John Phillips, the unenviable understudy

Phillips in action, 1975 v Birmingham City. Photo: PA

CHELSEA’s long history has included a plethora of outstanding goalkeepers, from the huge and imposing figure of Willie Foulke in 1905 through to the 1960s and 1970s when Peter Bonetti stood imperiously between the sticks, and then onto the Mourinho-era reliability of Petr Cech.

Peter Bonetti saw off many pretenders to his throne, but one goalkeeper went closer than anyone to taking his place – John Phillips, who recently died after a long illness.

Signed from Aston Villa in 1970, Phillips made his debut in October of that year at Blackpool. The 19 year-old had a dramatic first appearance as Chelsea went 3-0 down at Bloomfield Road, coming back to win 4-3. Dave Sexton, the Chelsea manager, said Phillips was not at fault for any of the goals.

It was not until February that he got another chance, playing in Chelsea’s 1-0 win at Newcastle. He pulled off what one hack called a “wonder save” towards the end of the game. He kept his place for two months as Bonetti was recovering from illness, but when the business end of the season came along, Phillips was replaced, with his mentor installed for the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final against Real Madrid.

For the next three seasons, Phillips waited patiently for Bonetti to give way, but his fitness and consistency meant that the pretender was always seemed to be just that little bit too far away from claiming the number one shirt for keeps. Even when Bonetti did “retire” in 1975, he returned a few months later as Chelsea languished in the second division.

And that was really the story of John Phillips, always in the shadow of Bonetti, rather like “the Cat” was cast into a similar role on the international stage by Gordon Banks.

Phillips played four times for Wales, which underlined his potential. But he will forever be remembered as a sound deputy for a more celebrated player. He played 149 times for Chelsea in a decade-long career- that says it all, really. He was, nevertheless, a very decent goalkeeper who perhaps should have moved on when it became clear that Bonetti’s presence was so overpowering.

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