They managed to crash the Evo-Stik Premier play-off party last season but top billing on the promotion course is what all at Buxton are setting their sights on. Once a young keeper for the Bucks, manager Paul Phillips is now the one leading from the front, as they look to plot a path to peaks unscaled.
Enjoying a long-standing reputation in non-league, Buxton have had various players associated with the professional game pass through over the years, though it is a club arguably still waiting to really unlock the bigger experiences. After the final whistle sounded out on the 2018/19 league season, though, they found themselves in the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-offs, potentially three wins from the National League North and some very noteworthy company.
As it transpired, the 5th-placed finishers were beaten 4-2 at South Shields, who then lost out to Warrington Town, who in turn were beaten in the ‘Step 3 Super Play-Offs’ by Norfolk side King’s Lynn Town. It meant that only champions Farsley Celtic made it up from the division, highlighting the meagre margin for error to win promotion under this format, as well as setting up quite a competition for 2019/20.
The newly-named BetVictor Northern Premier League’s top flight will have FC United of Manchester and Ashton United coming back down from the National League North, while a whole host of others will be fancying their chances of success. Buxton may well be a few names down the list in the minds of some, but for manager Paul Phillips, there is no suggestion of settling just for being competitive.
“There’s no one more ambitious than the chairman (David Hopkins); he wants to go up. Obviously, we got the play-offs last year, and my burning ambition is to get them up.
“It’s a massive ask from where we’ve been; even when we took over we were 18th in the league. The ambition of the football club is to grow and grow, and follow the Harrogate philosophy and build the academy up.
“We trained for the first time last night and had four or five lads from the academy with us, which is great to see, because I think that’s part and parcel of the club moving forward. For me, the club is now set up to go Conference North/Conference, but they’ve got to make sure that the results match that on the pitch.”
A former Manchester United and Bury youngster, ‘Phillo’ became a fixture between the posts at Droylsden, making the lion’s share of his 700+ club appearances for the Bloods. Nevertheless, his history with Buxton goes back a couple of decades, and while parts remain as they were from those days, he can also recognise plenty in stark contrast at Silverlands today.
“I played there at 18 and how far it’s come in a short space of time, in a footballing capacity, it’s great. The chairman Dave’s got great ambition.
“We’ve just started our academy up, where we’re attracting 25 players of a good quality and we’re going to be playing against good opposition; Blackburn, Leeds, other high-profile teams. Obviously, the (4G) pitch has gone down; they spent 500-odd thousand pound on the pitch, which wasn’t my kettle of fish when it first went down, because I’ve always been a traditionalist, but it’s been fantastic to use, and its hub in the community.”
The former Ashton United keeper claimed his own piece of Buxton FC history when he played last November in a Derbyshire Senior Cup win against Heanor Town, making it the longest period between appearances for the Bucks, at 18 days shy of 20 years! Management is, however, his focus, and he is currently preparing for what will be his first full season in sole charge, having been initially brought in alongside Steve Halford in March 2018 as the pair continued their joint-managership from previous clubs.
Halford’s departure was announced towards the end of February this year, and while far from ideal, Phillo stresses there was no dramatic subsequent change for him to contend with.
“I’ve got my own company so I’ve got a lot on my plate, but I can intertwine them both so it’s not too bad. Stephen leaving, obviously I was gutted at the time – I didn’t want it to happen – but when the chairman put it to me, I didn’t want to leave the football club, because I’d seen the bigger plans.
“It’s not put any more workload on me; I always spoke to players, I always signed players. It was disappointing the way it came around.
“Myself and Steve are very good friends and I’d always seen us as a partnership, but that’s gone now so I’ve just got to concentrate on myself.”
As with play-off semi-final opponents South Shields, North Ferriby United’s results being removed from the season’s record in late-March ended up being more of a boost to Buxton than their competitors. When the two met on South Tyneside in May, it was a brilliantly compelling and pulsating clash, and while it would have been far from the players’ thoughts in the heat of the game, it served as a perfect advert for the division.
Buxton had led Shields at half-time at a packed Mariners Park, only for the hosts to strike twice soon after the break. The Derbyshire side brought it back to 2-2, before two quick-fire bookings for defender Tom Dean, as the Mariners went on to pull away with a pair of goals in the final 20 minutes.
