What a difference a year makes for Hythe’s penalty shoot-out hero Steve Phillips.
Relegated with Phoenix Sports last season, keeper Phillips is one game away from promotion after helping the Cannons reach the Isthmian South East play-off final.
He saved twice from the spot as Steve Watt’s underdogs beat Ramsgate 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 semi-final draw at Southwood on Tuesday night.
Having already denied Ashley Miller, Phillips made the winning save from Theo Osinfolarin to lead Hythe to a final that looked a million miles away at the turn of the year.
But 14 wins in 19 games, including six successive victories at the end of the season, carried them into the play-offs and they visit Whitehawk tomorrow for a place in the Isthmian Premier.
Phillips, who joined Hythe in September, has been a spectator at times playing behind the league’s meanest defence, with Watt’s side conceding just 34 goals in 38 league games.
But penalty shoot-outs put keepers in the spotlight and Phillips didn’t disappoint.
He said: “The boys have put their bodies on the line for me all season and it’s good to return the favour and help us get through.
“When the crowd’s been on your back for 90 minutes, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything went my way in terms of being able to read the penalties. Luckily, I was able to save a couple.
“They had a couple of cracking penalties - that Jack Paxman one that went straight in the stanchion, I was very impressed with that - but when you get those penalties that are in and around you, you’ve just got to try and keep them out.”
The linesman hadn’t seemed sure of the score before Osinfolarin stepped up, so Phillips didn’t immediately realise Hythe had won.
“I asked the lino if they miss is it over and he wasn’t really too sure,” added the keeper, who travels from his home in Brighton to play for the Cannons.
“There was a bit of nothingness after I made the save and then I saw the boys chasing towards me and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it, we’ve won now’. “It’s unbelievable, to come from where we’ve been, to go on the run we have, to get to this point.
“You can’t put it into words getting to a play-off final, especially after last year, getting relegated with Phoenix and having that setback.
“When Watty gave me a call and asked me if I wanted to come down, I wasn’t too sure about the travelling at first but the boys have been absolutely fantastic.
“We’ve become a really tight-knit unit and everyone saw that today.
“I’ve been lucky to work with some great managers and Watty’s no exception.
“He sets out the way he wants to play and everyone has bought into it.
“He’s been very calm and very organised and for me as a keeper it’s an absolute dream to have Lex Allan, Jack Steventon and a few of the other guys playing in front of me because for most of the season I’ve not had too much to do.
“I’m very lucky to have a strong defensive unit in front of me and when I’m called upon I’ve got to try and do my job.
“Luckily, I’ve done that and we’ve got a fantastic result.”
Phillips won’t have far to travel to the final, with Whitehawk’s ground just 10 minutes from his house.
Hythe will once again be underdogs but they’re more than capable of upsetting the odds again.
“We go there with no fear,” said Phillips.
“No one expected us to get to this point but the boys in the dressing room have such a strong belief and Watty’s created such a tight unit.
“We go there to give a good account of ourselves and hopefully get over the line and give the supporters a great end to the season.”