Relegation at the end of the 1953-54 season was a bitter blow for Prescot Cables’ players, officials and supporters. The job of getting the team back into Division 1 of the Lancashire Combination fell to trainer-coach Harry Topping (see programme for 1 February 2014). He must have looked at his team sheet at the end of the season and wondered how it could be improved. There was quality in the squad. With Frank Garton in goal and Harry Grisedale not only one of the league’s finest left-backs but an outstanding utility player, the team was assured a safe pair of hands between the sticks and a player capable of fearless defending at one end of the pitch and scoring freely at the other. But there were also weaknesses.
After six years of sterling service at the heart of Cables’ defence, the great Albert Jelly, now aged 37, was nearing the end of his career. He was to play just one more year at Hope Street. A transfusion of new blood was urgently needed. In August 1954 Topping and club officials organised a trial match. It included local-boy Jackie Lawton, Alex Muir (a Scot with first-team experience at Liverpool and several seasons at South Liverpool and New Brighton) and four men from Earlestown: Frank and Ray Phillips, Freddie Crampton and Bill Maddison. All but Ray were signed.
The ensuing season (1954-55) saw Cables gain promotion back to the top flight and featured a record-breaking 18-2 home win against Great Harwood on 19 February 1955 in which new-boy Crampton scored a staggering seven goals, Bob Whitehead six and Jackie Lawton four. 1955-56 was a season of consolidation. Captained by the 32-year-old Alex Muir, the team finished a respectable 8th in the division. Frank Phillips established himself as a dependable and ever-present wing-half and Bill Maddison (one of three wing-half brothers from Haydock – the other two were Harry and Sammy) a more-than-adequate replacement for Jelly. Alternating between right-wing and centre-forward, Crampton finished the season with 26 goals. ‘But we can do better,’ Topping must have thought. The final piece in the jigsaw fell into place in April 1956 when Prescot-born Bill Watkinson agreed to join Cables on loan from Halifax Town. Watkinson had started his career at Prescot just after the war before moving to Liverpool, Accrington Stanley and Halifax. He was a phenomenal goal-scorer and, in Topping’s opinion, the spearhead for an out-and-out assault on a prize Cables had never won in its 72-year history: the Lancashire Combination Championship.
‘One of the finest wing halves … ever to have donned a Prescot shirt…. One of their most loyal servants. … The club had probably its best years while he was there’ (Neville Walker, From Slacky Brow to Hope Street).
Frank Bryant Phillips was born in Warrington on 4 May 1929. His parents Benjamin Phillips and Bessie née Bradfield had married during the summer of 1928 and went on to have another son Ray (mentioned above) who was born on 1 September 1930, just 16 months after Frank. Little has come to light about any other siblings that Frank and Ray might have had or where they were educated. What we do know is that by the summer of 1954 they were both playing football for Earlestown and had attracted the attention of Harry Topping at Prescot Cables. As mentioned above, the trial led to Frank signing for Cables while Ray returned to Earlestown. In his first season (1954-55) Frank missed few matches and no doubt enjoyed playing alongside Bert Jelly in his last season. Cables finished the season runners-up to Burnley ‘A’ (three points behind) and achieved what Topping and everyone else at Hope Street had wished for: promotion back to Division 1. Judging from programmes sent to me by Cables’ unofficial ambassador to Devon John Hayes, Phillips played most of his matches at right-half (no.4) with occasional sorties at left-half (no.6). He was ever-present in 1955-56 and in the championship-winning team of 1956-57.
Much to everyone’s surprise (‘a real shock’ according to Neville Walker) Phillips was dropped for the opening game of the 1957-58 season. The reason is unknown. With other players a sudden and otherwise inexplicable fall from grace like this was usually due to problems with terms and conditions. Whatever it was in Frank’s case, issues were evidently soon resolved. He was reinstated within three or four matches and went on to play in 51 of Cables’ 54 matches. The team finished the season runners-up, three points behind Horwich RMI, and took its FA Cup ambitions as far as the 1st round proper, losing 5-0 away to Hartlepool on 16 November 1957. Cables also finished the ensuing 1958-59 season runners-up, this time four points adrift from champions New Brighton. Phillips served as vice-captain and was ever present. Bert Taylor wrote at the time that the club’s successes ‘are due to a defence in which Kenny Fletcher and Frank Phillips hold ever-present certificates. I hope there is a big demand for tickets for Phillips’ Benefit on April 30th’, he continued, ‘when the club hopes to bring a team of renowned English league players to Hope Street.’ The All Stars XI that turned up to honour Phillips included Billy Liddell and Alan A’Court from Liverpool. It was a match that reflected perfectly all that Frank stood for at Cables: ‘fair play, good football and a fine sense of sportsmanship’ (Bert Taylor again). But the benefit match did not mark the end of Frank’s days at Hope Street. He stayed on for another two seasons. 1959-60 started well with another FA Cup run as far as the 1st round proper (they lost away to Darlington) but ended with a disappointing 11th slot in the league. The shortcomings of the second half of the season may have been linked to Phillips’ absence with a cartilage injury. He was back in the team in August 1960 and made his 300th appearance in a match against Ellesmere Port the following 18 February. Cables finished 8th in the league. After seven remarkable years at the club, Frank was retained for the 1961-62 season but chose instead to re-join his ex-Cables team mate Freddie Crampton at Earlestown. He was, however, present in 1962 for the official opening of the new social club. It is not known how many more years he played. Outside football he married the 23-year-old Audrey Mary Hughes in Newton-le-Willows in the summer of 1955. His old Earlestown team-mate Eric Bond recalls that Frank and Audrey had a daughter but cannot remember her name. ‘He was a friendly, family man,’ Eric told me recently, ‘and Prescot Cables through and through’. Both Eric and Phil Taylor recall his management of the Carrs Hotel, Dragon Lane, Whiston and his Rolls Royce with vanity plates, suggesting a flamboyance not reflected in his steady and reliable days as one of Cables’ most dependable defenders. I would be interested to hear from any reader who can recall the Rolls Royce’s number plate. My guess would be either ‘FBP 1’ or perhaps ‘CAB 1’.
Like all the Cables Greats alive at the time, Frank Phillips was present for the centenary re-union dinner at the Hope Street Social Club on 21 December 1984. He died aged 70 sometime between July and September 1999 and his brother Ray died aged 74 in 2004.
I am indebted to Neville Walker for access to unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street; John Hayes for access to his collection of Cables’ programmes from the 1950s; Eric Bond, Phil Taylor and David Williams for their memories of Frank Phillips and Freddie Crampton; and John Williams for assistance with public records.