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"I love Sunderland - they're dear to my heart" - Kevin Phillips talks about his time on Wearside

In an interview with Planet Football, Kevin Phillips has been speaking about his time as a Sunderland player - specifically talking about winning the Golden Boot, scoring for fun in the Premier League, his partnership with Niall Quinn and his favourite Sunderland goals.

Kevin Phillips of Sunderland
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Phillips - who scored 130 goals for Sunderland in 235 games - is still looked upon fondly by the supporters who were privileged enough to have watched him during his time at the club.

The way that Phillips arrived at Sunderland with very little fanfare yet was able to completely exceed all expectations is perhaps what initially endeared him most to the fans.

He was signed at a time when the club had been relegated from the Premier League -ultimately due to our lack of firepower in attack - and his seamless transition from Watford squad player to the highest scorer in the First Division was lauded admirably by a fan base who had craved a striker of Phillips' abilities for a number of years.

The Hitchin-born forward's partnership with ex-Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn will go down in Wearside folklore as one of the greatest pairings in our history, something which Phillips now looks back upon fondly:

I’d be lying if I said he didn’t have a major influence.

You ask Quinny, you ask any striker, no matter how much a partner does for you, at the end of the day the hardest part is putting the ball in the back of the net. You still need to have the faith in your own ability and the confidence, the composure to actually finish.

But your striker partner can do a lot towards that, can create an awful lot of opportunities, create a lot of diversions trying to pull someone out of their position for me to run into, flicking it on…

It was one of those partnerships that just happened. We never worked on it in training. All Peter Reid would ever say was just: ‘Work off Quinny, get around Quinny’.

His legs weren’t what they were when he was younger so he wasn’t going to do the running that I could do, so it was just one of those that worked.

He occupied centre-halves while I just tried to nip in behind them when the ball was flicked on.

You’d have to say that as time went on, teams began to work that out and really shored it up against us, but in that first season they couldn’t live with us.

It feels good talking about Quinn and Phillips again; it creates a brief moment of nostalgia that blocks out all of the current issues surrounding the club right now. Harking back to those halcyon days brings back so many good memories, yet also epitomises just how dreadful our current predicament really is.

Sunder v Chelsea
Better times.
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In his first Premier League season with the club, Super Kev banged in 30 goals - enough to secure the Premier League golden boot, and the European golden shoe awards. Phillips was absolutely lethal in that 1999-2000 season, and probably doesn’t get anywhere near as much credit as he deserved for it.

If I were to harp on about it I think people might say I was being picky. But let’s put it this way: If an English player scored 30 goals now, they’d get themselves a £40-£50million move and be on God-knows what. They’d be all over the world.

When I did it, it was just like,‘Yeah it’s a freak, it’s a one-off.'

I thought it was a hell of an achievement. No disrespect, but generally when players score 30 goals, they are doing it in a team who are in the top two, three, or four in the league.

I did it in a team that finished seventh, in a team that – and I love Sunderland, they’re dear to my heart – are not fashionable compared to Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool and so on.

So I think that made the achievement even better. To have received the Golden Boot in the whole of Europe as well, it’s never been beaten [since, by an English striker], and I don’t think it ever will when you have the likes of Messi and Ronaldo and Neymar.

It goes under the radar and doesn’t really get mentioned, but within my household I’m certainly very proud of it!

To say Phillips’ form was absolutely magnificent during that 30 goal campaign would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. His movement, tenacity, intelligence and predatory finishing was such a joy to behold. He could finish from anywhere and he was so hard to defend against. We had Europe’s deadliest goalscorer, and he secured us those consecutive 7th placed finishes. That alone was an achievement.

Newcastle v Sunderland
Legend.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for our legendary striker though, and he readily admits he doubted himself before his maiden Premier League campaign:

I was feeling quite apprehensive, quite nervous, because although I’d scored a lot of goals going into the Premier League, it’s a big step up from the Championship.

You’re pitting your wits against some of the very best, not just in Europe, but in the world. You sort of question yourself: Can I produce?

Because I had scored so many goals in those first two seasons, I think people didn’t really think I ever missed. I wouldn’t say I missed loads, but I would’ve missed a fair few.

The biggest thing is that when you’re part of a team that’s full of confidence, which we were in my first two seasons, you knew that if I missed one (chance) there’d be another one coming along very shortly.

So you never got anxious, you never snatched at the first one, you just knew that you could be relaxed and if you missed it didn’t matter – I’d get another chance in the next 10 minutes.

But the Premier League is a different ball game. You generally only get one or two opportunities in a game and really you need to try and take one. That season, I managed to take a fair few.

I think the biggest thing was wondering if we’d create enough opportunities in the Premier League. I’ve never ever doubted my own confidence, my self-belief, but when it’s a big jump and you’ve only had a couple of years in the Championship it was a big step.

You almost want to chuckle in hindsight when you hear of Super Kev’s reservations, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that footballers are merely human. Hearing about the confidence he had in his fellow players is an interesting point that just goes to show how crucial it is for a manager to instill a sense of belief into a squad. I wonder what the likes of Jermain Defoe would say about this current squad and the confidence they have in one-another?

Sunderland v Bolton Kevin Phillips and Neil Cox

Despite his initial reservations, Phillips and the rest of the team were superb in those two seasons after securing promotion. The 30 goal maiden campaign was an absolute highlight of modern times, and as a club we’ve struggled to come anywhere close to replicating those levels of performance and that desire to succeed.

I think it was so important, for any striker when you go into a new league or to a new club, that I got off the mark pretty quick.

So I was quite fortunate, although we took a good hammering in the first game, that I got myself a couple in our second game against Watford to set me on my way.

It was a midweek game, pretty soon after the Chelsea game, so we didn’t have a long time to dwell on that result and our welcome to the Premier League.

Collectively we needed a result and to get some points on the board, but from a personal point of view, to shut anybody up or quiet anybody down – people who were doubting whether I could score in the Premier League, and there was a fair few – it was important to get off the mark.

Going into Christmas I think I’d got to 18 or 19 goals, and even today that’s a hell of an achievement for any striker. So what I reached that target I thought: ‘Blimey, I can go on and maybe set a record in the Premier League’.

I certainly thought I had a really good opportunity to get to that 30-goal mark.

You’d have to say that the second part of the season, defenders paid a lot more attention to myself and it became a little bit more difficult.

Rodney Marsh predicted at the beginning of the 99/00 season that Phillips would be lucky to bag 5 or 6 goals... it’s fair to say he was just a little off with his prophecy. However, few players - if indeed any - have been able to come anywhere near to replicating Phillips’ goalscoring feats after making the step up into the big leagues - will we ever see the likes of Phillips’ feats repeated again in the modern game? It seems highly unlikely.

Kevin Phillips of Sunderland
Top kit. Top man.

There were so many good games and goals from the diminutive forward that you’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite. The goals against the Mags were epic, but so many of his goals were just simply brilliant. The effortless way found the net brought so many moments of pure ecstasy to the fans that he will undoubtedly be remembered for decades to come.

The Newcastle goal was right up there, just for the significance of it away at St James’ (the winner in a 2-1 Sunderland win), but I think the 25-yard dipping volley against Chelsea was my favourite.

“It was at home, a full house, and it was revenge after what Chelsea did to us in the opening game of the season. That was a hell of a day because of who it was against and the calibre of player it was against, and the performance that day I’d say even now is one of the best Sunderland have ever produced. It was a joy to be a part of.

Phillips will be remembered for years to come as a club legend, for he serves as a reminder of just how brilliant this club can be when it’s given the opportunity to flourish.