Phil Gilchrist

Former Player Remembers: Phil Gilchrist

Last month, centre-back Phil Gilchrist, who was signed for Leicester City by Martin O’Neill and who also played under Peter Taylor, spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his 21 years in football.
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This included spells at eight different clubs as a player and a time managing in the Conference. He is now Senior Housemaster and Co-Curricular Coordinator at Ratcliffe College.

Sitting in his lounge at home, Phil, who was born in Stockton-on-Tees, explained how his career in football began at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

“Initially, I wasn’t selected for their Academy,” he began. “Later, the manager of a local team took me back there for a game against their trialists and they offered me schoolboy forms, although my mother was adamant that I had to get my GCSE results first!

“John Perkins, my youth team coach, was a massive influence. I didn’t have a lot to do with Cloughie. Depending on what mood he was in, I would keep out of his way! He was good to the young lads. He called everyone by where they were from, so he used to call me ‘Middlesbrough'. He’d been born there. When we played in the 1991 FA Cup Final, Cloughie took me and another lad who’d done well in the youth team that season with the squad. We stayed in the hotel, walked out on the pitch and met Princess Diana in the line-up. We lost but it was an amazing day.”

In January 1992, Phil joined Middlesbrough: “With players like Des Walker and Stuart Pearce, I was never going to break into the Forest first team.

When we played in the 1991 FA Cup Final, Cloughie took me and another lad who’d done well in the youth team that season with the squad. We stayed in the hotel, walked out on the pitch and met Princess Diana in the line-up. We lost but it was an amazing day.

Phil Gilchrist

“So I went to Middlesbrough. While playing in the reserves, Hartlepool spotted me and I signed because I wanted first team football. My Hartlepool debut was against Stoke City and that was the start for me. Playing league football aged 19 was invaluable. We’d had some difficult times at Hartlepool, when we didn’t get paid for a bit, but it was a good footballing experience. We trained under a power station. When it rained you’d hear the buzzing off the power lines. It was another world!

“I played there for three and a bit years, then Oxford came in for me. Their chairman paid a hundred grand for me himself. It was a step up and I played alongside Matt Elliott. We ended up living in the same road. Dennis Smith was the manager. He was a hard man. He told me he had played with a broken leg once! It was a good set up. The Manor Ground was a quirky old place although the pitch was magnificent. The groundsman never let us on it until it was matchday. It was great there. I’d just got married and there was a nice atmosphere of young couples, some with children.

“Matt Elliott was their best player. I made my debut with him and played with him all the way through until he went to Leicester two-and-a-half-years before I went there. The rumour was that Leicester tried to sign us both but Oxford wouldn’t let us both go. I never found this out until later on. Matty taught me a lot. In my last season I was Player of the Year at Oxford. I was never the most gifted technically, but I would give everything I had to win. Nobody can stop you running. Nobody can stop you trying. We got promoted at Oxford and had good runs in the cup. We nearly beat Chelsea. We were 1-0 up with seconds to go until [Gianluca] Vialli got a penalty. We lost the replay 4-1 at Stamford Bridge, although I scored.”

In August 1999, Phil moved to Premier League side Leicester City for a fee of £500,000. It was at the height of O'Neill's success at the Football Club.

“Leicester were looking for a centre-half,” Phil continued. “Steve Walsh was injured. I think Martin was looking at the Newcastle centre-half, Nikos Dabizas, as well. Oxford wouldn’t let me go until they had found a replacement.

“Luckily Leicester didn’t sign Dabizas. I got a phone call from my agent to say that a fee had been agreed and that O’Neill was turning up at our house. He pulled up on the drive. I opened the door and without saying a word he walked straight past me into the lounge and sat down! He said he wanted me to sign, said what I was to be offered and told me to get back to him after I’d spoken with my wife. I was always going to sign! This all happened just after the season had started.

“Moving to Leicester was a big step up for me. O’Neill is a very clever man and one of the best managers I worked under. You were wary of him but you always wanted to please him. There were definitely similarities with Cloughie. He wasn’t always at training but would come in towards the end. I remember the first training session I had. He put me up one-on-one against Emile [Heskey]. That was a welcome to Leicester!

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Phil Gilchrist
Phil Gilchrist

Phil celebrates scoring at Anfield in a 2-0 win for Leicester.

