England great Mary Phillip enjoyed an admirable playing career
The 43-year-old is now tasting success as the coach of a men’s team
"You can’t buy experience"
Any footballer who has gone to two FIFA Women’s World Cups™, collected 65 international caps and won 22 domestic trophies has earned the right to be named among the greats of the game. Mary Phillip received her first call-up to the England squad for the Women’s World Cup at Sweden 1995, aged just 18, and won six caps for the Lionesses before taking a four-year break between 1998 and 2002, when she returned to the international stage after the birth of her two sons.
She captained England to China 2007 qualification before hanging up her boots in 2008. A lot has happened since then, and not just in women’s football.
"The biggest step is seeing the number of women’s teams grow," Phillip told FIFA.com. "When I was a youngster getting into the game there were very few women’s sides out there. There were probably more teams but they weren’t well known. You had to look pretty hard to find a team out there.
"But with the growth of the women’s game and the media coverage of it, the youth level has expanded. Obviously there is a lot going on behind the scenes. Usually you see players going to the USA or Europe to play, and now the best footballers are coming to England. That tells you all you need to know about the standard and the level here.
"It’s great to have all these players coming to England, but you can’t buy experience. It’s important that the young players get exposed to that experience so that they are able to grow and see what’s required of them to break through. We need a strong home-grown international squad."
After making history on the pitch, Phillip is now blazing a new trail as a coach. She wrote another pioneering chapter in her impressive story last August as she guided Peckham Town to victory in the London FA Senior Trophy, becoming the first woman in English football to win a cup with a men’s team. Yet the former Millwall Lionesses, Fulham, Arsenal and Chelsea player is not interested in making much of a fuss about her achievement.
"Peckham Town’s win in the London FA Senior Trophy has definitely made people see me as Town’s manager and not just a supporter or girlfriend coming to watch," she explained. "Peckham is a grassroots football team that I’ve been involved with for at least 20 years.
"I’ve been involved in their youth setup for the past 20 years and over the last five years I got involved with their senior side – and for the last two years I’ve been the coach and manager of the first team. I kind of rolled in nicely. It’s hard to explain."
Phillip, who grew up in this area of south-east London, spent four years coaching the U-18 side, having overseen and influenced their development first-hand from U-14 level onwards. "The senior side was a whole new team from the previous season, as a lot of players from the old team had retired or moved out of the area," she said. "I had to build up the whole new senior squad from scratch minus one or two players."
The former England international’s success with Peckham paves the way for a whole new generation of women, as even in 2021 there are still only a handful of female coaches in charge of men’s teams. Could Mary Phillip be the role model they need?
"I’ll be seen as a role model for someone who wants to get involved in football and coach a men’s side, but it really depends on how far you want to go," said the 43-year-old. "Working at Peckham Town is voluntary work and that is fantastic. You put a lot of your time – and sometimes your money – into it, so that you can help it grow.
"If other opportunities opened up for me that would be amazing, but they would have to be right for myself and my family. You have to start somewhere and obviously you can start at grassroots level and go all the way through to a professional side. For me it’s grassroots for now.
"Peckham Town is very close to my heart. Working with the team and seeing them progress over the last couple of years, especially winning the London FA Senior Trophy for the first time last year, was an amazing achievement, and not only for myself. It’s a line to mark where you can go and how women can progress in the game as well."
Phillip is now embarking on the next stage of her own development by participating in the Elite Coach Placement Programme together with Rachel Yankey, Fara Williams and Coreen Brown. Jointly financed by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and the English Football Association (FA), the programme was introduced in 2017 to give coaches from under-represented groups the opportunity to work with England’s national sides. Phillip will be assisting Lydia Bedford and the U-18 women’s national team.
"I’m going to see what the programme has to offer and what it’s like to work at the elite level," she said. "It might be something for me or it might not, but I’m not going to know until I try it.
"The first meeting was cancelled because of COVID, and the next is coming up in a couple of months, when I’ll be meeting the squad for the first time. That first step will let me know if this level is for me, if I’m really going to enjoy it and if it gives me the same drive I get at grassroots level. Will I get the same drive at women’s elite level that I get with the men’s team? I’m really looking forward to finding out."
The experience may open new doors to the likeable Londoner and give her an opportunity to combine her work as a coach with her family life.
"That would be fantastic," Phillip said enthusiastically. "I have a young family and I need to make sure that not all of my time is taken up by football. I have to make sure that I’m home for them, that I can see them grow up and be part of their growth. I was able to be a player and a mother, and I want to make sure it will be the same when I’m coaching. I need to keep everything real."