Born in Stirling in March 1964, it’s perhaps stating the obvious that the young man John Philliben, although being football daft, had little affinity to our football club 32 miles away.
Indeed it was his local club Stirling Albion which held John’s affection. Having come through the ranks at the Binos, he quickly made his first team debut and began to represent his country at Under 18 level despite turning out in the lower leagues.
John would become a key performer in the Scotland Under 18 squad, coached by Andy Roxburgh and Walter Smith, which won the European Championship in Finland in 1982. Having eliminated Holland, Turkey and Albania in the group stage, Poland were put to the sword in the semi final.
John lined up in dark blue shirt again for the final against Czechoslovakia, and opened the scoring as the Scots ran out 3-1 winners and worthy European champions.
Automatically they qualified for the following year’s World Youth Cup, where again the Scots were impressive, qualifying from a group consisting of hosts Mexico, South Korea and Australia.
Sadly, an early goal from Poland was enough to knock the young Scots out of the tournament at the quarter final stage. After leaving Stirling for a three-year spell with Doncaster Rovers, Motherwell manager Tommy McLean lured John to a football club that had just survived its first season back in the top flight of Scottish football and facing the traditional “difficult” second season.
After just a single defeat in the opening five games of the season, “Softie” was given his debut in claret and amber at Fir Park when Rangers came to town. 17,000 fans crammed into the stadium to witness a determined performance by the Steelmen, who ultimately came up just short against the Light Blues, who would go on to claim the championship.
His first goal for Motherwell came down at Cappielow just over a year later against Morton. And it came in some style, rifling home a volley from 25 yards which almost took the net away along with the breath of the 2,500 punters who witnessed it amid a dull 1-1 draw.
John quickly followed up the goal with another, which would help beat St Mirren at Fir Park two months later, and would prove important as ‘Well broke a run of six defeats in seven matches. Motherwell finished that season comfortably clear of any real relegation worries to ensure the Steelmen remained in the top flight for the fourth consecutive season with Philliben already amassing 81 appearances since his arrival.
By now, the Motherwell fans had been impressed with John’s versatility, with him turning out all along the back four, and also in midfield on occasions, almost always being calm and assured in everything he did.
Injury curtailed John’s games the following campaign as the defence again helped the club avoid the drop, only conceding 44 goals in 36 games as the strikers failed to produce.
That summer of 1989 can be traced back to the beginning of an upturn in the fortunes of the club that most fans of that era had only previously dreamt about. Motherwell signed Nick Cusack and George Burley, as McLean looked to bring more professionalism and threat up top to the squad, and captured David Cooper from Rangers in a move that would transform the thoughts and opinions of everyone connected to the club.
In February 1990, after beating Clyde 7-0 in the Scottish Cup third round, a massive Motherwell support gathered in the old open Gorgie terracing in anticipation of a memorable performance from their heroes against Hearts.
Unfortunately, the occasion will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. A torrential downpour drenched the ‘Well fans as the home side ran riot in a disappointing first half to win the tie in impressive fashion. Such was the power of the rain, three quarters of the visiting fans had left by the hour marked soaked through and miserable, leaving only the defiant hardy souls who refused to show any weakness to the celebrating Hearts fans.
In the famous Scottish Cup run of 1991, John was a strong influence in a resolute defensive performance at Aberdeen in the third round tie, which gave the platform for Cooper to roll a free kick to Stevie Kirk, who unleashed a shot that was too powerful for Theo Snelders to handle, and win the match.
He also played his part in knocking out Falkirk in the next round before missing out in the two quarter final matches with a dogged Morton side. Although he was back in the fold for the two semi final matches against Celtic, he was overlooked in the final as manager McLean for once let his heart rule his head and named an obviously injured Colin O’Neill on the bench much to anguish of big Softie.
The heartache John suffered that afternoon must’ve been in stark contrast to what he’d felt two weeks earlier as Rangers had came to Fir Park looking to win the title on our patch. John produced an instinctive finish to score one of Motherwell’s goals in a famous 3-0 win with Dougie Arnott joining in on the fun with a glorious late double.
As a result of the cup win, Motherwell qualified for the European Cup Winners Cup for the following season, allowing John to be part of a very special Motherwell XI, the one that led the club into Europe for the first time. Thomson, Griffin, McCart, Philliben, Nijholt, Dolan, Russell, McLeod, O’Donnell, Cooper and Kirk all took the field in Katowice, Poland alongside the local crack outfit GKS. I can only surmise that this actually happened, as I was part of the famous bus trip that had left Fir Park on the Monday morning only to arrive at the match nine minutes from the end, just in time to see GKS score, what would be an important second goal.
The buses arrived back in Motherwell on the following Saturday morning, in plenty of time to see Softie open the scoring at home to Dunfermline Athletic on a wet Lanarkshire afternoon. Jamie Dolan and Bobby Russell both added goals to secure a comfortable 3-0 win over the Pars as the Steelmen returned to league action.
In the second leg of the Euro tie, John was again involved, although this time from the bench. Despite a brave display by the Fir Parkers, GKS narrowly progressed to the next round on the away goals rule.