“We had some good players at Leicester,” Phil continued. “The team spirit and the camaraderie with the staff was unreal. The gap between the Premier League and the lower leagues is huge. The Premier League is probably 75 miles an hour most of the time but then it suddenly becomes 300 miles an hour. The build-up is not as frantic as in the lower leagues. The hardest opponent for me at Leicester was Thierry Henry. If you let him have the ball deep, he’d get it turn and score. If you went tight to him, he’d have the ball over the top. He was never the strongest but he didn’t need to be as he was that quick. I played against Gianfranco Zola at Leicester. One minute he was here, the next minute he’d have the ball behind you and score. You didn’t know how he’d done it!”

Phil then went on to describe his only goal for Leicester City, which was at Anfield in April 2000.

“I’ve got Robbie Fowler’s shirt from that game,” he said. “We won 2-0. TC (Tony Cottee) and I scored in front of the Kop. Anfield was the only ground TC hadn’t scored on. A corner came over and the ball hit my nose and went in! The funny thing was Emile (who had transferred to Liverpool only six weeks previously) was marking me. The lads took the mickey out of me because of the way I celebrated scoring. I ran out of the box, jumping up and down and waving my arms in the air until the lads jumped on top of me. I’ve got a picture of the goal. It’s nice for my kids, who were too young to remember, to see what their dad did. It’s not easy to win at Anfield.”

When O’Neill left Leicester City in June 2000, Peter Taylor was appointed. Thinking back, Phil said: “The ethos changed a little bit. I was disappointed when Martin went because I’d just signed a new contract. He brought me to Leicester and I didn’t want him to go. When he left I was still inexperienced at Premier League level. It’s never easy when a manager leaves, especially if he brought you to the club. When Taylor came, the senior players were big players and rightly so for what they had done. A new manager has to make his mark and to be seen to make the team better. He brought players in, that in our opinion, he didn’t need to bring in. There’s no guarantee that this would work and unfortunately it didn’t.”

During Taylor’s first season, Phil transferred to West Bromwich Albion.

“I moved on transfer deadline day in March 2001,” he explained. “Peter had brought in Callum Davidson, another left-sided defender. I wasn’t playing enough and I needed to play. I spoke to Peter and said that I’d proved under Martin I could play in the Premier League, but he couldn’t guarantee me games.

“On transfer deadline day, my agent told me that West Brom wanted me. I’ve never told the Leicester supporters this but I didn’t wanted to leave. They’d been very good to me. We were settled here, but I was 28 and I needed to play first team football. I went over to West Brom to talk to Gary Megson, the manager, who was very clear about what he wanted and I respected that. About four minutes before the transfer deadline he came in and said: ‘Phil, I want you to sign. We are going to get promoted’. I signed about a minute and 30 seconds before the transfer deadline closed! All the way home in the car, I was thinking how I didn’t want to leave Leicester and was wondering if I’d done the right thing.

Peter had brought in Callum Davidson, another left-sided defender. I wasn’t playing enough and I needed to play. I spoke to Peter and said that I’d proved under Martin I could play in the Premier League, but he couldn’t guarantee me games.

Phil Gilchrist

“In hindsight, I did do the right thing. We got into the Play-Offs that year but were beaten by Bolton. I tore my hernia and had to come off. That wrecked my summer as I needed an operation. In our side we had Russell Hoult and Michael Appleton. Craig Shakespeare was youth team coach. So there were Leicester connections there. The next year (2001/02) we were promoted, along with Manchester City. Then we were relegated in 2003 and then promoted back again in 2004.”

Phil enjoyed his time at The Hawthorns, but in March 2004, he moved to Ronnie Moore’s Championship side Rotherham United for two years, initially on loan. He was a regular in the first team but unfortunately had a bad Achilles injury. He then returned to Jim Smith’s Oxford United who had just dropped out of the league into the Conference.

Although a knee injury prevented Phil from training, he played in the games, helping Oxford United to reach the Conference Play-Off Semi-Finals in 2007. Despite an operation in the summer, he retired with a knee injury in December 2007 aged 36, after a career which had lasted for 21 years.

Phil returned to Leicester, where he did some coaching in the Academy and gained his coaching badges. This led to a spell as assistant manager and then manager at Conference side Woking for the 2008/09 season. 

Phil then changed direction completely. He enrolled at Loughborough University. While studying for his degree there and for his Post Graduate Teaching Certificate at Buckingham University, he also worked as Junior Games Coordinator and then as Director of Sport at Ratcliffe College.  

Having graduated, he is now Senior Housemaster and Co-Curricular Coordinator at the college. In this role, Phil is responsible for the annual intake of youngsters from Thailand who train at Leicester City’s Academy. 

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