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Oliver Phillips: A Man for all Seasons

Peter Morgan on the passing of the man who reported on Watford FC


At a certain point growing up, I realised that I would never become a professional footballer. Those who knew me would suggest this ‘Road to Damascus’ moment should have happened earlier! But perhaps I was a late developer as a midfield schemer or dynamo, as Shoot! would label the likes of Tony Currie or Alan Hudson in those days.

When the realisation hit home, I then wanted to be like Oliver Phillips. Perhaps more accurately, I wanted to be Oliver Phillips. What could be better than going to watch every game Watford FC played and being paid to do so, then writing about it, with thousands of people reading what I had to say? Of course, the teenage version of me did not see any downsides, such as never attending the weddings of friends who, very inconsiderately, decided to get married between August and May, or evening functions that were difficult to get to when you had to be at Workington that afternoon reporting on the Hornets.

The truth was, of course, there could only ever be one Oliver Phillips and he did the job I aspired to so well, no one else would be able to match him. My big interests were history and football, so I read both the football pages and his ‘Nostalgia’ pages nearer the front of the weekly ‘Wobby’. 

Even when the Evening Echo was still being printed, there was no substitute for reading the match report, news and views in the Watford Observer and this was largely down to Oli, as he was affectionately known.

Initially myself and my brother shared a copy, but soon we were so desperate to read his pieces that we bought two copies. My brother was a slow reader and liked to read in total quiet, so usually retired to the place where no one could interrupt him and he was guaranteed to be alone. It was also the smallest room in the house! After he’d had the paper in there for an hour or so, frankly I wanted my own copy!

Of course we were not interested in local politics, crime, jumble sales or Pancake Day races. It was straight to the back of the broadsheet, as it was in those days, to read the headlines and then inside to see Terry Challis’s cartoon, before devouring everything we could read about Watford, courtesy of Oli.

My first recollection of seeing Oli was at the end of season Watford Observer awards at Baileys nightclub. This was open to all fans and cost, I am guessing, about a fiver to get in. Apart from the Observer there was no ‘corporate sponsorship’ and to eat there was a choice of chicken or scampi in a basket. No silver service tables costing hundreds of pounds back in the day.  Oli was a massive man, who stood on the stage to award the Player of the Season award and had our total attention. He was often interrupted by the likes of John Ward or Steve Harrison, dressed as ‘Harriet’, as he made the awards. Oli was a writer, not really someone who stood up and made speeches, so he looked uncomfortable, especially when being groped by a left-back dressed as a woman!

I also recall talking to him on ‘Football Special’ trains where he (and sometimes even the players) were on our train as we travelled to games. He was friendly without being chatty, as he crouched, often in a train doorway, most probably keen to get back to his book. 

What Watford fans loved about him was that he was one of us, a fan who could inform us about things we would not otherwise know. He was not afraid to upset those in charge of the club, even if that meant he was banned from attending games. He knew the fans would take his side on any controversies, because he was someone who represented us, had no hidden agendas and always wanted what was best for the club. 

I guess you could say he was largely responsible for the halcyon days of the first GT era and even where the club finds itself today. Had he not introduced a young flamboyantly dressed pop star, who just happened to be the top-selling artist in the world at that time, to Jim Bonser in 1973, the history of the club over the last half-century may have been nearer to that of Mansfield Town than Manchester United. 

We have so much to thank Oli for, especially in those pre-internet/Sky News days when what he wrote was our only reliable news source. But he went beyond reporting news, his ‘Just a Thought’ musings were informative and interesting, and essential reading. 

Away from Watford FC, his ‘Nostalgia’ pages brought back memorable events in the town’s past. I have always loved history, but was totally unaware of the Sandringham Road tragedy in WW2, or the fabulous gates that once led to Cassiobury House and Park, until he wrote about them. He showed Watford was not just a town on the edge of London, but a place with a fascinating history, even in his lifetime.

I last met Oli to speak to when he signed the Golden Boys book he had written, in 2001. I never really collected autographs much as a kid, but have used this book to collect those of the players featured. Graham Taylor, Elton John, Tom Walley and numerous players, including the late Maurice Cook, have signed its pages. The book itself, along with the many others he penned, is brilliantly informative and well-written. 

The icing on the cake is to have it signed by Terry Challis, who drew many caricatures for the book, and Oliver Phillips, the author not only of this book, but also of the contemporaneous record of so many seasons of Watford success and failure. 

Rest in peace Oli. I hope there is a Hornet Heaven where you can catch up with all those you have written about over the years.  You can rub shoulders with the greats you have told us so much about on equal terms.