if we can get there again we can use the defeat in the final, and the experience of winning the Premier League and other cups, to help us through it.”
Whatever happens, Foden said it “feels special” to be part of City’s trophy hunt.
“I’m still such a young player and the more big games you play the better you learn to deal with them,” he said.
“I think I’m becoming more mature as a player, and in the game I feel I can play a lot more different positions. I think I could before but now I understand them a bit more.”
As he learns to combine greater knowledge with his evolving natural ability, the sky truly is the limit for what Foden might yet achieve.