Graham Fenton and Lee Picton’s side had taken the title race with Farsley Celtic to the final day of the league season and will be strongly fancied this time around, so how does the Bucks boss measure his team against such a challenger?
“Well we beat them last year and drew with them, then obviously lost in the play-offs. I think in any play-off game, you’ve got to have a bit of luck to get through, as when I watched South Shields against Warrington (in the next round of the play-offs).
“South Shields didn’t have any luck; I think they probably used it all against us, no disrespect! I think for 45 minutes we commanded the game, there was only one team in it, we went in 1-0 and we could have been more up.
“After 25 minutes, we lost Brad Roscoe, who was one of our centre-halves, get to half-time, then they score two quick goals. The lads didn’t get despondent, bounced back, 2-2, and then we lost Scott Sephton who was at the heart of the midfield.
“Two concussions in 48 minutes, it was a setback we took on the chin, but then the red card, for me, changes the game totally. I didn’t think it was a red card; I thought there was a definite yellow.
“Even when I look at it now, I think if the shoe was on the other foot and they didn’t have 8/900 fans screaming down his ear, the referee, he wouldn’t have give a red card. It was very soft, and in that aspect, the luck wasn’t with us.
“It’s no sour grapes, the better team won in the second half, but I think a lot of circumstances on the day went against us. In the same scenario, we had a lot of young lads; I think our average age in that game was about 24.
“Learning from the experiences and getting yourself ready again, and making sure your disappointments make you hungrier to succeed is great for the lads. Going off South Shields, for me they were the best footballing team in the league and it’s a travesty that they haven’t gone up; they’ve got the biggest crowds in the league and they play football the right way.
“You’ve got Morpeth now coming in, Warrington still in, Ashton who are back in, FC United, so you’ve got a lot of teams to try and beat this year, but I’m quietly confident with the squad we’ve got. We’ve got to stand up again and be counted this year and try and win that league.”
For any team who misses out on going the whole way, be it a league title, cup competition or play-offs, thoughts swiftly turn to identifying the extras that can help crack the code next time around. One of the close-season additions at Buxton is an attacking talent Phillo had previously at Ashton United.
Martin Pilkington is returning after serving a ban for the past three years for breaching betting regulations, and while shy and retiring he may not be, the 31-year-old is raring to thrive again on the pitch. His gaffer provides a touch of caution given his time out, but states his firm belief that the club could have bagged a vital difference-maker, as he responds to the question of what fans can expect to see from him.
“Have you got a bleep machine?! The thing with Pilky is he’s a fantastic footballer.
“He’s a great lad, he loves a laugh and joke, but like we’ve said to him now, when the football comes about, there’s no one more serious. He’s lost three years, which was a very harsh sentence when you look at what other people received for more.
“I’ve said to him now he needs to cherish the rest of the time he can play football.
“In pre-season last night he looked sharp, scoring goals, and the good thing is he’ll be an unknown quantity for a lot of teams. If we can get him playing like he did for us at Ashton, he’ll score 20/30 goals.
“It’s a no-brainer for me. He works hard, he’s a good all-round number nine.
“He’s done a lot of talking on social media, but now he’s got to do some talking on the pitch! I’m not saying he’s gonna hit the ground running, because it’s a long time to be out, but with our backing and our support, and the players around him, I’m hoping that he surprises a lot of people.”
The club certainly sounded a signal of intent with the signing of forward Diego DeGirolamo last summer. A player of undoubted pedigree, the former Sheffield United youngster was notably capped by Italy up to Under-20 level, and on the books of Championship Bristol City until last year.
The Chesterfield-raised player’s older brother, defender Nico, was already with Buxton prior to his arrival, and the hope is that the 23-year-old can finally now kick his career into motion, with consistent games and goals to put him in contention for a return to the professional game. His end to last season included opening the scoring in that play-off encounter at South Shields, and it gives encouragement for the upcoming campaign for his manager, who is also frank when assessing how he did in 2018/19, urging him to take hold and steer his career upward from here.
“He signed a two-year contract so he’s got another season with us. If I’m honest, he was poor at first; he didn’t adapt to the standard, he didn’t adapt to the physical side of it.
“I think he thought he was better than he was, and I’m not saying anything untoward here, because I’m telling you what I told him. I think he found it easy to get injured when things weren’t going right, but then when we changed our system and got him playing, the penny dropped.
