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October 9th, 2012

Former City defender Phil Gilchrist at Loughborough College

THERE’s a smile on the face of hard-tackling former Leicester City defender Phil Gilchrist when he recalls the very first step on the long road to his new job in education.

Now Director of Sport at Ratcliffe College in Leicestershire, the 39-year-old says the subject cropped up when an apprentice at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

“I was on a programme on which I was asked what I would have done if I wasn’t a footballer and I answered ‘a PE teacher at Loughborough’.”

The wry smile, however, gives a broad hint that Gilchrist, due to graduate with a top up sports science degree from Loughborough College next summer, recognises he is pleasantly surprised how closely his current life reflects his view as a teenager.

“I didn’t have everything planned out – not at all,” he admits. “From the age of six, all I wanted to do was play football. Like a lot of footballers from my day, I didn’t really think about the future beyond my playing days until I was in my mid to late 20s.”

We were speaking the morning after Phil had been talking to students at a careers evening at Ratcliffe. He says: “I consider myself to have been extremely lucky in my football career to play until I was 36. Today that is the exception rather than the rule. I tell them education is very important and should continue to be even if they do become professional sportsmen or women.”

Gilchrist moved from the City Ground in 1992, having been given a glimpse of Cloughie’s greatness and eccentricity without getting a first team game. A north easterner by birth, he was then handed his Football League debut by Hartlepool and went on to play more than 500 games for five clubs. His longest stay was at Oxford United from 1995 to 1999 – the city in which his two children were born – but his most prominent were Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City and West Brom as he tasted Premier League football and won a League Cup medal with the Foxes.

Having done his FA Level one coaching badge at the age of 17 and generally enjoying the opportunity to coach in the community, coaching and management were high on his list of possibilities once his knees were no longer up to the rigours of professional football.

“I knew about the PFA’s degree course in journalism – a route some notable ex-players have gone down – but decided that wasn’t for me. I’ve done commentary and the like but I wasn’t passionate about it as a career.”

After leaving Rotherham United and returning to the Manor Ground in 2006, Gilchrist took his UEFA B coaching license and an opportunity opened up for him when appointed assistant manager to Kim Grant at Conference side Woking in May 2008.

“I’d always been the type to express my views to managers and really wanted to give it a go,” he said. “Then Kim was sacked after just seven games and I was put in caretaker charge before getting the job permanently.  We won my first four matches but we were still too close to the bottom of the table going into two games in three days. We were 3-0 down at half time on the Monday and I got the sack. I was gutted.”

Based in Leicestershire for the past 13 years, Phil then spent a short spell playing for local side Quorn but, apart from helping out at Leicester City’s academy on an ad hoc basis, has not been involved directly with the game he still loves since.

“Do I miss the buzz of professional football? Yes, I do. Would I consider management again, should the chance come along? Probably, but it would have to fit in with the rest of my life. I have to consider my longer term future and that of my family (wife Nicky is a year 6 teacher at Ratcliffe, son Cameron is 15 and daughter Olivia is 13). I’m more than happy in my job at a very sports-orientated school with a great set of governors.

“Again, I’ve been very fortunate how everything is turning out. My GCSE results were good enough to get me on the course at Loughborough College and I’ve really enjoyed it here. I discovered that many of the subjects being taught such as nutrition and healthy living are what I’ve put into practice over a 20-year career. Football does provide you with very useful skills.

“I would recommend going back into education to fellow footballers, but it’s not a shortcut. This will have taken me five years and that can be seen as a long time by a footballer. I’ve got a lot to thank Loughborough College for – the reality has more than lived up to my vague impressions when I was a youngster.

“I appreciate that finding a way forward after playing football can be very difficult and that only a small proportion will go into management and coaching. My path isn’t for everyone – but it is working well for me.”