Len Phillips - a tribute
The football world and the whole of Portsmouth in particular, today mourn one of its great players with the loss of Len Phillips.
Horace Leonard Phillips was born on 11th September 1922 in Shoreditch East London and he played schools football for Hackney Boys and got his first job aged 14 in a wine distillery. He was called up at the age of eighteen and joined the Royal Marines. On the sixth day of June 1944 he was one of the first ashore the Normandy beaches in the D Day landings.
His football career was late starting due to the war and it was then that Pompey manager Jack Tinn was tipped off about the talents Len possessed. he was signed on the 8th February 1946. He made his Pompey debut v Wolves at Fratton Park, in the War League South, three days after signing.
However he did not make his league debut until 28 December 1946 at Blackburn (Pompey won 1-0) and Len had to wait until 27 March 1948 to score his first goal at Aston Villa in only his eighth appearance. He would score twice more at Fratton Park when Middlesbrough visited three weeks later.
It was at the start of the season 1948/49 that a patient Len became a regular in the side and I will leave it to you to decide whether it is more than a coincidence that Pompey would go on to win the Football League Championship for the first time in their history. Len was to miss just two games that season and would score eleven goals from Inside Forward, wearing his number ten shirt for whish he became famous. That season every time Len scored Pompey won!!
I am often asked by younger fans surely Inside Forward and Midfield are the same thing aren`t they? The question is rather difficult to answer as football has changed so mush over the years with a move from 2-3-5 and the W formation in the forward line to Alf Ramsey`s 4-2-4 and then 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 and finally the Christmas Tree but yes is the answer I suppose but high scoring Inside Forwards were few and far between and Len`s average of one goal in five games stood out. Back in those full back and the half backs rarely or never scored goals unless they took penalties and it was the Centre Forward who banged in the goals.
The League title was won again in 1949/50 and Len again was a regular, playing thirty four league games with this campaign just five goals. Len was of course the schemer in the side and it was left to the other inside forward Duggie Reid to score the goals with his thunderbolt shooting.
The forward line in those two season featured the pace and goal scoring of winger Peter Harris, the guile and experience of Ike Clarke, the versatility of Jack Froggatt and Phillips and Reid. Between them they scored one hundred and forty three league goals in those two seasons proof that the Pompey that ruled the nation were a team not just a few individuals.
Sadly none of them would win many caps for their countries - Reid was never capped by Scotland - and they were really ignored by the nation as stars. On Portsea Island though they were revered as Gods and young boys would chase them everywhere for autographs, such were the days before television.
Len Phillips would himself win just three caps for England; his debut coming on 14 November 1951 when at the age of twenty nine he lined up against Northern Ireland at Villa Park - he had team mate Jimmy Dickinson in the team for company. In the current vogue of numbering players in the order they made their first game, Len was number 712. Len had to wait three more years for his other two caps coming in victories over Wales and West Germany both games being played at Wembley.
Sadly while on England duty in March 1955 Len picked up a serious knee injury in a training game and his career was over. He managed just one more Pompey appearance the following January against Grimsby in the Cup but tore a knee ligament.
Sadly two factors were against Len as he tried to fight his way back to full fitness one was the standards of surgery in those days and the other was his age. As a late starter in the game he was now approaching thirty four and most players were looking to hang up their boots by then.
Len was thus destined to play non league football for Poole Town, Chelmsford City, Bath City and Ramsgate Athletic before returning to work as a lathe operator at De Havilland in the city.
How will he be remembered by Pompey fans? Firstly as another of the one club men but mostly for his fantastic ball control and trickery which in the days of the heavy leather ball, with its laces and all, was some accomplishment. In fact I read one story that described him as a Brazilian style ball-playing schemer who possessed wizard ball control and was capable of destroying defences with a single pass. He played 245 league games for the club and scored 48 goals.
Len and his wife Joan celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary on 14th July this year. Len was inducted into the Pompey Hall of Fame in January 2010 and he was the last surviving member of the regular Championship side.
I have even managed to find you a Len Phillips goal - it came against Doncaster in the FA Cup fifth round in 1952. The clip courtesy of British Pathé news shows just how packed Fratton Park was in those days with over 44,000 present - how Pompey fans loved the Cup in those days and how Len was so proud to get his hands on the trophy in 2008 when the club took it to him..
Watch the clip here Len is wearing number ten and shows flashes of great skill.
All of us at Vital Pompey would like to pass our condolences to Joan and her family many of who live in the City.
Stories of Len Phillips have many times graced the pages of Sunday Toast.
Here are a few Season 3 #24 celebrated his Hall of Fame induction with 'Older fans would say Len was the most skilful player ever to play for the club. An old fashioned inside forward discovered while playing for the Royal Marines.
Season 2#18 told of Len opening a garden at St James hospital 'Andy Tysoe of the Portsmouth Hospitals Trust said: 'I cannot think of anyone better to open our dignity garden, and I'm honoured he agreed to do so in the presence of the FA Cup, former team mates and his loved ones. I don't think it could be any more poignant.
And even as recently as Season 5#5 we marked Len`s Birthday in the usual way.
I will try and pick up more from fans who either knew him or saw him play as they talk to me and will let you have more of an insight into this true Pompey great when I have it.
The Toast flag today flies at half mast!