What is the most integral component in a title-winning team? Is it the much-sought after prolific striker? A goalkeeper with cat-like reflexes? A manager with the experience to fine-tune his tactics to perfection?
Former Brentford defender Mark Phillips would no doubt back the value of a steely central defensive partnership, much like the one he enjoyed with Alan Bennett during the course of the 2008/09 League Two triumph. He appeared 33 times as the Bees claimed their first silverware since they won Division Three 10 years earlier, helping the side to 14 clean sheets in the process.
In the summer of 2008 Mark left boyhood club Millwall after 13 years with the offer of a fresh start mere miles away at Griffin Park. His time at the Den had been marred by a myriad of injuries, which varied in severity, but two anterior cruciate ligament injuries severely hindered his progress and restricted him to just 67 league appearances across his first eight years as a professional.
The sentimentality of his rise through the ranks was clearly tough to ignore, yet with such frustration surrounding his battles on the treatment table, being released by the Lions was a chance to start again, to wipe the slate clean.
“I was a local boy who lived close to Millwall, my dad was a fan of the club,” he explains to BEES. “I started at a local club called Elms in Catford and our manager wouldn’t let us get taken until we were 13 because we were quite successful. Eventually I started training with Millwall down at Southwark Park and just before my last year of secondary school, I was coming out of school and training with the U18s and playing with the U18s at the weekend, though they were a couple of years older than me. I really got the bug that I wanted to make it
“As soon as I got my pro deal, my whole aim was to be in that team. As a youngster you are taken to the ground to watch games with the youth team and, not in an arrogant way, you think, ‘I can do that. I want to be out there and I want to be part of this’. That was my ultimate aim the whole time and fortunately I managed to get my chance when I was 18.Embed from Getty Images
“I had some amazing times during my time at the club: making my debut for the club I supported, facing off with West Ham on multiple occasions, just missing out on the Championship play-offs under Dennis Wise and travelling abroad with the club in the UEFA Cup in 2004/05.
“Therefore, It was a strange feeling leaving Millwall. I was so at home, but there were so many frustrations and downsides of my times there, solely due to the injuries. I was ready for a new challenge because, even though I had a great time, it was a really hard few years, so I really wanted to take the chance with Brentford.
“I’d literally just come back from my second cruciate ligament injury, so that was the main reason I was released after Kenny Jackett had been appointed as the new manager, but my agent knew the chief executive at Brentford and the people at Millwall had passed on good words about me.”
“There were a few other options and I’ve always had a few options in my career, fortunately enough, but I’ve always been quite a homely person and I’ve always wanted to stay local; my whole career I’ve been lucky enough to stay in the same area and never moved houses. All of my clubs have been clubs that I could travel to and that was one of the big pulls with Brentford.”
In the wake of a trial period at the Brentford’s Jersey Road training ground, Mark signed a one-year deal to join Andy Scott’s squad on 14 August 2008. With the club having already added Bristol City academy prospect James Wilson on a three-month loan, the Welshman initially partnered Alan Bennett in the heart of defence; Mark started Johnstone’s Paint Trophy ties with Yeovil and Luton and on 21 October, he made his full league debut in a 3-1 win over Morecambe at Griffin Park.
Wilson’s return to Ashton Gate at the start of November allowed Mark to establish himself, but he explains his lack of game time in the opening weeks of the season was largely due to a prolonged readjustment period.
He says: “If you ask anyone who has had a serious knee injury operated on, it takes time to adjust to things because for 11 months I hadn’t been involved in training – though I was raring to go, I had to get my sharpness back.Embed from Getty Images
“Even though there were times I’d be on the bench at the start of the season, it was a really good changing room. We all looked after ourselves and it was probably one of the best changing rooms I’ve had in my career with a really good set of boys. I think that is a big part of why we achieved so much.”
