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Phillips And Williams: On Being A Substitute

I reflect on the journey of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, and the uneasy situation of being a temporary solution.

Liverpool v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams. Two names that no one expected to play any significant minutes this season. Certainly not in the Premier League and Champions League, and doubly so for vital matches down the stretch.

Yet, there they were, literally the last two men left standing after an injury crisis reduced Liverpool’s squad to their sixth and eighth best options.

Despite some shaky moments, the two came through in flying colors. Against all odds they secured Champions League football for the club.

“Glad we can give you all Champions League football for next season.”

Williams’s statement sort of says it all. Williams knows his days as a starter for Liverpool are over. He won’t be playing the Champions League next season. His teammates will be, assuming he’s even in the Liverpool squad next season.


I empathize with the position Williams and Phillips are in. Indeed, I’m in a similar boat. I’ve been on a year-long contract, covering for two women on maternity leave since September.

As a “substitute,” I’ve had to come into a team, learn how they do things, screw up, try to learn from my mistakes, and ultimately, keep the wheels turning so that everything will be in order when the women I’m covering for return.

It’s an uneasy position. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has their own ways of doing things. Everyone makes mistakes and has internal struggles. But as a substitute, those mistakes appear (and occasionally are) more significant and obvious.

Even if errors are not costly to the team, they are felt across the board, especially to the newcomer. Very few critics are harsher than the one inside our own heads.

There’s also the unseen pressure of the person you’re temporarily replacing looking over your shoulder, waiting for their turn to easily displace you and send you on to “more appropriate” roles. “Thanks for the cover! You did as well as you could! Now, stand aside and watch what I can do.”


Williams and Phillips did as well, if not better than can reasonably be expected. I’d like to think the same about the work I’ve been doing!

While I can’t say what my future holds at my current place of employment, it seems a near certainty that our makeshift center back pairing will be replaced as soon as a ball can once again be kicked in hostility.

Perhaps Phillips starts a handful of matches, especially early on, as Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip make their way back to full fitness, but he has, at best, moved form sixth to fifth choice center back, behind the three aforementioned defenders and the incoming Ibrahima Konaté.

Williams, on the other hand, is unlikely to play a major role next season. Or any season, ever again. He might struggle to even get another start for Liverpool’s first team. This is not a slight at his efforts down the stretch, which were downright heroic, but rather the reality of trying to come up through the ranks at one of the best clubs in the world.

Phillips and Williams both have limitations, ones that are especially glaring in Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressing, high-line, high-risk defense.

Moreover, there are only 14 players who can play in a match, and only 25 in a squad. This is a stark comparison with my effort to get hired in a company with several thousand employees.

Personally, I’ve looked at these last 9 months as “a substitute” as a challenge. Wake up, do my best, try to impress, and don’t think too much about the future.

With 3 months left on my contract, that future is suddenly creeping up on me. I’m sure Phillips and Williams feel the same way, watching their high-profile current and future teammates arrive to training and/or return to fitness.

In all of our cases, our roles will likely be changed, if not reduced (or ended altogether) in the coming months.

I take solace in the knowledge that I gained some fantastic experience, and have some great memories, no matter what happens next. And that this difficult trial by fire will make me a better employee wherever I end up next.

I hope Nat and Rhys feel the same way, wherever their professional journeys will take them.