An Interview With: Phil Starbuck

Record breaking goals, double debut strikes, player-management, the building trade and a life in the priesthood. This is the remarkable story of Philip Starbuck, told in his very own words.

New year’s day 1987, I watched in awe from the Executive Stand as a baby-faced assassin scored against the League and FA Cup double winners on his home debut for Nottingham Forest. At 18 years of age he was the name on everybody’s lips, but not even Phil Starbuck himself could have envisaged the weird and wonderful trajectories in which his career path would take him.

I was honoured to speak at length with Phil as he regaled upon a life less ordinary; the first port of call was his record-breaking feat of scoring on both his away and home debuts for the Reds.

“At Newcastle I didn’t even know I was playing. The gaffer had a rule whereby anyone who travelled with the squad had to put their boots in the skip (metal travel case for the players) and I’d put mine in thinking that one day I’d get to start a game. I’d scored 50 goals for the reserves but at St James’ Park I was there to help put the kit out and get some experience”

Phil proceeded to tell me that Brian Clough had insisted on the players enjoying a couple of beers with their meal the previous evening, his usual way of ensuring a good night’s sleep and quelling the nerves. Phil recalled, “I’d gotten all the shirts on the pegs and the boots ready when the gaffer asked me if I’d like to play, I said I’d love to one day gaffer, Cloughie pointed to the number 10 shirt and said “good, get it on cos you’re playing today!”

That unique level of man management was indicative of Brian Clough, the likes of Gary Birtles, prior to the 79 European Cup final, and Roy Keane’s debut at Anfield are testament to his methodology.

Starbuck not only started but scored on his away debut at Newcastle on December 13th, 1986. Does it get any better than that? It certainly did and the man himself talked me through the emotions of becoming (to my knowledge) the only Forest player to score on his home debut as well… versus Liverpool. “It was a similar thing” said Starbuck, “I was told I was playing about an hour before kick-off. As for my goal, I remember Franz Carr played a one-two with Nigel Clough before putting the ball across to me on the penalty spot, there was nobody there, just me and Grobbelaar, I just thought flipping heck! All those years of training for one on ones went out the window and I just smashed it.”

Remarkably, Phil Starbuck did not score again for Forest, but his record-breaking legacy has lived on unchallenged. A lack of opportunities then prompted the Nottingham born youngster to leave the City Ground for Huddersfield Town in 1991, where he shone brightly.

“It was the best thing I ever did” said Starbuck. “I didn’t want to leave the City Ground, I loved it there and I loved the gaffer.” Phil remembers having to give Brian Clough the transfer request and being strongly urged to reconsider. He was left alone in Clough’s office for thirty minutes to think about it, with the letter still on the desk. “In the end I left the office, leaving the letter behind me, it was the best thing I ever did.”

The statistics at Huddersfield certainly supported the youngster’s decision, where he played regularly, racking up 178 appearances and 47 goals in all competitions. Instantly, Phil struck a great bond with his manager, the Irishman Eoin Hand. And, just as he did at Forest, Phil Starbuck chalked up some unique milestones for the Terriers too.

In his own words, he told me the following. “I had a great start, scoring six or seven goals in my first ten games and I took to the fans straight away. I captained the team to Wembley and scored the last ever goal in their old stadium (Leeds Road), so I made history. I just had a cracking time there, probably, my biggest regret was leaving.” Starbuck explained that the controversial appointment of Ian Ross had impacted this decision, a manager who resorted to benching the fans favourite on regular occasions; a decision that would backfire on Ross and once again place Starbuck in the record books. “Every time Ian Ross put me on the bench I scored, so the fans were giving him some stick. On one occasion (12th April 1993 v Wigan Athletic) I came on to a big cheer from the fans as we were taking a corner at the Cow Shed End; I darted to the near post and glanced the ball into the far corner after just 3 seconds, which was a record at the time. I felt like sticking the V sign up to the manager but decided against it!”

We talked about Phil’s brief stint in Holland for RKC Waalwijk and the lessons learned on the continent. He explained that it was completely different culture, from varying systems and one up front, to a seven-day working week. Once again though, he found his scoring boots and impressed his loan club. Waalwijk wanted to sign him permanently but he was obliged to return to his then parent club Sheffield United.

Our next topic of conversation was management, his tenure at Hucknall Town. Phil Starbuck was player manager, a role that’s always intrigued me, I asked him how he approached the games in this capacity? “You’ve constantly got to be thinking” he said, “being alert to your own game, how the team’s getting on, possible substitutions and entrusting your other staff to make decisions too.”

Despite a lofty position in the Unibond Premier League and winning two cups, Starbuck touched upon a rift between the chairman and himself. “The chairman (Brian Holmes) entered the dressing room after a defeat, telling me who I should and shouldn’t be playing, I told him he needed to get out and reminded him that he was paying me to do this.” The relationship between the two men was never the same and ended with Phil Starbuck leaving the club after another successful season. Phil’s account of the final conversation between himself and Mr Holmes was astonishing; “He (Brian) told me that’d I’d become more popular than him at Hucknall Town,” he said “that’s not allowed to happen, one of us is going to be leaving and it’s not me!”

Hucknall Town are currently in the East Midlands Counties League (Step 6), many leagues below the level they were at under Philip Starbuck.

After a successful career as both player and manager you’d expect Phil to take it easy; not a chance, he retrained as a builder and runs his own business. In addition, Phil Starbuck is practicing Minister/Pastor too. He’s a deeply religious man and has been since the passing of his beloved Grandfather many years ago. Phil’s Grandfather played an integral part in his early life, they’d see each other every day for family meals, something which continued into his time at at Forest.

“I felt so empty when my Grandad died” Phil told me, “nothing was filling the void, so I asked Christ into my heart, I knelt and read a prayer called Giving Your Life to Christ. God met me there and then, I couldn’t move, I felt surrounded by a presence and love; I’d been born again!” Following the wonder of Phil’s union with God, he then had to tell the manager and players at Nottingham Forest. He laughed hysterically before saying “this had its own challenges; I can tell you, the lads began calling me Rev or Maxi, after Maxi Priest.”

Starbuck then reminisced upon a hilarious conversation with Brian Clough, knocking on the manager’s door and floating the idea of getting a club Chaplain at the City Ground. Clough responded, “I’m the only Chaplain at this club, now F off!”

Phil Starbuck’s journey is something to behold, both on and off the football pitch. From debut goals to literally building churches for his charity, the 51-year-old is an inspiration to us all. Many thanks from myself and Nottingham Sport to Phil for taking the time to speak with us.

Steve Corry

*Article provided by Steve Corry (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

Main image @BlueTone65 a young Phil Starbuck in his Nottingham Forest days.

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