As Sunderland's season falters to an apparent standstill, the squad suffering from a hangover from the FA Cup exit and the extra exertions that the run brought, O'Neill must once again try and rally his troops ahead of Saturday's trip to the Midlands. It has been a season Villa will want to forget as the possibility of relegation still looms large as Alex McLeish's injury ravaged side try and claw together just a few more points to ensure their safety.
Whilst on paper it is hardly shaping up to be a classic encounter both sides will be eager for the points for their respective reasons and we here at The Roker Report begin our build-up to the game with another Cult Hero. This week's selection perhaps eclipses the term Cult Hero and crosses into the territory of a legend, I'll let you be the judge.
A man who requires no introduction, Kevin Phillips.Every now and again a player comes along who changes everything. For me that man was Kevin Phillips. An unassuming forward who beat the odds to become the only Englishman to win the European Golden Boot and
still a force to be reckoned with to this day even in the twilight of his career. Phillips' rise is a tale that would not look out of place on the big screen or on the pages of Roy of the Rovers.
Despite making a name for himself as a ruthless striker, Kevin actually started his career as a right-back with Southampton but seemingly did not do enough to be rewarded with a professional contract and was released by the Saints. Undeterred Phillips joined the semi-professional outfit Baldock Town and was employed in a more
familiar role as a centre forward whilst, famously, still stacking shelves at a local supermarket.
Kevin did enough whilst with Baldock to impress Watford's scouts and The Hornets saw fit to pay £10,000 for the diminutive strikers' services. Phillips spent two and a half seasons with Watford, a spell blighted by a lengthy stint on the Physio's table with a foot injury in late 1996.
As Watford finished the 1996/97 season midtable in the Second Division, Sunderland were saying an emotional farewell to their spiritual home Roker Park and also the Premier League. First Division football was not what Bob Murray and Sunderland fans had hoped would grace the first season in their new home but there was reason to be
hopeful of a swift return to the top flight under Peter Reid.
Sunderland's relegation was often attributed to an inability to score enough goals, with the forwards at the time barely able to get more than four goals apiece to their name. Then again this was a strike force that more often than not included Paul Stewart, which kind of explains a lot. So there was some surprise when the gaffer looked to
remedy the problem by paying Watford £350,000 for the Phillips who was very much still an unknown quantity at the time.
We needn't have worried. Phillips hit the ground running with a sensational first season. "Super Kev" as he was hastily dubbed was merciless in front of goal and would go on to break all kinds of records that term, helped by his partner in crime, Niall Quinn. Phillips would end the season as the first player since the legendary Brian Clough to score thirty goals in a season. Of course the 1997/98 season did not have the fairytale finish that Phillips' form deserved as Sunderland came undone in that classic Play-Off Final defeat against Charlton.
Undeterred Sunderland and Phillips came back even more determined to set the record straight the following year as the forwards goals fired The Black Cats to a strong start before a toe injury would manage to keep Kevin sidelined for nearly four months. Upon his return however Phillips simply carried on where he left off as Sunderland ran away with the league title, securing promotion with a memorable away win against Bury where Phillips hit the back of the net four times, form which also saw him rewarded with an England call-up.
Despite his scintillating form since joining Sunderland the striker was tipped to struggle in the Premiership and Sky Sports pundit Rodney Marsh famously predicted Phillips would fail to manage six goals. The forward met this target by mid-September, hit twenty goals by February and saw out the season with thirty, a feat which saw Phillips earn
both the Premiership Golden Boot and more famously the European Golden boot. So stick that in ya' pipe Rodders.
As Phillips' stock rose there was unsurprising interest from other parties in our talented little striker but with promise of further investment to improve the squad in a quest for European football Kevin was happy to stick around. Over the next couple of seasons these promises were not met. The club's fortunes began to wane and Peter Reid's days at the Stadium of Light were numbered as his costly transfers failed to deliver and relegation was inevitable in the summer of 2003.
With the club in a state of financial meltdown SAFC drastically had to cut their cloth accordingly following relegation and Phillips was one of many high-profile players to make their departure from the North-East, joining Southampton for £3.25m.
Phillips spent two seasons with the side which let him go as a youngster, but following their relegation in 2005 he joined Sunderland's opponents this weekend Aston Villa for £1m. Kevin made an immediate impact for his new side scoring on his debut however his spell with Villa was to be a frustrating one as a series on niggling injuries would hamper his first team aspirations.
Since then Phillips has gone on to have successful spells with West Brom, Birmingham and most recently Blackpool where he continues to find the back of the net on a regular basis in the Championship despite turning thirty-eight, an incredible achievement.
Kevin Phillips is quite simply the best forward I have seen in the red and white stripes. What is most impressive about his goal scoring exploits is that his goals came from all kinds of areas and by all kinds of different means. He was just as capable of curling in a shot from outside the area as he was to hammer the ball home with a volley or even out fox his marker to meet a cross with his head, a remarkable number of goals seemed to come from his head given his small stature.
Whilst many believe Phillips' heart was not in the right place during the latter stages of his career this should not be allowed to overshadow the impact he had during his time with the club and the memories that he has left us with. Such was his influence that his devastating partnership with Niall Quinn was something that the club so desperately tried to emulate for years following his departure but to no success.
Phillips' tale is also one you can't help but admire. Having been written off as a youngster to go on and achieve everything that he has and still be competing at such a high standard at the age he is now is nothing short of extraordinary. A rare, unparalleled and exceptional talent the likes of which we may never see again.