“I think he scored six goals in four games at the end of the season. He was a different player; he looked like he’d got his hunger back.
“He trained again last night, he’s been doing his own thing. Like we’ve said to him, and we’ve said to Alex Brown, Brad Roscoe, Theo Roberts last year, when you drop down to this level, no disrespect to it, you wanna get back up, and you’ve got to thrive.
“You’ve got to work harder, because there’s other people that don’t want to be dislodged in the professional game, and I said to Diego, ‘if it doesn’t work out here, your next stop could be flipping burgers, rather than playing for Sheffield United and Italy Under-20s, so the ball is entirely in your court.’ The amount of people I’ve seen that had great potential but never fulfilled it, there was a lad when we were growing up, for Sheffield Wednesday called Mark Platts, and I’ve never seen a better player.
“We played them for Tameside Boys in a national final and he ripped us to pieces. He was the next big thing, unbelievable player, but two years down the line, he’s not playing football and he sort of disappeared in the wilderness.
“I said to Diego, ‘these things can happen,’ so he’s worked harder, he’s come back hungrier, but he’s got to score goals; that’s what he’s paid for. I can’t argue with his end of season, but he’s got to carry on into next season if he wants to get back in the professional ranks, which I know he does.”
As well as integrating some of the club’s up-and-coming prospects, there have also been trialists taking part in pre-season with the Bucks, so can supporters expect a few more incomings and outgoings before the big kick-off next month?
“I’d probably say the majority of it’s done. I probably want three players; I’ve identified a winger that I want to bring in, that we’re trying to sort, a midfielder and maybe another forward who could play either side.
“I think we’ve retained 11 lads from last year, which was great and shows the ambition of the club. Keeper-wise, we wanted to keep Theo (Roberts), which I made no bones about, but we just couldn’t come to a deal with Chester, so Shents (Grant Shenton) was a perfect replacement to bring in.
“I think if we can bring three players in and build on the base we’ve got, I’ll be quite happy.”
Just over two years ago, the former Stalybridge Celtic and Glossop North End joint-manager was lining up against Buxton in a game that will stick in the memory. Returning briefly to playing with Marine, Phillo was part of a 5-5 draw, which for an accomplished keeper, probably won’t rank in the most satisfying 90 minutes he has ever taken in!
The club’s Silverlands ground has often been cited as the highest in the country, and as anyone local will be keenly aware of, the Buxton climate could certainly qualify for the ‘unique’ category. The winter freeze tends to hit that bit harder, and the High Peak town can become its own isolated snow globe at times when all is relatively clear just a few miles away!
Despite that, there is very much a warm glow for the Bucks’ Droylsden-based gaffer with regard to his time in the town so far.
“Everyone’s been really good at Buxton. We train sometimes at the local hotel and do the swimming sessions at the gym, so everyone’s always really warm with us and looks after us.
“Chefs at the club, last night they put some food on for us, the chairman’s there and everyone really wants us to succeed as a football club. It’s a great place.
“As I said, I went there 20-odd years ago and it was still great, it was just in a different environment. The environment there now is one that people want to be involved in, from academy upwards.
“It’s a fantastic place – the only thing I would change is the weather! I’ve never been as cold or as wet managing football in my life; I felt like I’d fell in the sea a couple of times last season when I got in the dressing room.
“(Buxton winger) Jude (Oyibo), he’s cold in the middle of August, but he was that cold one game last season that I had to take him off after 65 minutes! I can’t remember who it was against, but he was that cold he stood – until the team came in after 95 minutes – under the heater, trying to get warm.
“He said ‘I’ve never been as cold in my life – I didn’t thaw out for three days.’ It’s a different way of life; I think that’s why the pitch plays a massive part as well.
“Last year, we only had one or two games called off, but the year before we had seven or eight, and that gives a massive advantage. It can be -3, -4 and you can still get a game on now, whereas previously, it would maybe be called off for two or three weeks.
“It’s great to have that pitch and it’s all credit to the chairman on that side.”
The balance between football and life outside of it for those in the dugout at semi-pro level can be especially intriguing. For some, the overwhelming desire is to earn the opportunity to make it a full-time endeavour, while for others, life and other work may always take greater precedence.
