Kevin Phillips. Need I say any more? I could stop this article here and simply leave the rest to your own memories, imagination and unbridled nostalgia, all of which would be a befitting tribute I am sure. Putting it bluntly, there’s not much more can be said about Phillips in a red and white context which has not already been said, but I’ll try anyway.
Picking a number one can be difficult I suppose. With so many players, so many eras and so many attributes to consider, it is very much a diverse selection pool. Having said that, no matter what age you are or at what moment in time you fell in love with this great football club and at what period of ‘success’ you were devoted to; Phillips’ name will more often than not crop up. Of course, there were the goals, but there was also the endeavour and attitude and the realisation that one of the finest goal scorers in the country was ours – a feeling once it’s taken away from you can be hard to replace and acknowledge. And of course, there were the goals.
There were other candidates for the role. While not being entitled to the ‘millennial’ status, Sunderland became my religion around that period, little did I know those seventh-place finishes would be as good as it would get to date. Julio Arca is an obvious choice. He brought with him a craft and flair unbeknownst to many on Wearside. That South American panache and his elongated stay made him a cult hero during his tenure, and rightly so. There are others from that period in time; Mickey Gray, Nicky Summerbee, Kevin Ball and so on. All players with an attitude we could only dream of in our players in recent years – and ability too.
Darren Bent might have threatened such a title had he kept his eyes on the prize and out of his bank account – those 18 months were as close to Phillips as we had had since before he left for Aston Villa. As much I loathe Bent for what happened, the board share part of that for not paying one of the league’s best marksmen what he deserved. Djibril Cisse was another who built up quite the affection with supporters and I loved the celebration, but his stay was too short to be considered a number one. Enter Jermain Defoe. Perhaps the closest rival to Phillips for me. Not only did he score a plethora of goals in a team he had no right to do so in, but he completely dedicated his soul to the area and ‘got’ Sunderland. And that’s before discussing his admirable efforts with Bradley Lowery. But again, perhaps the length of his stay and the circumstances of everything out of his control work against him in my number one ranks and tip the scales towards Phillips.
Now I could, at this juncture, elaborate on Phillips’ credentials, stats and honours in a Sunderland shirt before going on about this particular goal or that particular goal and I may come to that. But to me, Phillips was so much more than that. This little man from Hitchin, Hertfordshire, is the very reason why I got into football and I’m not just talking about supporting Sunderland albeit that coincides.
As an eight-year-old lad I witnessed Phillips pick up the accolade for being the best goal scorer in Europe. Let that sink in. In Europe! Some of the names for some of the teams across the continent and Phillips, at Sunderland, topped them all. But for a certain centre forward who prides himself on wearing wanker’s hats, Phillips would have earned more opportunities in the white of England I’m sure.
But it was because of that year, and the three beforehand why I decided that I wanted to be a striker. I would go to school football trials and trials for the local Sunday morning under 10’s team and I would play in five-a-side football leagues and every time I was auditioning as a striker. I was auditioning as Kevin Phillips. I would wear my strip how he would. If he wore long-sleeved shirts on a Saturday, I would wear long-sleeved shirts at my next training sessions and game. If he wore the collar of his Asiscs Lambtons shirts up, I would wear the collar of my shirt up – he always seemed to have quite a baggy top when he was playing so I’d pleaded with my mam and dad to get a bigger size so mine was baggy. My first pair of football boots were Diadora. Black. Before switching to Nike when Phillips did. The mannerisms in my celebrations when scoring too, whether it be the one armed windmill like in front of a despairing Galowgate End or the little blown kiss to a Leppings Lane End in delirium after the most perfect in-your-stride goal at Sheffield Wednesday. Anything you can think of, I took it on board and moulded myself as the next Kevin Phillips.
And that is why he is my number one. Yeah there were the goals – I pretty much burnt out the video tape of ‘SuperKev’s Hot 100’ watching them and analysing them and etching them into my brain for my next game. The Chelsea volley, the collection against them lot, the Play-Off Final chip – my favourite is actually his first goal upon return from injury away at Queens Park Rangers. An impeccable volley on the outside of his boot rifled into the top corner in front of an adorning School End at Loftus Road – goals always look better in front of our fans at away games! But it was about giving me a sense of reasoning in my own life. When asked the question at school of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” the answer was always the next Kevin Phillips. When my Newcastle supporting friends thought they could antagonise me about a Sunderland defeat, I knew the next week Phillips would give me the ammunition to fire back at them.
Now a lot of people will criticise the ending of Phillips’ time at Sunderland. The transfer requests and just the entire trundle towards its sour conclusion. I don’t buy that. The team had nose-dived. The personnel and decision making at a higher level than Phillips had gone awry at best. The playing squad was unrecognisable to the two years previous. Yes it could have gone better, but I don’t detract that from what Phillips did in a Sunderland shirt. He stayed longer than he ought to if we consider footballers of today and how long they remain at a club. He scored more goals than he ought to have and propelled Sunderland to a level and a period which most Sunderland fans will forever remember with fondness.
Kevin Phillips. Not just one of the best players ever to wear a red and white shirt, but an idol.