BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Dillon Phillips was not even three years old when Charlton Athletic last reached Wembley.
He was way too young to have been watching one of the most dramatic play-off finals ever.
Back in 1998, an Addicks keeper was one of the heroes. Manager Alan Curbishley could not bear to watch Michael Gray’s penalty. Sasa Ilic saved and the Serbian was piled on to by his ecstatic team-mates.
Tonight, Charlton have got a glorious chance to reach the new Wembley. Then they would need just one more win – under super-pressurised circumstances – to be back in the Championship.
Phillips has seen the highs and lows in SE7. He signed for the club at the age of eight.
He was still in the youth ranks when Charlton last won promotion at this level in 2012.
The prize is huge. Wembley awaits for either the Addicks or Doncaster Rovers.
“It would be massive to get there but that’s not really what we started out to achieve in the long term,” said Phillips. “We started out to achieve promotion. If we did get there [to Wembley] and didn’t go up then all it would be is an experience – not an achievement.
“I suppose just looking short-term we need to make sure we’re there first. When you are there we need to do what we’ve done all season. If we do that then we’re more than capable of beating anyone we’d get in the final.
“It would be unreal for us. I know how much it would mean to the fans and we have got a tight group – everyone is fighting for each other.
“I wasn’t really involved in the League One season , I saw it from a distance because I was a youth-team player. But I could still see how good the group was, you could tell.
“You just had to look at the management we had at the time and players like Jacko [Johnnie Jackson] and Chris Solly. You could tell it was something special. The group we have got at the moment is really good. Everyone gets on. It might not seem like a lot, but that is massive in football.
“I know it was at National League level, but when I won promotion at Cheltenham the group there was unbelievable. There was no animosity, no tension. It helps if you want to perform week in and week out.”
Phillips had 19 friends and family at Sunday’s first leg. Harry Lennon and Ollie Muldoon – two of his best mates who he came through the academy system with – were in the away end.
“We don’t get many comps at all – most of them had to pay for a ticket,” said the Hornchurch-based shotstopper. “Thirteen of them drove up Sunday morning. My mum, dad, grandad and my little brother stayed up the night before and made a little bit of a weekend of it.
“The home game will be the same. The main thing is to get them sitting together.
“It’s really exciting.
“The Valley is going to be full and the last time I can remember it like that was when the team played on the final day against Hartlepool [May 5 2-12]. Yann [Kermorgant] scored a volley from a ridiculous angle.”
When Phillips first put pen to paper for Charlton he had his picture taken with first-teamers Scott Parker and Paul Konchesky, who proved to be star graduates off the production line.
The roles will be reversed on Monday when he heads to The Valley to help welcome in the next U9s and U10s.
Phillips started this campaign as first-choice but then lost the starting jersey to loanee Jed Steer. But Steer was recalled by Aston Villa in January – and starred in their Championship play-off penalty shootout win over West Brom on Tuesday.
Although the experienced Chris Maxwell was drafted in on a temporary deal from Preston North End, he has been benched as Phillips has played every minute from the turn of the year.
He has kept 13 clean sheets, including three in a row at the end of the regulation season.
That figure would have been higher if Steer had not kept him out for 19 fixtures.
“I feel like the first six games I did okay,” said Phillips. “Do I also feel like I could’ve done better? One-hundred per cent I feel like I could’ve done better.
“I could’ve made more saves and won us points instead of conceding a goal. People might have thought ‘that wasn’t his fault’ but being that harsh critic I felt I could’ve saved that and saved us a point here or there. I’d like to think since I’ve been back in the side I have made those saves and kept us in games at crucial times.
“It obviously helps that the team has been doing really well. At the start of the season it was a new side coming together. They brought a good goalkeeper in Jed through the door and they thought they had to give him a go if results weren’t going exactly as they wanted them.
“He came in and did really well. It shows how good he is now he has been in the Championship play-offs. Fair play to him, I hope he goes and gets promoted.
“Any player should back themselves and I feel like there is definitely more to come from me. I want perfection. Like everyone you have your idols – people you look up to and want to be as good as – who are playing Premier League and international football.
“I’m 23 and you never stop thinking you could one day do that.”
Phillips was back-up to Ben Amos last season as Charlton suffered heartache in the play-offs at this stage – losing both legs to Shrewsbury Town.
“It’s hard for me to comment on that season because I was always involved but I wasn’t playing,” he said. “When you don’t play it is hard to have that connection with the group.
“I just think as a club everyone sort of believes we can actually do it this time. It feels as if everyone – the players, fans and staff – are a lot more positive than last season.
“Although I definitely thought, looking from the outside, that we had a good enough team to compete with the likes of Rotherham. If you look at the team Rotherham had last season and our one then we definitely could’ve gone up.
“I think the players who experienced it last season, it will only make them hungrier now to get promoted this time.”
Essex trio Phillips, Josh Cullen and Lewis Page car-share for the drive to training.
So do they talk a lot about the day job?
“Where it has been going well, football is a hot topic,” said Phillips. “If it is not going well then we don’t want to talk about it or think about it.”
Do things right tonight, and there are bound to be discussions next week about Wembley.