By John Kelly
IT WAS earlier this season at an away ground that Peckham Town head coach Mary Phillip was turned away from the coaches and players’ entrance and pointed towards the turnstiles.
She could, perhaps, have mentioned her vast honours list, including Premier League and FA Cup titles with three clubs, the Uefa Cup, or two World Cups with England in a 68-cap career. But that’s not the former defender’s style.
In the end, she didn’t have to break down the door, but in a different way that’s exactly what she is doing in her coaching career.
“They didn’t apologise and when I was doing the warm-up I heard them saying, ‘she knows what she’s doing, doesn’t she?’” Phillip says. “People can either accept me or think I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. Either way, the guys I’m working with accept it. They are learning and that’s my main focus.”
Phillip is the only female head coach in the 91-club Kent County League. Her team are fourth in the Premier Division, the eleventh tier in the English football structure.
Peckham-born Phillip started a playing career that would yield 22 major trophies at Millwall Lionesses. She joined Fulham and then Arsenal – where she won four consecutive Premier League and FA Cup doubles – and went to two World Cups, as an eighteen-year-old in 1995 and then twelve years later. Phillip won a domestic treble with the Cottagers and followed that up with two more with the Gunners.
That long career might not have happened were it not for the care and influence of Jim Hicks, the coach who guided the Lionesses to Phillip’s first domestic double in 1997.
Phillip recalls a game at Everton when she brought her first-born infant son.
“He actually held my child while we were playing,” Phillip says. “He could have taken me off the field but he didn’t. Forty five minutes he held him and my son cried. We came in at half-time and I said I’d stay off but he said, ‘no, you’re going back out there’.
“He was a big influence in me actually staying in the game. That was a turning point whether I actually stayed playing, or motherhood takes over. That encouragement of people out there who want to help you succeed was beneficial to me.”
Hicks encouraged her coaching career and she took her first badge when she was seventeen, working in schools as part of Millwall’s community programme before becoming involved with Peckham Town’s youth sides.
In 2018, statistics from the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime revealed there were 805 knife-crime incidents in twelve months in Southwark, the second highest of any London borough, with Peckham seeing its share of violence.
Phillip’s day job is as a Play Leader, and she devotes almost all of her free time to coaching, developing characters as much as players.
“Grassroots football is the anchor for everyone,” Phillip continues. “Everyone started at grassroots football and no matter how good you are you’re not always going to make it, so it’s important to have a basis of something you enjoy that’s easily accessible.
“At Peckham Town we’ve done that and the kids that don’t think they’re good enough have come along and whether they make it into the team or not they continue their development. That’s been the heart and soul of Peckham Town since we started a youth team.
“Having the senior team there means we’ve had some players who have filtered through. It’s been great outreach for them and from there we’ve had some players go further afield and have trials at places like Leeds.
“A lot of the players we coach have the ability to make it as long we they want to keep learning. What we find is that the attitude of youngsters is the biggest downfall for them. They’ve got to be open to criticism, as well as all the praise they get, but some of them close it off and that’s their stumbling block and they fall at that hurdle. As long as we keep them level-headed and they know what’s in front of them then hopefully they’ll move forward and succeed at the end of it.”
Phillip says she prefers to be “direct” with players, and ignores what opponents might think or say based on her gender.
“I focus on my team and what the other team say doesn’t affect me in no way, shape or form,” Phillip stresses. “My playing career has set me up for it, you’ve got to be able to win and lose. You’ve got to be able to bounce back when things go wrong for you and I’ve had a playing career like that. The group of guys I’m working with are a fantastic bunch. They accept me for who I am and what I know, which is the main thing.
“I’d rather be more direct. Obviously you can lose your head at times but I’m not someone that will eff and blind at them. I don’t like that, I didn’t like it myself and wouldn’t want someone doing that to me, therefore I’m not going to do that to someone. I will give you criticism where it is needed and you can either take it or leave it.
“I’m not going to say anything that is going to damage you or affect the way that you’re playing but you’ve got to work with us. We’re not trying to change you from who you are but we’re trying to marry your skill to what we’re looking for here at Peckham Town. Nine out of ten players achieve that.”
Phillip’s commitment to Peckham Town and her determination to spend as much time as possible with her four kids – two of whom were born when she was a player – is such that she turned down an approach from Millwall Lionesses director of football Pedro Martinez Losa last summer to become head coach of the Women’s Championship club.
Phillip is well-placed to talk about coaching opportunities for minority groups, listening to the debate with interest before Sol Campbell got his break with Macclesfield Town.
Phillip says: “People’s minds are starting to change, people are starting to see that we can all do the same job regardless of the colour of our skin.
“Sol has got a job that enables him to do that and hopefully people will see what he’s doing and the results he’s getting rather than the colour of his skin. And not just him but all the coaches out there doing that.”
Phillip’s ex-Arsenal team-mate Alex Scott, meanwhile, has bashed stereotypes making a name for herself as an astute pundit.
“The Women’s Super League is at a professional level and Alex has come from that,” Phillip says. “For people to see her it has opened up doors. To be given that opportunity is fantastic.”
Phillip’s non-compromise on her family time led her to turn down the club she joined when she was twelve, but she is hopeful circumstances will allow for a different decision in the future.
“I’m just going to see what doors open for me. My focus right now is Peckham, I want to see if we can get promotion and push up through the leagues.
“I got a great offer to go and do it for this season, but the timing of it was just all wrong. I’m working during the day and I want to be at home with my kids in the evening. I want them to be able to see me and know me and not just think, ‘who’s this person?’
“To give up that time to coaching, I couldn’t juggle it. Hopefully when things are on a more even keel for me and settle down maybe another opportunity will open up for me and I will be able to take it. I’ve just got to wait and see what happens.”