As much as the Covid-19 coronavirus has dealt the world a devastating blow, the pandemic has also created unexpected opportunities for some people.
Young SuperSport United defender Keenan Phillips is among those who benefited from the dire situation, after his dream of playing in the elite league came true sooner than expected.
The 20-year-old was part of a long list of Diski Challenge players whose graduation to the elite ranks was fast-tracked.
This after PSL clubs were granted permission to use reserve team players to complete the delayed 2019/20 campaign in a biologically safe environment.
“The Covid-19 situation helped a lot of young players to get their break in the bio-bubble and subsequently earn professional contracts at PSL clubs,” said Phillips, who got his breakthrough at the now defunct Bidvest Wits.
He made four appearances for the Clever Boys during the club’s last days as one of nine Wits reserve team players thrown into the deep end by then coach Gavin Hunt. Phillips made his debut against Kaizer Chiefs, interestingly his former coach’s current club.
“It has been a wonderful journey so far since my first game against Chiefs because I showcased my talent on the big stage.
“It’s a dream come true to play alongside some of the PSL players I used to idolise,” he said.
“I was excited to sign for SuperSport, which for me is one of the biggest clubs in the country,” Phillips told City Press last week, a day after he played another full 90 minutes in SuperSport’s 1-1 draw with AmaZulu on Wednesday.
Last weekend, the South African youth international played a blinder, helping his team neutralise Mamelodi Sundowns’ prolific attacking duo of Gastón Sirino and Themba Zwane in the Tshwane derby. It ended in a goalless stalemate.
Phillips’ strong points include his timely interception of the ball, as well as the ability to initiate transitions from the back.
“I have settled in quickly [in the elite league] because, looking around, there are so many young players who have been given opportunities by the clubs.
“This is the group that I used to play with in the MDC [the reserve league],” pointed out the player from Grassy Park in Cape Town.
Phillips took a step towards the big time when he left the comfort of his family home for trials at Wits six years ago. Before then, he was part of the famed Old Mutual Academy in Pinelands, Cape Town, which nurtured AmaZulu captain Tapelo Xoki and former Orlando Pirates midfielder Mark Mayambela, among other players.
As for his career highlight so far, Phillips recalled the moment he became a hero and a villain in a game against Argentina, which turned out to be his only appearance at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup.
“Scoring a goal on the World Cup stage is a highlight, even though I was red-carded when the referee had initially taken out a yellow card,” he said.
“It’s all part of history and I think we fought hard that day,” he said of Amajita’s 5-2 defeat to Argentina in the opening game.
Phillips had equalised for South Africa in the first half, but he lasted only 65 minutes on the pitch before his sending off for a late tackle.
With his maturity at club level, Phillips has kept SuperSport’s established right backs Siyabonga Nhlapo and Grant Kekana on the bench in the team’s last two games.
The youngster, who swears by the personal motto “win before you play”, is expected to make the starting line-up as coach Kaitano Tembo’s side take on Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila at Thohoyandou Stadium in Limpopo this afternoon. Tembo’s faith in young players is well documented.
Phillip’s emergence on the big football stage has made the environment fertile for national youth team selectors to boost their squads with experience.
His presence and that of other academy graduates has also created a bigger pool of young talent in the elite league.
When the time comes for the nominations for the Premiership young player of the season award, there will be plenty of players to choose from.
This accolade for youngsters was introduced in the 2008/09 campaign. Previous winners include Phillips’ current club mates, midfielder Teboho Mokoena and goalkeeper Ronwen Williams.