Why Sunderland Legend Kevin Phillips Is My Hero

He proved that he was the best in Europe - but on his day, I'm not sure anyone in the world could've stopped him...
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He proved that he was the best in Europe - but on his day, I'm not sure anyone in the world could've stopped him...

Why Sunderland Legend Kevin Phillips Is My Hero

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Yesterday, Kevin Phillips announced his retirement from football, signalling the end to a 23-year-long career, full of goals.

From playing semi-professional football at right-back for Baldock Town in the 90s, to becoming the European Golden Boot holder in 2000, Kevin Phillips certainly proved himself as a master of his trade, a devout professional - and one of the most prolific and well respected forwards in the country.

Many clubs have enjoyed his services including Watford, Southampton, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Brom, Crystal Palace, Blackpool, and, more recently, Leicester. However, the club at which Phillips proved his worth and will forever be engrained in club folklore is Sunderland.

Not a man of great physical stature standing at 5’7", Phillips signed for Sunderland in 1997 by manager Peter Reid for £325,000. He had impressed at Watford, but was still reasonably unknown to the football world. He found a partnership with Niall Quinn to form the famous ‘little and large’ strike force that would go on to guide the Black Cats to two seventh placed Premier League finishes.

On his first season on Wearside, Phillips broke club records, scoring in seven consecutive matches. The club narrowly missed out on promotion in the 1997/98 season, losing out to Charlton Athletic in a famous play-off final which ended 4-4 and 7-6 on penalties. Ironically, it was Sunderland born Charlton star Clive Mendonca was the thorn in the Black Cats' side that day. Super Kev described the ’98 play-off final as his ‘most disappointing day in football’.

Nevertheless, Phillips committed to the promotion cause and Sunderland were eventually promoted to the Premier League in 1999 as winners of Division One with a then record points tally of 105 points. Phillips ended the season with 25 goals in all competitions, and in truth that could've been more had he not sustained a broken toe which ruled him out for four months. Subsequently, the forward's form earned him one of his few England international call-ups, in a friendly against Hungary.

The 1999/00 Premier League season was my first as a Sunderland supporter. Aged just five, I was initiated as a fan in what, even now, is Sunderland’s best season of recent memory. Can you blame me for my high expectations of the club? At such a young age, you are oblivious to the politics of the game and have no concept for tactics or results. You sit with your legs swinging from the seat in awe of the atmosphere, the roar of the crowd and the players on the pitch. Until I was 10, only one man’s name meant anything to me: Kevin Phillips.

Sure, I recognised Niall Quinn and the rest of the Sunderland team, but at that age, football is at its most romantic. You go to school and play football in the playground. You play Sunderland vs. Newcastle on FIFA on amateur difficulty all night beating them 57-0. The weekend arrives and you go to the match. Analysis and financial strife is exchanged for childish innocence, and an unconditional love for the game carries you through years of losses and cup exits.

In your innocence you become oblivious to the big names of the Premier League and your team is the only thing that matters. Kevin Phillips was the only thing that mattered to me at that time, I was too young to remember the specifics of his game, all I knew was that he scored a lot and was my hero. For me, the only player that came close to the Kevin Phillips level of idolisation was perhaps David Beckham. But that was more of an unavoidable pre-requisite of the time rather than a specific choice.

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It’s always the minor Kevin Phillips goals that I remember. The 'insignificant' ones. People talk of his half-volley against Chelsea and his goal against Newcastle. But it’s not those that I remember him for. He was the player who I instilled all my hope into - 'if anyone can save us from defeat, it's Kevin Phillips'. Whether I was at the Stadium of Light or waiting for his name to appear on Soccer Saturday, he was the only player I ever watched with such intent.

I remember his brace in the 02/03 season against West Brom. A pair of goals pretty much lost in time to other supporters, but a huge memory of mine growing up supporting Sunderland. Two nil down at half-time, and losing without an inch of pride, I sat crying on my sofa with disdain. After all, I was used to Sunderland having some degree of success, and now we were failing miserably. Simultaneously, Newcastle United were rubbing salt in the wounds by securing Champions League football.

The famous game of three own goals against Charlton Athletic ended 3-1. Kevin Phillips scored the consolation goal with a penalty. I remember being overcome with emotion when he scored that penalty. It felt like our pride had been restored with that goal. It was a nothing goal in hindsight - but for me it meant everything, and it was scored by my reliable hero, Super Kevin Phillips.

I remember rainy weekends watching my ‘Super Kev's Hot 100 goals’ video. I remember the grainy Tyne-Tees advert at the start; the crackly interview with Niall Quinn in which he explains that Phillips ‘took the game by the scruff of the neck’. I haven’t seen the video for 10 years, yet the minor details still remain so engrained in my mind. Maybe my rose-tinted specs have glorified just how good Super Kev was at Sunderland. Every supporter remembers the player they first idolised and worshipped and it’s sad to think that with the current lack of loyalty and constant transfer switches we see in today’s game, youngsters of today may be deprived of this experience.

Super Kev made 233 appearances for Sunderland, scoring 130 goals. He broke Brian Clough’s post-war goal scoring record, notching 35 goals in a season. He achieved the Premier League Top Goalscorer and the European Top Goalscorer awards in 2000 - and remains the only Englishman to achieve such a feat. I remember watching him receive his trophy by the side of the Stadium of Light pitch, unappreciative of the enormity of what he’d achieved. Indeed, it’s only in retrospect that I can appreciate that a Sunderland player took the game by surprise and won the trophy that only the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi would win today. When Kevin Phillips left Sunderland in 2003, it signalled the end of an era for the Black Cats, and would lead to a time of financial troubles and more play-off woes.

Of course, Super Kev continued scoring at the other clubs he signed for, regularly in fact, and became a fan favourite everywhere he played. Maybe it was his impish grin and his small stature that made his achievements so romantic.

In the week that Kevin Phillips announces his retirement it’s fitting that his final game of football will be in a Sunderland shirt at Jody Craddock’s testimonial game next Monday at Molineux. It is a game which will see most of the Peter Reid XI reform. A game which will surely bring up feelings of nostalgia for many fans and a chance to reminisce about the great moments Kevin Phillips gave us.

Thank you, Kevin Phillips.