The Bennett-Phillips combination strengthened from thereon in and its near-impregnability became apparent when goalkeeper Ben Hamer was awarded the League Two Golden Glove award at the end of the season. The Reading loanee had recorded a league-high 20 clean sheets, 12 of which had been kept with the pair in front of him.
“I think me and Benno complemented each other quite well,” he continues. “Both of us were getting to that stage where we could voice our opinions and organise the team, which possibly you don’t have as a youngster. We worked really well with talking and communicating throughout the team, working with a really good goalie in Ben Hamer and it worked really well. Everyone was at the right stage of their careers and their development, because everyone was willing to listen and become organised as a team,
“We used to always joke with Ben because he used to try and take the plaudits for the clean sheets like any goalie does, but it’s a group collective – there were times when he helped us out and other times when we helped Ben out.
“I have to give Andy Scott credit for this because every Thursday – this is something that I’d take forward in my coaching career – we would do phase of play work, which is with your back four, a goalie and there’d be maybe one or two midfielders in there so you would have an overload against you and this was something that we would work on repeatedly on the training pitch and it really worked. At the start of the season it took a bit of time as we were a brand-new team, but we had the desire to not concede goals which you need to be a successful defender and a goalkeeper.
The conversation naturally progresses to the season’s final two games, Darlington away and Luton at home. Two games that shaped the season and, ultimately, the history of Brentford Football Club.Embed from Getty Images
“At Darlington, I’d already won before I walked onto the pitch,” states Mark, confidently. “It was a strange feeling that they were standing between us and winning the league on that day so it was almost that before the game had even kicked off, I knew we were going to win and there was nothing they could do to win that game because every one of us had the same state of mind.
“We scored fairly early and I was just looking forward to being crowned champions. We came out of the traps flying and steamrollered from the off, played a real high tempo game and whenever they got near the ball, we were like a swarm of bees. It was an amazing game and the celebrations afterwards, well, they’ll go down in history!
“And the Luton game really was a day for the fans, friends, families because we’d won the league and wanted to go out on a high and win again. We’d done the job and it was a day to finish off the league for everyone else. Doing it at Darlington was unbelievable, but it wasn’t quite the same as doing it at home in front of our home fans.
“I remember lifting the trophy with all of the fireworks going off. My daughter was walking round the pitch with me and to share the day with those sorts of people was really special. I remember the fans coming up to me wanting pictures, grabbing me, hugging me, you could really see what football meant to the fans. The memories will never go away.”
“I think one of our strengths that year was that we didn’t know how good we were. We would go out there and never worry about who was above us, we were so focused that we would just take every game as it came and we were just never losing. When we needed to pick up a point, we picked up a point, if we needed three, we got three. It was almost like we were the team putting the pressure on the rest of the league without even knowing it.
“We were the ones that held our nerve and had the inner strength to just keep the consistency and, in the end, it told massively because we won with a game to spare.”Embed from Getty Images
Mark retained his spot at the beginning of the following season as Brentford returned to League One and even the return of James Wilson, by this time being deployed as a right-back, failed to dislodge him from the starting lineup. Nonetheless, a combination of injury and behind-the-scenes issues prevented him making an appearance between the 3-0 defeat at Exeter on 31 October 2009 and the 2-1 defeat at Walsall on 20 February 2010, while Alan Bennett soon found himself out-of-favour, too following the breakout of non-league gem Leon Legge and the loan signing of Pim Balkestein from Ipswich.
The title-winning partnership had ceased to exist and Mark admits his final months at the club were tinged with disappointment.
“With my two cruciates, I had to be quite careful with what I did in terms of my training load and particularly training on hard pitches. Unfortunately, through that period, I believe there was some bad weather so we had to train on astroturf just to keep fit and that was a massive no-go for me. I had a battle at the time where I knew I couldn’t train on it but I also knew I wanted to train – I chose to train and it flared up my knee injuries. With knees, when they flare up, it isn’t just something that goes away in a couple of days, it usually takes about 4-6 weeks to calm it down.
