He signed from Watford for less money than some footballers now get paid in one week, but by the end of the 1999/2000 season Kevin Phillips was the most prolific striker in the Premier League, had won the European Golden Shoe and had fired Sunderland to within a whisker of qualifying for Europe for the first time since the 1970’s. The Stadium of Light was a fortress filled with forty thousand buoyant Mackems who were starting to think that this time we really were going places.
But it didn’t work out like that. Of course it didn’t. With this club it never does.
There was always a worry that Super Kev would leave us to go on to better things, and he did, but it was scarcely believable that those better things would turn out to be signing for Southampton to escape relegated again Sunderland. Three years and it had all unravelled. We were on the verge of cracking it, and we cocked it up, again. Been there, done it, we’ve all got a collection of the t-shirts in various sizes. When it starts to go wrong at Sunderland it goes very wrong – and quickly!
This time, for me though, felt like the big one. We were mixing it with the Manchester United’s and Arsenal’s – they all hated coming to Wearside. Chelsea were not quite yet the force they would become under Mourinho and Manchester City were too far away in the second tier to even be called noisy neighbours back then. There was an open door beckoning for a new team to step forward and regularly battle the big boys, and we had started to stride towards it. Until we did a Sunderland and tripped up before we got there, and we didn’t stop falling until we’d plummeted right back down to where we’d started.
“Typical Sunderland”. It’s a phrase I’m sure we all say quite regularly.
Even none SAFC supporters text it to me when they see that we’ve done something “typical Sunderland”. Like a team notching their first away win in a year against us, or that striker breaking his six-month-long drought when Sunderland come to town. That’s “typical Sunderland”, but so it seems is this ability to take any sign of a bright new dawn and rip it away in brutal and rapid fashion.
The promise of that Reid and Phillips/Quinn era and how soon it fell apart still hurts all these years later, even though I’ve seen several more instances like it since. The potential under Allardyce after we’d performed our latest great escape and the feeling that all we needed were 2-3 top players to add to that team that he’d started to build and could push on again – that was blown away in a matter of months as David Moyes dismantled that particular steady ship and sent it surging towards the relegation rocks at a trademark rate of knots.
Fast forward to the relegation to League One the following year – it was barely believable to think a team that had spent 10 consecutive years in the Premier League could hurtle its way down through the Championship and straight into League One at that kind of break-neck speed. But we did it, it’s what we do. And we even invited the whole world in to watch us perform our favourite trick on Netflix!
It may be dark and dreary December now, but it doesn’t seem like five minutes ago that tens of thousands of us gathered in Trafalgar Square in March for what we thought at the time might be a joint Checkatrade Trophy/early promotion party. The atmosphere that night is a big part of what makes this club what it is. But so too, unfortunately is what has gone on since. In next to no time at all we’ve gone from positive feelings of probable promotion under new owners and a bright new manager to back on that slippery slope towards doom and gloom. Typical Sunderland again.
This time that gloom seems darker than ever before.
I’m a glass half full person at the best of times when it comes to SAFC, but usually I can find someone to give me the alternative view that things will turn around and it will all pick up again. There’s almost always an Andy Dufresne somewhere to tell my Red that there’s hope out there. There’s always hope, and hope is a good thing.
Right now I’m not sure we even have hope to cling to. This time it feels different. Not necessarily for the speed of the capitulation, but more so because I’m yet to speak to or read from anyone who can see things picking up under the current set up.
I’ve backed Stewart Donald, and have been mocked and criticised for it, but I still believe he is trying to do his best for the club and is desperate to succeed. Undeniably he’s made mistakes, he’s not perfect – let he who is without sin post the first tweet – but right now he can’t afford any more errors. Appointing Phil Parkinson has been an unmitigated disaster – that statement doesn’t need justification, the stats, the performances and the all-round ill feeling that’s engulfed the supporters provides all the evidence. He’s lost the fans already and it looks like he’s lost the dressing room too – if he ever had it in the first place.
It’ll be humiliating for Donald, and probably quite costly too, but if we are to rescue this season then something has to be done, and quickly, because waiting to see if Parkinson can turn it round with some January signings to me is too much of a gamble.
He’s not the man for the job and a few extra players in the New Year isn’t going to change that. The place needs a lift, a spark, someone with a swagger who would never dream of saying we’d take a point all day at Gillingham.
It needs someone with Vince McMahon style grapefruits, and preferably a pair of big sized twelves to match, to get in there and kick some under-performing backsides back up to a height where those players feel ten feet tall when they remember that they’re playing for Sunderland AFC, at one of the biggest and best stadiums in the country in front of a crowd whose pride and passion for their team is second to no-one.
Just who that man is – at the minute I’m not so sure, but we need to find him.
Maybe it is SuperKev, maybe he can bring back the magic of those heady days at the start of the century. We’d never know until we tried. But it definitely needs to be someone new, because the way it’s going, I can see the runaway train getting out of control again, and where it is headed doesn’t bear thinking about. But it can be turned, it’s not too late, yet.
Over to you, Stew...