Len Phillips: Inspired playmaker for England and Portsmouth

 

Len Phillips was a consummate footballing artist, a play-maker of sumptuous touch and bewildering guile who could shred a defence with a single penetrating pass.

Yet although he played three times for England and was a huge factor in Portsmouth winning successive League championships in 1949 and 1950, he was never a household name. Within the professional game, however, he was honoured as a true thoroughbred, and the forthright Londoner was content with that.

The epitome of the loyal one-club man, Phillips was a perfect fit for the down-to-earth, industrious post-war Pompey side which tended to be damned by faint praise from pundits located a long way from the South coast, the majority of such observers seemingly seduced by the more glamorous big-city battalions. The truth was that under their manager Bob Jackson Portsmouth were a magnificently drilled unit, one of the finest teams of their era, made up of talented individuals with no aspirations to personal stardom, and certainly not fazed when confronted by it in the opposition ranks.

Phillips grew up in the capital, playing for Hackney Boys, then working in a wine distillery before being called up. He enlisted with the Royal Marines while still a teenager in 1940, and as a crew member on an assault landing craft he was one of the first ashore in Normandy on D-Day. He found time, also, to excel as a delightfully inventive inside-forward for the Marines, then in February 1946 he signed for Portsmouth, scoring five goals in 11 games that spring in the wartime emergency competition for southern clubs.

He made his senior debut that December in a First Division victory at Blackburn, but then had to show patience before claiming a regular place in the spring of 1948. At that point Pompey were an improving top-half side, then in 1948-49, with former manager Jack Tinn's creation having been further polished by his successor Bob Jackson, they took a dramatic step forward by lifting the title, comfortably outstripping runners-up Manchester United, who finished five points adrift.

Phillips was in his element, missing only two games, scoring 11 times himself – Pompey won every contest in which he scored – and laying on goals aplenty for the rest of a potent attack comprising the exhilarating winger Peter Harris, fellow inside-forward Duggie "Thunderboots" Reid, forceful spearhead Ike Clarke, the versatile Jack Froggatt and, for much of the campaign, another inside man, Bert Barlow. Invariably poised and composed, Phillips was their inspirational fulcrum, acutely aware of the ever-changing picture around him on the pitch, spraying incisive deliveries to all quarters and sending connoisseurs into raptures with his deft manipulation of the ball.

In 1949-50 Portsmouth did it again, retaining their crown by pipping the much-fancied Wolverhampton Wanderers on goal average, the infernally complicated method which preceded goal difference as a means of separating teams on the same number of points. Once more Phillips wielded colossal influence, this time contributing only five goals in his 34 games but shining more brightly than ever as a schemer.

International recognition was overdue and finally it arrived in November 1951 – around the time he was briefly transfer-listed by Pompey over a disagreement which was quickly resolved – when he featured in England's 2-0 win over Northern Ireland at Villa Park. Disappointingly, there followed a three-year gap before he was summoned again, by which time he had been converted to wing-half. In this new deeper-lying role Phillips performed well enough in Wembley victories over Wales and West Germany towards the end of 1954 to remain in the plans of the national coach Walter Winterbottom, but a bitter blow was imminent.

While training with England in March 1955 ahead of their annual encounter with Scotland, he suffered a severe knee injury which precipitated the end of his professional career. He did make one more appearance for Portsmouth, in an FA Cup tie with Grimsby Town in January 1956, but suffered a recurrence of his problem and left the club, for whom he had enjoyed more than 250 senior games and contributed a half-century of goals, at season's end.

By then Phillips was a veteran, but still it was an anti-climactic departure from Fratton Park for such an accomplished technician who had been central to Pompey's golden age, and had worn an England shirt in the company of such luminaries as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse.

He demonstrated his undiminished enthusiasm for the game by playing non-League football well into his forties, serving Poole Town, Chelmsford City, Bath City, Ramsgate Athletic and Waterlooville. Later he worked as a lathe operator for the De Havilland aircraft company in Portsmouth. In 2010 Phillips, the last surviving regular member of Pompey's two championship sides, was entered into the club's Hall of Fame.

Horace Leonard Phillips, footballer: born Shoreditch, London 11 September 1922; played for Portsmouth 1946-56; capped three times by England 1951-54; married (two children); died Portsmouth 9 December 2011.

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