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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » Top Bros: When hot-shot Philliskirk was the toast of Burnden Park

Top Bros: When hot-shot Philliskirk was the toast of Burnden Park

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karlypants

karlypants
Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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He was the poster boy of Burnden Park – a blond-haired, blue-eyed striker whose goals ensured he never had to wonder when he would see his picture in the paper.

For a three-year spell, straddling the eighties and nineties, Tony Philliskirk was the face of Bolton Wanderers – ‘The Iceman’ whose cool finishing put him on the scoresheet an incredible 72 times in three full seasons.

To set the scene, Phil Neal’s Bolton had rebounded from their solitary year in the bottom division with a sun-soaked Wembley win in the Sherpa Van Trophy. The same summer the club splashed out on a new strike-force – paying £50,000 for Philliskirk from Preston North End and six weeks later an £80,000 fee to bring in David Reeves from Sheffield Wednesday.

The club was on a high and heading into the nineties with big plans for returning to the upper echelons of English football again. But before Bruce Rioch and the White Hot gang cracked it, Neal, Philliskirk and Co came oh so close.

Now the Under-18s coach at Premier League Burnley, Philliskirk looks back at the days of celebrating in Normid’s shadow with fondness – even though he still remembers the locals branding him ‘lazy’.

“It was something that went around while I was at Bolton and I can laugh about it now,” he told The Bolton News. “If it had come from Mick Brown or Phil Neal, or even the players, I’d have changed my game immediately.

“But the truth is back then with the wingers we had – every bit of advice I got from them was ‘Philly just get yourself in the penalty box!’ “I have a pretty thick skin and was certainly very single-minded as a player. And if you are a striker, no matter what else you do, at the end of the season people judge you on the goals you have scored.

“So I look at my record at Bolton and think ‘that wasn’t bad’. Lads at Burnley come up to me even now and say ‘I didn’t realise you’d scored all those goals’ because it’s not something I brag about.

“All I’ll ever say about my time at Bolton was that it was the most enjoyable spell in my whole career. I loved every single moment of it – the highs and the lows, lazy or not!”

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No Bolton player has hit 20 goals in a solitary season since Michael Ricketts in 2001, so for Philliskirk to come one goal short of doing it in three successive seasons puts into context just how life has changed watching the Whites.

“I had the free-kicks and the penalties, which helped top the goals up nicely, but the team created so many chances,” he said.

“I know Reevesy would be a bit frustrated at times – he thought he should have had 15/16 a season with the opportunities that came his way. But he’ll be the first to admit that finishing wasn’t his greatest strength, it was the running and the ability to link-up play.

“I think it was Dave Higson who called me the ‘Iceman’ but finishing was my thing. Even now I teach the lads to pass the ball into the net. There are times when you have to hit one from 25 yards but more often it’s about connection, guiding the ball, planting your ankle, using the pace of the cross or the pass.”

It is fair to say that the summer in which Philliskirk arrived at Bolton was not a classic for the British charts.

Jive Bunny was the biggest-selling record, Kylie and Jason dominated the airwaves and Stock, Aitken and Waterman made a mint.

Two Surrey brothers, Matt and Luke Goss, had enjoyed worldwide fame with their band, Bros, but their singles success was on the wane by the close of the decade.

That didn’t stop a bright spark at ITV noticing that there was a passing resemblance between the Bolton front two and the musical brothers. The name stuck.

“God… The Bros thing,” sighed Philliskirk. “I remember going in to do some filming with Reevesy with Elton Welsby and the whole thing should have taken 20 minutes max – but we were still there three or four hours later trying on leather jackets and getting the hair gelled, it was a nightmare.

“It was all a bit of fun and brought some profile to the club but we didn’t take it very seriously.”

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Exactly 30 years ago, Wanderers were gearing up for a play-off semi-final second leg at Notts County – Philliskirk having scored from the spot in the first game, which finished 1-1.

A 2-0 defeat at Meadow Lane meant another season in the third tier and though the hangover initially seemed to be hampering the side, they came good in spectacular fashion, embarking on a memorable 23 game run in the league without defeat.

“We were flying,” recalled Philliskirk. “I remember going to play Manchester United at Old Trafford in the cup in the middle of it all and Les Sealey, god rest his soul, saving one of my shots right on the line, getting the ball stuck between his legs.

“When we got to the play-offs again, we thought ‘this is it’.

“The Bury game will always stay with me. Scoring at Burnden Park in front of 20,000 people – the noise, I mean, you just couldn’t believe it.”

The 2-1 aggregate victory against the Shakers set up a Wembley showdown with Tranmere, and confidence inside the camp was sky high. Sadly, the day turned out to be one of the toughest of Philliskirk’s career.

“We had beaten them in the Leyland DAF Cup and in the league and I still talk about the game with Shaun Garnett, who was marking me that day,” he said. “I don’t think he could believe how poor we were that day.

“We froze. Every single man under-performed, and I definitely include myself in that.

“I really feel that the town, the coaching staff and the players deserved to be the ones celebrating promotion that day.

“It’s easy to say that, I suppose, but absolutely everything was there except for the performance on the day.”

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After defeat at Wembley there was one more chance for Neal and Wanderers to get it right.

Pressure built on the Bolton boss through the 1991/92 season and by the midway point the team had already peaked in seventh.

A watershed moment arrived at Exeter in January as Neal broke up the Philliskirk/Reeves axis, playing the latter out wide, and bringing in youngster Mike Jeffrey.

Philliskirk scored the first goal of the day but the game will be remembered for the entrance from the bench of Scottish goal-getter Andy Walker, who scored on debut and then netted another six in his next seven appearances.

By the end of the season Bolton had slumped into the bottom half of the table. The board knew Neal’s time was up – and the writing was also on the wall for Philliskirk, who quickly realised that the next man in the managerial hotseat was not going to give him regular football.

“Bruce Rioch was ruthless,” he admitted. “And I don’t mean that unkindly. I know his son Greg, who works at Wigan, and we talk about his dad and the way he handled the situation.

“He came into Burnden Park, sat me down in his office, and said ‘Tony, you’re not for me.’ And I respected him so much for that.

“He could have kept me hanging around. I could have sat on the bench or played in the cup games as back-up but I’d had a couple of sticky months and I knew it wasn’t working. I had loved my three years at Bolton but as a player I sensed I had to move on.

“I tell my son (Danny – who plays for AFC Fylde) that you should always play where you are wanted.

“And can I really complain when you see what Bruce did at Bolton, the success they had? Not a bit.

“I firmly believe that Phil Neal had laid some good groundwork there and younger players like Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs had come through who would come good for Bruce and play at a much higher level.”

Had things gone differently at Wembley in 1991, Rioch may never have arrived at Bolton at all.

But though disappointment at being unable to get over the final hurdle is still with him, Philliskirk baulks at suggestion that Neal’s team were just ‘nearly men’.

“I think if you offered the majority of clubs in the equivalent of that division today two successive play-offs and an FA Cup game in front of a packed house at Old Trafford they’d have your hand off,” he said. “I stand by what I say about Phil Neal and Mick Brown, they were under-rated, and when I think back to my days at Bolton I don’t think about ‘disappointment’ I think of pride.”

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