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History Boys: Phil Holder

Manager Phil Holder shares his memories of our 1991/92 Third Division title-winning campaign - stories that have been left untold for the best part of three decades

10 June 2022

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Phil Holder never wanted to be a manager.

After a professional playing career, which took him from Tottenham to Crystal Palace, Memphis Rogues and Bournemouth, was cut short by injury, coaching was the most obvious and natural progression.

In 1987, his great friend and former Spurs team-mate Steve Perryman became Player-Manager at Brentford and the pair set about undertaking a project to break the Club out of the lower reaches of English football.

The first three seasons brought 12th, seventh and 13th-place finishes, but before they could launch another attempt at promotion from the Third Division, ten days before the start of the 1990/91 campaign, Steve resigned.

“He had no room to spare with regards to getting players in, things were extremely tight,” says Phil, speaking a few days before his 70th birthday in January. “He was in a position where he could afford to pack it in.

“In fairness to him, he had gathered together a squad that was as good as he could possibly have done, and he left me with a decent group who gave me a good chance. It's something that happens quite often when they hand the job to a number two, that things normally start off okay, which was the case with me.

“I never really wanted to be a manager, but I was so blessed with the people I learned from. I had eight years plus at Spurs under one of the great managers, Bill Nicholson. He was an absolute legend in the same league as someone like Bill Shankly.

“At Palace, I was under two of the greatest coaches England has ever seen in Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables and when I went down to Bournemouth, there was a dear old chap called Alec Stock who had been Queens Park Rangers manager, so I had a great grounding.” 

Having worked extensively with the squad already, it was not as though he had been thrown in at the deep end, though there was undoubtedly a shift in authority as he assumed the duties that came with his new role. Regardless, in his first season, Phil took Brentford to the Play-Off Semi-Finals.

In the summer of 1991, there was just one incoming and one outgoing, as Jason Cousins left for Wycombe and Billy Manuel arrived from Gillingham. Given the relative success of the season prior, Phil was clearly content with the squad at his disposal.

“It was always considered that we were a direct team,” he adds. “We weren't direct. We played 4-4-2, with four in midfield, four at the back and two up front. We had two flying wingers who we got the ball to as much as we could, in Neil Smillie and Marcus Gayle, two very industrious and organised midfield players in the likes of Simon Ratcliffe and Billy Manuel, and we had two front men who knew their jobs and were great goalscorers in Gary Blissett and Dean Holdsworth. They all blended and I would go to war with any of those guys again, no danger.

"I would go to war with any of those guys again, no danger"

“I haven't even mentioned defensive players like Terry Evans and Keith Millen. I consider myself as having come up with a masterplan for Terry. He was always a bit unlucky with his injuries and I just thought, if I gave him the captaincy, it would give him a massive responsibility – and did he grow and respond to that?! It was a master move, as far as I was concerned, and he led by example. We just went about our jobs in being very attacking and very aggressive in the way we played.

“I'm not too sure it goes on in today's game but we had leaders in the dressing room and if they saw someone wasn’t pulling their weight they'd likely be on them, which made my job easy.”

Holder’s men scored 81 goals throughout the 1991/92 campaign – the Club’s highest league tally in a decade – with 41 of those scored by either Blissett or Holdsworth. So, what was it like to work with such deadly frontmen?

“They were two different types of players. Deano was a real natural goalscorer who would get all of those scrappy goals. But did he know where the goal was?! Right foot, left foot, on his head - everything. Bliss was a bit more cultured. We got him from Crewe and he always had a bit of style about him. He was superior in the air and there weren’t too many centre-halves who got the better of him. The pair of them always knew where each other were. We worked on it, of course we did, and the more they worked together, the better they got at it.

“But training wasn't easy. We had some awful venues for training grounds and some of them were just full of mud. You'd be out there in extreme conditions and to get players’ concentration and attention, you had to work like mad because it was really extreme in the winter.”

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Reaching top spot brought inevitable pressure, particularly when his side struggled for form from Boxing Day onwards and lost ten of the 19 games that followed.

“There’s so much pressure on being a manager, no matter where you are,” Phil says.

“Can you imagine what it was like at Brentford? They hadn’t had a taste of that for donkey’s years down at Griffin Park so, having hit the front, all the supporters wanted it to keep going – and rightly so.