The priorities vary for players and managers alike throughout non-league, so for Phillo, does he welcome some time away from the game, or consume and study it at every opportunity?
“I always want to study football. I’m going watching Curzon Ashton tonight against Avro in pre-season; this time of year I’ll have a look around and try to get to as many friendlies as I can.
“My wife likes me to go out, especially when that Love Island’s on! I’ll try my best to miss out on that one, but no, I’ve got three kids, I’ve got a business myself, so you’ve sort of got to balance it out.
“Apart from my family, there’s no bigger love in my life than going out watching football, looking at players, and it’s great to be involved in. No disrespect to Glossop, but we went there the year before last, myself and Steve, and we did the job for nothing.
“We were trying to use the money to pay the players, because we only had a small budget, and I think they were 6th in the league when we left them, so it showed how much I love football when it’s not all about the financial side. We just want to be part of a football club and a part of a team that drives on, and I think you never stop learning about football.
“Speaking to Dave Frecklington at the end of last year (when Buxton played his Matlock Town side), we were picking his brains and I still speak to him now. Other managers, Liam Watson (at Southport), I always ask him for advice.
“All levels of football, you can learn things from different people, and as much as players are evolving, I think it’s daft not to try and evolve with them.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I think the opportunity came when Craig Robinson got the job at Ashton. I was still playing at the time but he wanted me to do a bit on the coaching side. Craig couldn’t do the travelling side of it because he’s a Liverpool-based lad, and the chairman at the time asked me to step in with about two or three weeks left until the season. At the time, I still wanted to play, because I was only 34/35. Myself and Steve Halford took the reins there and ever since then we’ve never looked back, obviously apart from last year.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
Pre-season’s obviously never enjoyable, because you’re putting the lads through the ringer, but I think you enjoy training sessions when you see people developing and different lads enjoying it themselves. You can always tell when you’ve put a good session on because there’s a smile on the lads’ faces, but I don’t do all the coaching myself; I have a couple of lads who do it with us and I think it’s great to look at different people’s point of view as well on the training pitch.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
Yeah, I’ll try. Obviously the older you get, the harder it gets to join in, because the lads are getting fitter and quicker as every year goes by. You try to do a little bit but sometimes you have to step aside, look from the outside in, and make sure that things are going right and the lads that you are looking to play are doing what they need to.
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit
Old Trafford is obviously a major one; I’ve been a massive fan of United for many a year. Non-league-wise, Buxton’s a great ground for me. Even though I’m manager now, I started my non-league education there at 18 in the Northern Counties East League and getting my teeth knocked out! Droylsden, playing so many games for them, that’s always a sentimental ground; it’s my hometown club so it’s always great to go back there. There’s a few but Old Trafford is the one in the professional ranks where I’ve had the most enjoyable days and nights.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
It’s a hard one. Obviously, being a goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel was the main one at the time, the way he conducted himself and the way he marshalled things. Bryan Robson and Roy Keane were good role models. In the non-league game, Neil Whalley. Liam Watson was a fantastic player; played 100 percent every week, scored some great goals and was always a really hard opponent, because he’d kick you and then score against you, and then laugh at you. I think different characters bring different things to the game and it’s great to have played with some of them.
And how would you sell the club to Peter Schmeichel, if you were trying to sign him for Buxton (in his prime)?!