Slowly but surely, Tommy McLean was moulding together a terrific Motherwell squad who were respected by everyone in the country as a dangerous team to come up against. Performances and results were pretty much improving year on year and as the 1993/94 season loomed over the horizon, there were grounds for optimism amongst the club and its fans.
John played 32 times for the Steelmen as the title came tantalisingly close to landing at Fir Park for the first time in 62 years, with Motherwell finishing four points behind champions Rangers, and four points ahead of Celtic. It was also Phillibens’s most prolific campaign of his career scoring three times, against Partick Thistle along with Tommy Coyne in an entertaining 2-2 draw, scoring the opener against Rangers, where Coyne again joined him on the score sheet hitting the winner in a 2-1 success.
Softies third goal would be a memorable one. A week after winning in the league at Tannadice, Motherwell returned on Scottish Cup duty to Dundee United after previously eliminating Celtic with a Tommy Coyne flicked header, which evaded the clutches of Carl Muggleton in the visitors goal. Cup hero Stevie Kirk opened the scoring before United hit back with a quick fire double from Craig Brewster. When Tommy Coyne missed a penalty it left Motherwell in trouble as the clock ticked down. Three minutes into injury time, the Steelmen won a corner kick and as the ball came over, panic ensued in the penalty box before John lashed the ball high into the net to spark wild scenes of celebrations on the park and bedlam in the stands of all decked in claret and amber. In the post match interviews, Softie famously stated that he was “happy to have secured another crack of the cherry”.
Of course the following campaign saw a change in manager for the first time in a decade with Tommy McLean disagreeing with the Motherwell Board of Directors over the future development of the club and deciding to leave. In came Alex McLeish who joined from Aberdeen as the clubs first ever player/manager. The change at the top didn’t affect John’s status in the squad, with McLeish continuing the previous managers confidence in Johns ability and the importance of his presence in the Motherwell line up. The Steelmen went on to claim runners up spot in the top division for the first time in 61 years in McLeish’s first season in charge, with John yet again playing a prominent part of that success, appearing 39 times in what was as good a Motherwell side as I have witnessed in my fifty years watching the “Mighties”.
Despite Big Eck dismantling the Motherwell squad over the next two seasons, John still maintained a significant presence in claret and amber, representing the club another 61 times over the next two seasons through to the summer of 1997.
His last goal for the club came in a memorable afternoon down at Rugby Park in November 1996. Motherwell won 4-2 as Tommy Coyne stole the show with his only hat trick as a Motherwell player. A clever lobbed finish after a mistake in the Killie defence clinched the match ball for the Cobra before Philliben round off the scoring to send the ‘Well fans in the 7,000 crowd back to Lanarkshire in fine fettle. The following campaign would see John play out his last days at Fir Park, appearing 20 times.
His final bow came as a substitute at home to Kilmarnock in April 1998 when a Stefan Lindquist shot was enough to earn a draw at home to Kilmarnock as new Motherwell manager Harri Kampman struggled to get to grips of his new surroundings.
John left to move back to his first club, Stirling Albion, initially as player-manager before giving up the former after almost forty appearances. However, he continued his link with Motherwell, coming back time and again to recruit players and even selling the embryonic talent of Stephen Nicholas to the Fir Parkers. After Billy Davies had began to lose control of an expensively put together squad in September 2003, he was relieved of his duties. The club turned to the coaching team of John Philliben and Miodrag Krivokapic as John Boyle began the search for a new permanent manager. The change certainly worked as goals from David Kelly and Stuart Elliot turned over a visiting Hearts team in style, winning 2-0.
Three days later though, any real chance the duo had of securing the post full time pretty much vanished. Motherwell were knocked out of the League Cup at Airdrie after a youthful Keith Lasley scored a late own goal to send the Diamonds into the next round.
Days later, two Stevie Nicholas goals helped the Steelmen win 3-2 at McDiarmid Park before Celtic came to town a week later. A very encouraging display by Motherwell just came up short as the Hoops won by the odd goal in three, with Greg Strong notching at the back post for the ‘Well.
Within days, a new management team of Eric Black and Terry Butcher were in place as Philliben and Krivokapic left the club.
A very popular defender, John was a whole hearted performer whose sheer professionalism always shone through. Missing out on the 1991 Cup final was a harsh blow for John, but he stayed loyal to the club despite what looked like a snub.
John had been one of Tommy McLean’s finest buys, being snapped up in September 1986 for £20,000 from Doncaster Rovers. 367 appearances, with 8 goals shows just how important and reliable John was to this football club.
In his twelve seasons in North Lanarkshire, John only failed to play at least thirty games in any campaign just three times, two of which were as a result of injuries.
Ten years after leaving the club, John was awarded a much deserved Testimonial year, with the centre piece a game against West Ham United in July 2008 which allowed the Motherwell support to show their affection and appreciation of John’s efforts over the years.
John was one of a rare breed these days, a player appreciative of his life as a professional footballer and respectful of both his club and supporters. I doubt there has ever been a Motherwell player who has given so much to this club, and yet be so unassuming as he was. A quality footballer who loved his craft, knew what he was good at, and gave everything he had in every game he played. More importantly, John Philliben has probably been the most universally popular player I’ve ever seen playing for Motherwell, and given some of the comments I’ve heard over the years from some sections of our support, that I can tell you, is no mean feat.