Like all Watford fans of a certain age, I was sad to hear that Oliver Phillips had died. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has had more influence on my Watford-supporting life than anyone not actually employed by the club.
Every Friday when I was growing up, I would eagerly devour every word he had written about the Hornets that week – and he wrote a lot. Not just match reports and previews, but all the news you wanted and needed about the club, much of it straight from the horse’s mouth – that is, the manager’s, for Oli forged good relationships with most (though not all) of those in charge during his time at the Watford Observer, once they realised he wasn’t going to stitch them up.
When I was living in West Germany (as it was then) in 1982, and then again in 1984-85, as part of my university course, my mother used to send me the sports section of the Observer every week, and I looked forward keenly to its arrival. Reading the many online tributes to Oli these past few days, it’s clear that I was far from the only one for whom his writing provided a link to the club, and to home, for those living overseas.
I was lucky enough to meet him once. I did a postgraduate journalism course, with a special module on sport, where one of the first assignments was to profile a sports writer. Naturally I saw this as a perfect opportunity to meet one of my heroes, and a couple of weeks later I found myself in a meeting room at the Watford Observer offices in the Rickmansworth Road, face to face with the man himself.
I say face to face, but Oli was so tall that he towered over me, even sitting down. Allied to his height was a rather stern, forbidding manner. It soon became clear that he took his job, and the craft of journalism, very seriously indeed. He was appalled to find that I wasn’t taking the NCTJ exam (the standard qualification for news journalists) as part of my course, and I didn’t really want to explain that it wasn’t necessary to fulfil my ambition of reviewing rock albums for the NME.
Still, he softened once we got to talking about his career, and about Watford. I’ve still got the article I wrote, printed on the flimsy, yellowing paper they gave us in the computer room at City University. (This was 1989, and no one my age had their own PC.) I note that my tutor gave me a mark of 16 out of 25 – a solid pass, but no more. I wasn’t destined to spend my working life in press boxes at football grounds.
My opening line was: “To anyone who supports Watford FC, Oliver Phillips is the oracle,” and I still stand by that. I went on to outline his career; a false start working in insurance in the City, then a job as a junior reporter at the West Herts Post, and then on to the Observer in 1968.
There are some nice anecdotes that I’d forgotten, like the story of his first day reporting on the Watford first team, in 1963. “I started the same day as Ken Furphy took over as Watford manager, so I dashed down to the ground to interview him. I was really nervous, and I explained that it was my first day in the new job. He said, ‘Well, it’s mine too, so we’ll just have to bodge through together, won’t we?’”
I also like the fact that he had only missed eight Watford games since 1967, and the last one at that point had been in 1978 – over a decade earlier. He even made it to Vicarage Road on the day of his wedding, though he was at pains to point out that “my wife went too, and I didn’t actually report on the match”.
The piece finishes with Oli saying that he still loved his job, which he’d be happy to do until he retired. His only complaint was that the football season started too early, just when he’d got used to spending Saturday afternoons with his wife and kids. “One day I’ll be thinking, ‘Now, what shall we do next weekend?’, and then I remember that I’ve got to go off to Devon or Sweden or somewhere for the pre-season tour. But by the third week of the season, I’m as keen as ever.”
Rest in peace, Oli. We won’t see your like again.