Phil Stant: Football and the Falklands
Monday's 30th anniversary of the conflict will bring back painful memories for the former lower-league striker, who was called up and saw unimaginable horrors. He talks to Richard Edwards
Thursday 29 March 2012
It is perhaps easy, 30 years on, to boil down the Falklands conflict into mere statistics; 258 British lives, 649 Argentinian casualties and a war that lasted just 74 days. There is, however, another number that Falklands veteran and former lower-league striker Phil Stant is keen to highlight.
"We lost over 250 people in such a short space of time, a seven or eight-week period, but since then more than that number of Falklands veterans have committed suicide," he says. "No one has ever reported that but it affects everybody – it's the same in Argentina.
"When you go to war you never come back the same person. People talk about PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] which was identified after the Falklands but it has been there since time began."
The grim realities of war are as far removed from the glamour of the modern game as it's possible to get but Stant is a throwback – a man who served one of the game's most unlikely apprenticeships before going on to become one of the best strikers in the lower leagues over a career spanning 20 years.
Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the conflict, but back in 1982, Stant was billeted at Aldershot and playing part-time for Reading before Argentina's military junta took a course of action that would change his life. He was just 18 when he boarded the QEII and headed to the South Atlantic to defend a group of islands that he readily admits he had never heard of.
"Like most other people we thought they were actually off the coast of Scotland," he says. "At first we just thought, 'why are the Argentinians attacking an island off Scotland?' That's how naïve we were. It was only when you got the maps out that we found that they were only a couple of hundred miles from Antarctica. I travelled out on the QEII, it took just under three weeks. We stopped off at Sierra Leone and then the Ascension Islands before transferring on to a boat which took us to South Georgia. For a lad of 18 it was an adventure, everybody was excited. You were just looking forward it and the biggest fear you had was that it was going to be over by the time you got there."
He got his wish and by the time he arrived the conflict was escalating. Goose Green had already been recaptured and, 10 days later, Stant would find himself at Bluff Cove, on a cliff edge looking out over two British ships, Sir Galahad and HMS Tristram. Stant had been on Tristram earlier that day and was now unloading ammunition off the ship and on to a forward supply point on land. "It was a lovely clear blue day," he says. "We obviously didn't know there was an Argentinian observation post looking over us but I remember sitting at the top of the cliff looking at the ships which were about 100 metres off shore. Then I looked up and saw two or three little dots in the sky and that was it.
"They came in that fast. Normally we would get a signal over the radio that an air-raid was imminent. There was none of that for some reason – it took us completely by surprise. Nobody had time to mount the machine guns, it all happened in a split second."
At 2pm both ships were struck by 1000lb bombs as a sickened Stant – part of the 5th Infantry Brigade – watched black smoke billow out of the hull of the Galahad. Within minutes he and his colleagues were on the scene. What awaited him has stayed with him ever since.
"We were the first people there after the strikes," he says. "Our NCOs took control of the situation until we got help by the medics, the paras and the marines. When you're seeing people with limbs off and skin melting, people screaming, it's something that you never forget. That's when it wasn't an adventure any more. That was the day I grew up.
"At the time we hated the Argentinians but they were just young lads doing their jobs. They were exactly the same as us and when they lost the war they were disowned by their country."
Stant would remain on the Islands until July 1982, staying for a month after hostilities ceased before heading home a changed man. By November he would be appearing for Reading in an FA Cup tie against Bishops Stortford at Elm Park. To the untrained observer it seemed it was business as usual for this young footballing soldier – for Stant it was anything but.
"Nothing was ever the same again but football was always my release and I never stopped appreciating just how lucky I was to be a professional footballer," he says. "You never forget those times and you are a different person but some guys, unfortunately, when they come back from war don't have that release. I was very lucky that I had football to concentrate on.
"I went back to the Falklands in 2007 and I didn't realise just how beautiful they were. All that we had seen was a trench, mud, snow and gale-force winds for weeks. It was minus 21 when we were out there – Carlisle on a Tuesday night was never a problem after that."
Those kind of evenings were plentiful in a career that saw Stant – who was bought out of the Army by Hereford United for just £600 in October 1986 – play for the likes of Cardiff, Mansfield, Fulham, Bury and Lincoln. Now 49, Stant is working for the Football League Trust as a senior regional youth manager and ensures that the links between the military and football are maintained.
He has just returned from a trip to the battlefields and graves of the First World War with a group of apprentices from Notts County – kids only marginally younger than he was when he travelled on the QEII as a wide-eyed young soldier all those years ago.
"I've always said when you're a professional footballer the biggest crime of all is letting yourself down. When you're in the army the biggest crime of all is letting your mates down," he says. "As professional footballers we are very selfish because that's the nature of the business but, despite the difference, there has always been a close link between football and the forces.
"Taking those apprentices to the Somme was a great pleasure, they learnt a lot and it's very important that we remember those people that have given the ultimate sacrifice. To see how they responded was a joy."
Away from France, tensions are rising in the South Atlantic as the 30th anniversary approaches, leaving Stant to fear for the Islands' future once again.
"It worries me what will happen in the Falklands now," he says. "We've got the Olympics this year, it's the 30th anniversary – what a great opportunity for the Argentinian president to rattle some sabres because she knows she'll get a lot of publicity and support for it."
It's support of another kind that Stant believes is needed for the invisible victims of a war that continues to claim lives. Football's Falkland veteran has never forgotten he is one of the lucky ones.
Soldiering on: Stant's football journey
1986-89 Hereford United
1989-91 Notts County
1990 Blackpool (loan)
1990-91 Lincoln City (loan)
1991 Huddersfield Town (loan)
1991-92 Mansfield Town
1992-95 Cardiff City
1993-94 Mansfield Town (loan)
1996 Northampton (loan)
1996-2001 Lincoln City
2001 Brighton & Hove Albion
2001-02 Worcester City
2002 Dover Athletic
2002 Hinckley United
2002-03 Gainsborough Trinity
2003-04 Ilkeston Town
2000-01 Lincoln City
2002-03 Gainsborough Trinity
2003-05 Ilkeston Town
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