Come and win us the league! (But as back-up to Grant Shenton?) Yeah listen, I always looked to keepers like that, even last year when we took Theo Roberts (on loan from Chester), one of the things that let him down at first, even though he was a great keeper, was his talking and his domination of the box and making people do things around him that makes sure you don’t concede goals. I think a trait that Grant’s got that we looked at is he marshals his defence well, he barks orders and keeps people on their toes so they don’t make mistakes; a lot of things that top keepers do.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world (though the club is going to Wales this pre-season)
Florida. I think if the chairman said ‘there’s a blank cheque’ and we could go anywhere in the world for pre-season, I think America’s so geared up and so much further forward in all sports at this moment in time. When you go over and see the facilities, it’s second to none. We’ve got to take a leaf out of their book and start funding grassroots and all the way up. Then I think we’ll see the rewards at the top of the game rather than trying to put the rewards at the top and hoping the rest looks after itself.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
Time with the players, getting your point across; sometimes you only get two hours a week with them. Trying to get your ideas over to them and motivate them in that time, that’s why you’ve got to pick the lads that sometimes might not have the best ability but have got the attitude that they want to be a success and want to push forward. That’s the way that we’ve done it and the way that we’ve looked at recruiting players; not ones who’ve been there and done it and are trying to get one last payday. We want young, hungry players in who want to get back in the professional game, or push on.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
There’s quite a few. Carl Ruffer, Michael Connors; a few rum lads who’d light the dressing room up. Other lads like Terry Fearns, who never said much, but when he did he had you rolling round with laughter. There’s that many characters and that’s hopefully what we don’t lose in the game.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach/player
I think the worst one was at Leyton Orient in the FA Cup (in a 1-1 draw at Droylsden in November 2010). It was about the 80th minute, they crossed the ball and (Scott McGleish)’s hit it against the post. I dived to keep it out and instead it’s hit me clean in the face and gone in the net. It was live on TV and I think it ended up on Robbie Savage’s bloopers or something like that. That’s probably the worst one that happened to me as a player. As a manager, touch wood, at the moment, no. You never know, embarrassing moments you’ve just got to get round them and make the best out of them. When you’re in net and that’s happening to you it’s very hard to make the best out of it!
Your routine on a match day
To be perfectly honest, I’m very regimental in a way. If we’ve won a game the week before, I’ll then go and do the same things again; get the same butty again or the same chocolate bar, the same drink. Once we lose, it all changes, but I always get there early, I like to pre-plan. A lot of people call me a weirdo but I’m very superstitious with the things that we do.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist, assuming that you don’t run it already…
No I don’t do it; some of the stuff they listen to now I can’t understand the words, never mind do the playlist! Stone Roses would definitely be up there.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
My grandad was always the main one that I looked up to in that way. Obviously, I work with his son, our David (Noble), who’s sort of my right-hand man at Buxton now. He always said that I was a bit of a volatile character to say the least, so I think he’s always tried to make sure that I’ve got a cool head. The older you get, the more you take those wise words and try to teach yourself to keep a cool head in a situation rather than losing your rag. I’ve been well-known to lose my rag but these days I feel a better person for looking at different situations in different lights. So I think my grandad and my Uncle David are the ones who’ve always said ‘keep a cool head and take the best out of bad situations rather than the worst.’
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
When I was younger we had Nobby Stiles as a manager at United. Unfortunately he left his role, but he was an inspirational bloke. He was in a bad situation with being ill but he couldn’t do enough for you. You don’t realise when he’s coaching you that he’s a World Cup winner. Similar to Brian Kidd, who was also at United; they were two great coaches, two great people, and just the aura about them, how much they cared about the lads and how they remembered their names. Just some of the stuff they passed on, and to look back now, you think how lucky you must have been to be coached and taught stuff by them.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
When I was at Droylsden, the local derby was Stalybridge, and we had one or two troubles with them. We had a flare incident, and a bloke who I’ve come to be good friends with, Keith Trudgeon, who does a lot at Stalybridge Celtic, he thought I was a thug, he thought I was all sorts. When we went on to manage Stalybridge, I made it my prerogative to go and phone him up to make sure that he understood me, and met him, and ever since then we’ve been good friends. I think other people at the football club, even though 30 percent of them probably still hate me (laughs), 70 percent have seen what kind of person I was at Stalybridge and how much I tried to get them out the mire at the time. Obviously the proof’s in the pudding on that one with where they are now and where we finished when we left. I think it’s great testament to the people there that they’ve seen that I wasn’t a thug and that I was a football person.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
Everyone’ll say the same, you never fulfil the same managing as you do playing, but it comes close. The buzz is always there no matter what; it’s always a lot stronger when you’re winning and with a team that want to win and have a winning mentality. You never replace that feeling of waking up and being fit and ready to go, or looking forward to putting a new kit on in pre-season, or winning games. As a manager, it’s great to win games, but it’s a different kind of pressure. It’s a pressure where you know that if you don’t win games your head’s on the block. For me, you never replace the buzz of being a player, no matter what you do in football. I still play vets’ league and stuff like that, and I still get a buzz off playing football. Your head thinks you can do it but your legs aren’t quite there as much as they would be five or ten years ago!
Interview/article by @chris_brookes