What’s 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 2008/09 League Two triumph.
He appeared 33 times as The Bees claimed their first silverware since they won Division Three ten years earlier, helping the side to 14 clean sheets in the process.
A FRESH START
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.
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. “Having started at a club called Elms in Catford, I eventually began training with Millwall down at Southwark Park. Just before my last year of secondary school, I was playing with the Under-18s at the weekend, though they were a couple of years older than me. I really got the bug.
“As soon as I got my pro deal, my aim was to be in the team. That was my ultimate ambition the whole time and fortunately I was given a chance at 18. I had some amazing times at Millwall; 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 for the UEFA Cup in 2004/05.
“It was a strange feeling leaving the club. I was so at home, but there were so many frustrations and downsides of my time 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; I 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.”
In action for Millwall
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
In the wake of a trial period at Brentford’s Jersey Road training ground, Mark signed a one-year deal to join Andy Scott’s squad on 14 August 2008.
He endured a slow start to his Bees career. With the Club having already added Bristol City academy prospect James Wilson on a three-month loan, it was the Welshman who initially partnered Alan Bennett in the heart of defence.
Mark started Johnstone’s Paint Trophy ties with Yeovil Town and Luton Town, but had to wait until 21 October to make his full league debut in a 3-1 win over Morecambe at Griffin Park.
Wilson returned to Ashton Gate at the start of November, allowing 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, 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.
“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.”
AN IMPREGNABLE PARTNERSHIP
The Bennett-Phillips combination went from strength to strength 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.
“Benno and I complemented each other quite well,” he continues. “Both of us were getting to the stage where we could voice our opinions and organise the team, which possibly you’re not able to do as a youngster. Because everyone was willing to listen, we became an organised as a team.
“We used to always joke with Ben because he’d try and take the plaudits for the clean sheets like any goalie does, but it’s down to the 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 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. You would have an overload against you and this was something that we would work on repeatedly on the training pitch. At the start of the season it took a bit of time as we were a new team, but we had the desire to not concede goals, which you need to be a successful defender and a goalkeeper.”
“I’D ALREADY WON BEFORE I WALKED ON TO THE PITCH”
The conversation naturally progresses to the final two games of the campaign: Darlington away and Luton at home. These were two fixtures that shaped the season and, ultimately, the history of Brentford Football Club.
“At Darlington, I’d already won before I walked on to the pitch,” states Mark. “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 about it because every one of us shared 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 them from the off, played a 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!
“The Luton game was a day for the fans, friends and families because we’d won the league and wanted to go out on a high. We’d completed 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 Griffin Park in front of our home fans.
“I remember lifting the trophy with the fireworks going off. My daughter was walking around the pitch with me – to share the day with family was really special. I remember the fans coming up to me wanting pictures, grabbing me and hugging me; you could really see how much it meant to them. The memories of that day will always stay with me.”
“I think one of our strengths that year was that we didn’t know how good we were. We didn’t worry about who was above us, we were so focused and took every game as it came. 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 who held our nerve and had the inner strength to maintain consistency; in the end, it told massively because we won with a game to spare.”
A FICKLE GAME
Mark retained his spot at the beginning of the following season. Even the return of James Wilson, who by this time was being deployed as a right-back, failed to dislodge him from the starting line-up.
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. Alan Bennett soon found himself out of favour, too, following the emergence of Non-League gem Leon Legge and the loan signing of Pim Balkestein from Ipswich Town.
The title-winning partnership 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. Unfortunately, during that period, there was some bad weather so we had to train on AstroTurf and that was a massive no-go for me. I chose to train and it flared up my knee injuries. With knees, when they flare up, it isn’t something that goes away in a couple of days, it usually takes around four to six weeks to calm it down.
“It was disappointing because I had an amazing season the year before - I 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; one minute I was one of the best players and there was talk of a new contract, and the next someone had come in and taken my place. That’s football, I’m afraid. It was a shame that I wasn’t kept around but you can only look forward as a player - you try not to have any regrets.”
Challenging for a header against Norwich City
A DAY TO REMEMBER
When Brentford decided against offering Mark fresh terms at the end of the 2009/10 season, recently-appointed Southend United boss Paul Sturrock wasted no time in declaring his interest in the defender.
Mark signed a pre-contract agreement with The Shrimpers on 31 July 2010 and, with their transfer embargo lifted, he 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 Southend’s Player of the Year, a campaign in which he scored a remarkable 12 goals. He remained at Roots Hall until 2014.
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.
“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 - 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.
“They were a good set of boys who had 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 day to remember because of the celebrations afterwards.
“My relationship with Andy Scott had changed slightly as I was more of a leader in the changing room. I think he brought me in for those qualities; I could get hold of the young boys and give them some positive feedback. 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 and once you lose your way you can get stuck in a losing habit.”
Mixed emotions. Playing against The Bees in January 2013
OLDER AND WISER
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 to explore his post-football options.
He still went on to notch over 80 Non-League appearances for Braintree Town, Ebbsfleet United and later Greenwich Borough, where he linked up with a host of ex-professionals including former Bees John Mackie, Gary Alexander and Charlie MacDonald.
This summer, however, he called time on his playing career following a spell with Isthmian Premier Division side Kingstonian.
“As you get older and wiser, you realise you can’t play in a professional capacity forever,” he says. “I’ve loved my time playing, but my knees are catching up with me and I want to be able to play with my kids in a few years’ time. I also want to pass on my knowledge to the next generation of footballers; 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 in the Bromley and Beckenham area. As a former pro you can offer insight because you’ve been there, you’ve done it and you know what it takes. It’s as much about attitude and work rate as it is about skill; determination can lead to success in any walk of life. If I was a child and I knew what I knew now, I believe I would’ve reached the top. I may not have made it to the Premier League, which was my aim, but I really want to pass on my knowledge to children so that they may have a chance.”
He adds: “Unless you’ve played at the highest level or a really good level like the Championship, earning good money, in so many ways the adjustment after retirement is really tough. Players need to make those plans 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.”