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John Phillips 1951-2017

Chelsea Football Club is greatly saddened by the passing of our former goalkeeper John Phillips at the age of 65...

Chelsea Football Club is greatly saddened by the passing of our former goalkeeper John Phillips at the age of 65 following a long illness.

We send our deepest condolences to John’s family and friends at this difficult time.  

Phillips was one of the club’s goalkeepers for almost the entire 1970s and although for much of that time he was behind the great Peter Bonetti when it came to team selection, there was a period when he was the clear number one choice and in total he played 149 games for the Blues, including on some big nights in the victorious European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign of 1970/71.

Born in Shrewsbury, Phillips bucked his family trend slightly by developing into a goalkeeper with his hometown club rather than an outfield player, as had been the case for his father and grandfather.

One of his managers at Shrewsbury Town was Harry Gregg, who had been a formidable goalkeeper for Matt Busby’s Manchester United and for Northern Ireland, and Gregg’s input and faith in the teenage prospect was important. Phillips made his first team debut at 17 and would probably have played for England Youth but for an administrative hitch. Instead he remained eligible for Wales for whom he would later be capped at senior level.

He left Shrewsbury to sign for former Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty and Aston Villa in 1969 but the Doc was soon sacked and in August 1971, Chelsea came calling. Tommy Hughes, the reserve goalkeeper to Peter Bonetti at the time had broken his leg and Phillips was signed for £25,000 as a replacement.

‘My goal, if you excuse the pun, had always been to play for a First Division side and here was a chance at least,’ said Phillips of his new challenge.

Chelsea had just won the FA Cup and Bonetti was truly established as no.1, but in the October he was injured, handing Phillips his debut away at Blackpool. It initially seemed a nightmare start with Dave Sexton’s side 3-0 down at half-time but incredibly, they recovered to win 4-3. It was the first of 18 games the young goalkeeper played that maiden season at the club and included the most high-profile matches of his career – in the quarter-final and the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup when Bonetti was ruled out with pneumonia.

Phillips kept a clean sheet in three of those four legs, at home to Bruges and both home and away in the all-English semi versus Manchester City. 

For the final against Real Madrid in Greece, Bonetti was back and selected, a major disappointment for Phillips who had a transfer request turned down. Instead he would go on to serve the Blues for the rest of the decade.

He gained the nickname ‘Sticks’, coined affectionately from a comment by team-mate John Hollins who referred to the young keeper’s ever-present gloves as his sticks.

Phillips was limited to eight appearances in his second season at Stamford Bridge although one of those was a League Cup semi-final first leg at home to Tottenham, but the following year he enjoyed another lengthy run in middle of the campaign.

Then came a major upturn in Phillips’ career. At the end of the 1972/73 season, the 21-yar-old was capped for the first of four times by Wales, at Wembley against England in the old Home International Championship. It was not the first time he had reason to remember Wembley. He had been a ball boy when England beat Portugal in the semi-final of the 1966 World Cup. 

Then in the latter part of 1973 the divide between manager Sexton and several of his star players was widening and he made changes for a New Year’s Day game at Sheffield United. The reshaped team won and Phillips began his run as first-choice goalie. In the next game, the third round of the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge, he made one the highlight saves of his career, keeping out a penalty from QPR’s Gerry Francis in a 0-0 draw, although he rated one in open play at Newcastle the previous year from Malcolm Macdonald as even better. 

‘For the first time I am playing for Chelsea on merit,’ he said. ‘Previously, I was in only when Peter Bonetti was injured and the difference is enormous.’

Phillips retained his first-choice status for the 1974/75 season although it ended in relegation for what was by then a financially stricken club that had moved star names on and changed manager twice. One high point was an overdue win over Arsenal, on Boxing Day at Highbury where Phillips touched a shot onto the post in the dying seconds.

Eddie McCreadie, elevated from team-mate to the man in charge, began the first season down in Division Two with the third keeper at the club, Steve Sherwood, chosen in goal before restoring Bonetti, and Phillips remained his understudy for the rest of Bonetti’s time at Chelsea, although he did play 11 league games in the promotion season of 1976/77.

In March 1979, Yugoslavia international Petar Borota was signed as Bonetti’s replacement and a year later, having spent some time on loan at Crewe, Phillips was sold to Brighton for £15,000. He later played for Charlton and Crystal Palace.  

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