Let me say one thing at the outset - I love Mo Salah. I love his cheeky face. I love his ‘80s perm. I love the way he can do seemingly nothing for an entire half and then pop up and bend a postage-stamp finish into the top corner.
He is a phenomenal player who has had an incredible season. However, Kevin Phillips’ record-breaking 30 goal season in 99/00 will always be more impressive.
Over the course of last weekend and during this week, many pundits commented on where Liverpool would have finished if they hadn’t had their talisman Salah. Or, inversely, they wondered how Liverpool didn’t finish higher than 4th when they had the top goalscorer in the league.
But in doing so, they missed the point.
Liverpool have an embarrassment of riches upfront. Salah may have broken the record for most goals in a 38-game season but Mane, Firmino, Coutinho before he left, and countless others have all chipped in with numerous goals.
Liverpool harnessed the incredible power and skill of Salah this season but, testament to Klopp, they were not overly reliant on their Egyptian forward. If he didn’t step up, one of their other mega-million forwards did. It was never Liverpool’s goalscoring exploits that stopped them finishing higher in the league this season, it was their problems with an inconsistent defense.
For example, Coutinho was the fourth top scorer for Liverpool this season in all competitions with twelve goals. That is three times the number that Gavin McCann got in 99/00 (who was actually Sunderland’s third top goalscorer that year). And, just as a reminder, Coutinho left Liverpool in January having only played 20 games.
This is what makes Kevin Phillips’ record so untouchable in my eyes. It’s the sheer level of responsibility on his shoulders that season. If he didn’t score, Sunderland probably didn’t score. Yes, Peter Reid built a strong team with solid foundations that year but SKP carried the weight of Wearside expectations with him into every game - and he didn’t disappoint.
This was a player bought from Watford for £325,000 in 1997 and was a relative unknown before we signed him. He didn’t arrive for £40m having scored buckets of goals on the continent, he was a 24-year-old lad who had never been given his chance.
Call me a romantic if you want but Phillips’ golden-boot tale is one of the underdog battling adversity and conquering the establishment. It was David vs Goliath on the biggest of footballing scales.
And this underdog achieved something that no other English footballer has been able to achieve. Let me repeat a fact that I never get tired of saying: Kevin Phillips is still the only English footballer to have won the European golden boot.
To have achieved this feat while playing for a club that has never finished higher than 7th in the Premier League era is mind-blowing. His strike rate for us was better than one goal every two games – a phenomenal record given the club’s relative stature in the Premier League.
Salah may have scored two more goals than Kevin Phillips but when his record is beaten by another multi-million megastar in the coming years, he will be forgotten. Kevin Phillips gave Sunderland fans memories that they will never, ever forget.
I grew up idolising Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and Francesco Totti but in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s it was Kevin Phillips who made me fall in love with football. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the same elation as when I’d sit in the stands as a kid to see my hero score and I’ll probably never experience elation like that again (aside from my wedding day of course!)
Liverpool have had countless heroes in the Premier League era, from Gerrard to Fowler, Owen to Torres, and Suarez to Salah. Once Salah gets sold they will be able to buy another multi-million pound forward to take on the mantle and become the latest Scouse superstar. And good luck to them – it’s not like I’m jealous at all.
Sunderland have never had that luxury. We found a diamond in the rough in Super Kev. Someone who would shock Europe in red-and-white and someone who would carry the hopes of an entire region on his back.
We had a goalscoring hero whose record is based on incredible numbers but whose legacy transcends mere statistics. We had a symbol of hope that we may not see the like of again. We had Super Kevin Phillips.