RECKLESS REMINISES WITH GARY PHILLIPS
Reproduced by kind permission of Barnet FC .
Legends of Underhill? A subject that is always open to discussion and opinions, but there are some players who just are.
I met up with Gary at the BFC training facility in St Albans and we spent a very pleasant half-hour chatting about his career and Barnet Football Club.
Gary was born in St Albans in September 1961 and as a boy Peter Osgood and everything Chelsea were his passions. However Pat Jennings will always be his inspiration. He recalled, "At the age of five or six I remember my dad as a Policeman at Vicarage Road pointing Jennings out as a future 'great'".
Up until the age of 13 Gary wanted to be a centre forward but was thrust between the sticks in a school game and as he put it "I felt at home".
Very soon after this event he had trials and then represented South East Schools and was spotted by Watford FC but hardly got past the 'training in the car park stage'. In 1976 scouts at Southampton picked him out and he signed schoolboy terms staying for two years. "Being a goalkeeper in those days was not seen as the glamorous position but things have changed and more and more kids now want to do it. Unfortunately it seems you have to be about six foot five to qualify" he laughed.
I mentioned that his childhood hero would have been at The Dell at the time, "Thats right, Southampton beat Man Utd in the FA Cup final that year and there I was mingling with Osgood, Laurie McMenemy, Bobby Stokes, Peter Rodrigues and Mick Channon". Things didnt work out at Saints and Gary started turning out for Chalfont St Peter in non league until early in 1978 when he signed on a non contract basis for Brighton & Hove Albion staying for eight months.
"Then I signed a two year deal at West Bromwich Albion on my 17th birthday. That was so exciting, they were a stunning side in those days containing the 3 Degrees!" he laughed. He was not referring to the three girl Philadelphia soul group but the fond name given by Baggies fans to prominent black players Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson. "I was living in digs near Dudley and my neighbour used to take me to training and his name was Brian Robson". I asked him if that was where he got the permed hair from? "We all had them in those days it was part of the scene and believe it or not my hair is naturally curly" he replied. "I have a team picture, in my toilet at home - dont ask why - and they are all there, Laurie, Brendon, Cyrille, Peter Barnes, Derek Statham, Robbo, all legends at that time."
Gary unfortunately never made the first team at the Hawthorns and was poached by Barry Fry in the New Year 1981 for his rebuilding plans at Barnet. The fee at the time was colossal in non league terms, allegedly in the region of £12,500. "I played in a friendly at Barnet for West Brom, Baz and Ron Atkinson were close pals and they obviously did the deal". It was to turn out to be a canny investment for the Bees and ultimately one of the bargains of the decade.
For a big man, and by now he had attained the frankly harsh nickname of Sumo, Garys agility was exceptional and he was soon hero-worshipped at Underhill in what was a team that certainly under achieved. Week in week out Phillips was the star. "Early in my Barnet career we played against one of my old clubs 1st Division Brighton in the FA Cup, I knew a lot of the players especially Gary Stephens who I grew up with in the youth team". The game, played on a mud heap of a pitch at Underhill in January 1982 was shown on Match of the Day. Gary put in a superb performance as usual and the lads held on for 0-0. The replay at The Goldstone was a proud night. "We went down 3-1 in front of over 15,000, but it was superb".
The club actually made a great deal of extra money out of the tie as full back Graham Pearce was transferred to the Seagulls for some £30,000. He laughed, "At one point I was going to be part of that deal Baz told me - yeah ok, typical Fry! Although we always seemed to struggle in the League I was lucky to play with some seriously good players - Edwin Stein, Colin Barnes, Russell Townsend and of course Nicky Evans". Such was his ability; Gary was voted Player of the Year in 1982 and 1984.
The early 1980's was a time of backroom troubles at the club and the disharmony was illustrated after the 4-0 defeat at Carshalton in the FA Cup as Gary and 5 other players were transfer listed. Shortly afterwards Gary was sold to Brentford for £5,000 in 1984 and played over 140 games for the fake Bees. "I was really happy there and was fortunate to play in the Associate Members Cup Final at Wembley when we lost 1-3 to Wigan".
After a short spell at Reading, where he made over 30 appearances he rejoined Barnet in 1988 on crisis loan as cover for Steve Humphries who had broken his leg and an injured Andy Lomas - he received a warm welcome from the Underhill faithful. A fairly uneventful time at Edgar Street Hereford was to follow but you cant take the Barnet of the boy and he rejoined Barnet on a permanent basis in December 1989. "I had been keeping an eye on the club and things had certainly improved and it was more of a professional set up. It seemed every week another top quality player would show up at training".
In 1990/1 the Bees finally won promotion to the Football League and Gary had played in every league game. "I was lucky with major injuries but you know Barry, I played even if I was injured he would make me, because it was either me or Mark Flashman" he joked.
After promotion to Division 2 in that infamous summer of 1993 and yet another Phillips Player of the Year award, the club was in financial and administrative turmoil. The FA offered free transfers the players while Fry had left for Southend Utd and the notorious Chairman Stan Flashman had gone too. Ricky George stepped in as the new Chairman and asked Sumo to become player-manager. He summoned up strength and resolve to assemble a squad just in time for the start of the season.
"It wasnt just me, there were others who were magnificent but we scraped together a fantastic bunch of players, a mixture of old timers and kids and although we finished bottom of the league and didnt win a game until just before Christmas those lads gave 100% all the time, because basically thats all we had. We played some great football, had some fun and made a lot of friends."
I asked about the FA Cup tie at Chelsea, "That was an amazing event but it was a topsy turvy one for me because immediately after the tie Ray Clemence came in as Manager". Gary probably saved his greatest performance in a Bees shirt to last as he starred in the Bees 1-0 victory over Manchester City at Underhill in September 1994. Dougie Freedman scored in the first minute but Gary made save after save from the likes of Quinn, Walsh, Summerbee, Beagrie, Lomas and McMahon.
Moving on again, Gary put his brief managerial experience to great use as a player manager at Aylesbury. A spell at Aldershot followed then a return to Aylesbury where he finished his playing career. "I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Aldershot and Aylesbury but I think I stopped playing just a year or two too early. I moved on to Stevenage as assistant to Wayne Turner but things didnt work out there unfortunately."
Last season Gary "came home" and was back again at Barnet looking after a very talented reserve set up at the club. "Last year Paul Fairclough rang to ask me to come in a couple of days a week to help with the goalkeepers and it moved on from there. I was grateful for that and thoroughly enjoyed it still. There is part of me that will never leave Barnet although I ache to be a manager again and back in football on a full time basis and I make no secret of it".
A coaching job opportunity arose recently in Abu Dhabi but unfortunately fell through so Gary has decided to concentrate on his Level 2 Coaching badge whilst continuing his involvement with Protec/Barnet Youth. He will also be carrying out a few scouting missions for Paul Fairclough if the need arises "This is not a severing of connections at all and I will help out if he needs me" said Gary. Well he would wouldnt he because Gary has amber blood in his viens.
Finally I asked him about his home life. " I am happy because I can't be any other way, I still live in St Albans "just around the corner", I have three daughters and of course the wife who support me through thick and thin and they all hate football which is just fine by me."
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