Phil Bill: Volume II - How the Cherries leading man found his new role

For the teams relegated from the Premier League last season, the second half of 2020/21 Sky Bet Championship campaign was decisive in different ways. A club record nine-match winning streak saw Norwic

Phil Bill: Volume II - How the Cherries leading man found his new role

For the teams relegated from the Premier League last season, the second half of 2020/21 Sky Bet Championship campaign was decisive in different ways.

A club record nine-match winning streak saw Norwich assert their dominance at the top of the league on the way to an inevitable title win, while for Watford, an indifferent start under Vladimir Ivic preceded a ruthless assault on the automatic promotion places led by Xisco Munoz.

For Bournemouth, ultimately, it was about cementing a play-off spot that had, for so long, looked a formality.

Billing has scored eight goals so far this term - a career best
Image: Billing has scored eight goals so far this term - a career best

Crucial to the fact they are still in with a chance of returning to the top flight at the first time of asking has been the reinvention of Philip Billing.

Over the past three seasons, the Dane made 77 appearances for Huddersfield and the Cherries in the Premier League, playing in central or defensive midfield roles. At the behest of Jonathan Woodgate, however, the last few months have seen him play as a No 10 - and in that advanced role, he has thrived.

"Since the new gaffer came in, I have just really enjoyed my football and for me, when I do that, that's when I play my best," he said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports. "That is basically what he has made me do; just enjoy my football, enjoy playing in that role and I think people can see that on the pitch now.

"I have pretty much played my whole career as a centre-mid when I have known in the back of my head I could play further forward, which I did when I was a youth player back in Denmark. People just thought I had the attributes to be a midfielder, but I always thought I could share more further up the pitch.

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"I have been scoring some goals and getting some assists, but if I can contribute to the team winning then that's the most important thing because we want to get promotion. Whatever I have to do to contribute, I will do that."

Billing - who made his senior Denmark debut in a 4-0 win over the Faroe Islands in October - believes honing his skills in another area of the pitch has been directly beneficial to his success going forward.

"I wouldn't say I am making up for lost time because I have spent years in the Premier League and learned so much," the 24-year-old added.

"I have had to learn the defensive side of the game, which comes to me naturally now, so now I'm playing as a 10, I feel like I'm more box-to-box in that role.

"I know I have to do the defensive part, but I'm going forward as well. That has definitely helped me become that all-round player, playing in midfield over a lot of years."

It is often the case that a player and club's upturn in form goes hand-in-hand, which is exactly what happened at the Vitality Stadium throughout March and April.

The 24-year-old credits his years in central midfield for making him a more rounded player today
Image: The 24-year-old credits his years in central midfield for making him a more rounded player today

Woodgate took over shortly after Jason Tindall was sacked on February 3, following a run of four straight defeats, and won exactly half of his first 10 league games in charge prior to the March international break. This was not enough to prevent the Cherries slipping out of the top six with just nine games left to play.

But they returned to action with a vengeance, winning the next six games in succession, during which time they thumped four past Coventry and Millwall, as well as souring Norwich's promotion celebrations with a 3-1 triumph at Carrow Road.

Billing added an impressive four goals and two assists, which was particularly impressive given the fact he had never scored more than three in a single season beforehand.

"We have a lot of confidence in ourselves," he said. "Most players who were here before we came down have played in the Championship, so we know what it is all about. In the middle of the season, we hit a bad run of form but that happens.

Image: The Dane won the Sky Bet Championship Goal of the Month award in March

"It's the Championship and that's why people love watching it, because pretty much any team can beat anyone. Not only that, there are literally so many games. We knew we weren't going to win every game so we were going to have some drops in form.

"Since the new manager has come in with his identity, us players know what he wants. It's easier. He lets you play freely, makes sure you do the dirty side of the game and I think people can see we play as a team now, both with and without the ball. When you do the dirty side of the game, you get the rewards."

Having climbed back into the top six at Reading's expense, the play-offs now lie ahead for the Cherries, who reached the League One semi-finals back in 2011.

This is not Billing's first play-off campaign either; he was part of David Wagner's Huddersfield side who were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history after a play-off final penalty shootout win over Reading in May 2017.

Though he played no part in any of the three games, due to an ill-timed injury, he retains fond memories.

"I really enjoyed it. I wasn't involved as I had done my MCL literally just before the play-offs started, but I remember the energy and how I just enjoyed being around the team.

He was part of the Huddersfield side who were promoted to the Premier League in 2017, though injury forced him out of the play-offs
Image: He was part of the Huddersfield side who were promoted to the Premier League in 2017, though injury forced him out of the play-offs

"You could feel how big the games were and, as a player, that's what you want. You want big games as they are the chance to show everyone what you can do."

The fact the Terriers reached the top flight after three defeats in their final five games of the regular season and without scoring or winning a game in 90 minutes in the play-offs (a Tom Lees own goal took their semi-final second leg against Sheffield Wednesday to extra-time) proved to be a prime example that form must be taken with a pinch of salt at this stage.

That should provide some solace for the Cherries, who ended the campaign with three defeats that followed that all-important seven-game winning streak. A quietly confident Billing is under no illusions.

"I think a good run helps you but I don't think it matters too much as the play-offs are different. It's still a game of football but the energy around the games is very different.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Bournemouth and Stoke

"A team that has had a bad run going into the play-offs will still know there's a chance to reach the Premier League if they just win their next games. All the teams are going to be up for it, I'm sure, so that's why it's going to exciting to see.

"Going into the season, the goal was to get promotion. If you look at our squad, it's very talented and probably still a Premier League squad. With that comes pressure and people expect you to win, so when we hit a bit of bad form, you could feel that.

"We have picked it up now and going into the play-offs, I'm so confident that we can go all the way, without being too confident, but looking at how we have been playing and how I know we can play. I feel like, when we play like that, we are the best team in the Championship."

Should Billing and Bournemouth hit top form over the next eight days, they will be on the cusp of an immediate Premier League return.