“It was disappointing because I had an amazing year the year before, played a good number of games and was probably one of the best players leading up to my injury. Football is a very fickle game, though. One minute you are one of the best players and everyone is talking about giving you a new contract, you get a little knockback, someone comes in, does well and takes your place. That’s football, I’m afraid. It was a shame that I wasn’t kept around but you only look forward as a player, you try not to have any regrets because you want to be successful in whatever challenge is thrown at you.”
When Brentford decided against offering Mark fresh terms at the end of the 2009/10 season, new Southend boss Paul Sturrock wasted no time in declaring his interest in the defender. He signed a pre-contract agreement with the Shrimpers on 31 July 2010 and, following the lifting of their transfer embargo, officially joined the club on 4 August, three days before the start of the League Two season. In the 2011/12 season he was named as the club’s Player of the Year, a campaign in which he scored a remarkable 12 goals and he remained at Roots Hall until 2014.
But four years after leaving TW8 for Southend, Mark was reunited with Andy Scott, this time in Scott’s final managerial post at Conference outfit Aldershot Town.Embed from Getty Images
“I had a fallout with Phil Brown and it didn’t really give me any options but to finish my season on loan at Aldershot, which again was amazing, though I only played for seven games. They were dead-certs to get relegated and they were rock bottom and about six or seven points from safety when I joined. I went in there after feeling like I’d been wronged by Phil Brown because he’d treated me very badly so that really fuelled me to achieve.
“They were a good set of boys but they had just lost their way so Andy and Terry Bullivant brought me in and we managed to stay up on the last day of the season at Woking, their arch-rivals. Even though it shouldn’t be a highlight, it was a highlight because there were such celebrations afterwards.
“My relationship with Andy Scott had slightly changed as I was a bit older then, had a bit more of a voice and was more of a leader in the changing room. I think he brought me in for those qualities because I could get hold of the young boys, give them some positive feedback and it worked; we galvanised as a team. They were all very good players and it wasn’t that Andy had formed a bad team or anything like that, they’d just lost their way a little bit and once you lose your way you can get stuck in a losing habit.”
Mark joined AFC Wimbledon in June 2014 but after just two league starts and another loan spell with the Shots, he dropped out of the professional game the following year in order to explore his post-football options. He still went on to notch up over 80 non-league appearances for Braintree, Ebbsfleet and later Greenwich Borough, where he linked up with a host of ex-professionals including former Bees John Mackie, Gary Alexander and cult hero striker Charlie MacDonald.Embed from Getty Images
This summer, however, he called time on his playing career following a spell with Isthmian Premier Division side Kingstonian, a decision he reached having taken significant steps to make the transition into the next chapter of his career as smooth as possible.
“As you get older and wiser, you know you can’t play in a professional capacity forever,” he says. “I’ve loved my time but my knees are catching up on me and I want to be able to play with my kids in 5-10 years’ time. I also want to pass on my knowledge to the next generation of footballers and I run an academy called 6 Soccer Academy, which is named after my number as a player.
“I’m really passionate about it – we work in schools and have academies round the Bromley and Beckenham area. As a pro you get that inside view because you’ve been there, you’ve done it, you know what it takes. It’s as much about attitude and work rate as it is about skill and the determination that will make you succeed – in any walk of life, really. If I was a child and I knew what I knew now, everyone says it, but I believe I would’ve reached the top. I may have not made the Premiership, which was my aim, but I really want to pass that on to children that may have that chance.”
He adds: “Unless you’ve played at the highest level or a really good level like the Championship, earning really good money, in so many ways the adjustment after you retire is really tough. Players need to be making those plans for what they might want to do after football and start it earlier rather than later, because when you start doing things out of necessity, it makes things a lot more difficult than when you are planning in advance and giving yourself a structured plan.”
Originally featured in BEES Issue #8 v Millwall (3 November 2018)