“Of course, it's one game at a time, but that sort of record creeps up on you. I think we were very unfortunate in a few of those games; someone scored in about the 98th minute against us in one.

“I can remember speaking to a mate of mine at the golf club and another friend who was a bookmaker - my mate asked what price Brentford were to win their last six games! We were going through a rocky spell; we had been to Reading, were very lucky to draw 0-0 and I was getting a bit stick off of our supporters. I told him he must be mad!

“But again, because of the characters in the team and their attitude, we managed to get our act together and do the business, which made it even nicer. It wasn’t a surprise because it was always in the locker. That was one of the great feelings.”

It goes without saying that the two games Phil remembers most – other than the opening-day 4-3 win over Leyton Orient, which “set the tone for the season” – are the final two.

One of the real standout moments for me is the way we smashed Fulham. It was full house and I think Fulham took up the whole of the New Road stand. The atmosphere was electric. I got it into the boys to just get out there and blitz them, right from the word go. No holding back; don't hesitate or anything like that. Well, did we start off right?! It was an incredible game and that set us up.

"One of the real standout moments for me is the way we smashed Fulham. The atmosphere was electric"

“As for the Peterborough game, we were never going to lose that. It was a day never to be forgotten, as far as I'm concerned.

“I had 100 per cent faith in them doing the business and they responded to it. It wasn't the best of games, in fairness. Once we got the goal, we were looking to protect that and it wasn't one of our free-flowing games among the six at the end, that's for sure. There were definitely nerves, but with all the good, solid pros in the squad, we cracked it. What a fantastic feeling and a fantastic feeling for all the supporters because they had been starved of any success for so many years.

We won’t go on to next season, but we had that in front of us at that point and it was almost like ‘it’s game on now’. The minute you have a bit of success, you’ve got to climb another ladder.”

Despite spending the majority of the season above the First Division drop zone in 1992/93, Brentford lost three of their last four games and were relegated by just a point after a single season back in the second tier. Phil was sacked as a result, but soon found there was no time to dwell upon it.

I had a very strange thing happen to me; I had possibly the shortest job ever! I knew I was going to get the sack at Brentford as I was reliably informed before it happened. Steve was at Watford as a manager doing okay, and his assistant was Peter Taylor, who was then approached by Chelsea’s Glenn Hoddle to go and be his assistant. 

“He did, then I got the sack and Steve told me not to worry and that I could come and be his assistant. This was at the end of the season, but he said we would give it a little while before roping me in, so it didn’t look like I was going straight into a job. But then, when I was on holiday, Steve rang me and told me Ossie Ardiles had rung him and wanted him to go and be his number two at Tottenham.

“Steve is the most professional guy on this Earth and he said he didn’t know what he was going to do. He would be going back home for a start if he went back to Tottenham - after being there for 18 years and having the most incredible record – or did he stay at Watford as a number one? He had to give the chairman of Watford a decision as to whether he was leaving or not.

“In the meantime, Watford had got on the phone to me and asked me to come in and sign. So I went to Watford on the Thursday, walked about the place for about an hour-and-a-half, two hours, had a look at the dressing rooms, which were all being painted, and then wound up signing a one-year rolling contract and they were doing that with a view to hoping that Steve would stay on, because they desperately wanted him to stay.

“On the Monday, Steve told me he was going to Tottenham - Watford sacked me straight away! But I had a year’s contract behind me, which they had to pay, so that was probably my best payday! I missed out on joining him there, but we ended up joining up with each other in Japan and we had a great time there. I did go to Reading for about 18 months, which was a bit nightmarish. But wherever Steve went, I went and we’re still following each other around now!”

Life after football took Phil into the flower industry and he later spent some time working as a driver. But he will be remembered in Brentford circles for three of the most dramatic seasons and restoring long-forgotten hope in West London.

“I shouldn't think there's anybody around living or dead that had a record like me!” he says.

“I had three years as manager; the first year we got to the Play-Offs, second year we won the Third Division championship, which had not been done for 40 years or so, and the third year we got relegated - talk about three different years!

“But winning that title is one of the best memories of my career.

“I loved the thought of signing for Spurs, loved the thought of playing in the First Team against my idols and beating Man United 2-0 with George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. I played in the 1974 UEFA Cup Final for them and then went on and had great success with Palace as a player.

“The Brentford promotion tops it all, though. It wasn't just for me, it was for my family and for all the people that were involved. It was just magical.”

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