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Interview: Roker Report meets... Sunderland goalscoring legend Super Kevin Phillips! (part one)

Joining us for an exclusive sit down interview to talk about his Sunderland career is club legend Kevin Phillips. Here, in part one, we hear all about how he came to the club, scoring against the Mags, £20m rejected bids and more.

Kevin Phillips of Sunderland Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

RR: Let’s start with a little ice-breaker. Who was the best drinker in the squad?

KP: Phwoar. I was up there, but I’m only 5’7 so I couldn’t carry as much.

I’d have to say Quinny, he was a great drinker. Big Niall can drink a pint of Guinness, certainly, I wouldn’t want a competition with him.

RR: Being 6’4, I bet it was hard to fill him up!

KP: A pint of Guinness looked like a half pint in his hand! Four or five mouthfuls and he could down a pint. He was a top drinker.

RR: Let’s start right from the beginning. You’re doing well down at Watford, but get an injury. Peter Reid and Sunderland come in - you’re from Hitchin, right?

KP: Stevenage actually, but I was born in Hitchin, which is just down the road.

Super Kev celebrates his goal at Nottingham Forest, one of thirty-five in his debut season.

RR: So you’re a Southern lad. There must have been down about moving to the North East, what were they and what convinced you to make the move?

KP: Yeah, there was. It’s simple, like you say, I started at Watford and it was going well but then had a year out injured. I got back from injury and started scoring again though but I was getting towards the end of my contract and the manager who signed me got sacked, Glenn Roeder, and Graham Taylor had just came in. We couldn’t agree on a contract, to be honest.

As agents do, and as I did, we decided to have a look elsewhere and we got a chance to talk with George Burley and Ipswich. We had a drive up there, had a good chat and we even agreed personal terms but the clubs couldn’t agree a fee. Because they couldn’t agree a fee it meant the deal would have to go to tribunal. Now they already had one deal go to tribunal and the ruling is you can’t have two at the same time - so I would have had to wait three weeks or so for the deal to go through - I told my agent “I don’t want to wait”.

I was sitting in Ipswich’s car park and we thought about what to do and he said “look, I’m going to ring Peter Reid because I know he likes you” - I told him to go for it and we got him on speaker phone, although I told my agent not to tell Reidy I was there with him!

He got Reidy on the phone, he explained the situation and Reidy said he was 100% interested. I was delighted, but I was nervous, I’d never been that far north let alone work and live miles away from home.

I had recently lost my Father and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and me were expecting our first child. I asked her what she thought and we decided to go for it, fresh start, get out of the area and just go for it.

We packed the car, left the house to drive up at about 5am and that was that. The rest, they say, is history.

RR: You were suspended for the first game against Sheffield United, weren’t you?

KP: Yeah, that’s a story in itself! I had totally forgot until about a week before. When I came up and signed it didn’t even get mentioned because I didn’t click!

I was the most nervous person ever telling Reidy and to be honest, he didn’t take it too well! I learnt you don’t want to upset Reidy too much! He said he’d forgive me if I scored some goals though, and thankfully I did.

RR: Why do you think you managed to settle so quickly?

KP: There’s probably a combination of things.

At Watford my goals to games ratio was good, I was always confident in my own ability - that’s not being arrogant, it’s just how I always have been. I also think it helped playing in a team that created opportunities. Simple as that.

I wasn’t a Thierry Henry that could grab a ball sixty yards from goal, take four players on and score, I thrived on people creating opportunities. You have to have a team creating chances. Crossing the ball in, sliding you in behind the defender. Don’t get me wrong, I could create too, but one of the biggest attributes of that side was that ability to create chances.

Reidy just used to tell me to get in the box if the ball went wide, I was fairly quick so he used to say “get in the box and we’ll find ya”. But ultimately, you have to have that self belief.

It was daunting, going from Vicarage Road - which was a nice ground - to 40,000 in that stadium in front of fans that we both know are incredible. Expectation was high, but I thrived on it.

RR: It’s almost forgotten that we started that season really poorly and it became pretty toxic up until maybe the Reading game. Were you ever worried it was the wrong move?

KP: Erm...I know what you mean, but I was still scoring goals. Look - strikers can be selfish, I don’t care what they tell you and I was no different.

Whether it’s right or wrong, if you come off a pitch and you’ve been beaten 4-1 but you’ve scored, part of you is thinking “well I’ve done my job”. We can argue about it all day, but that’s just how strikers are. I was scoring goals so I felt good in myself, but ultimately it was a team game and things weren’t good on the pitch.

The Reading game is what really brought it home to me. We got battered. The walk from the dressing room to the supporters bus wasn’t great. The supporters were going mental. There was so much disappointment, anger and aggression shown towards but there was a funny story that came from it because John Cooke, the kitman, thought he was immune to it and even he got stick! Someone shouted “John, you were rubbish when you played for us as wel!” (laughs).

Everyone got it that day and it wasn’t great, but that’s the sign of a good manager and a good team to turn that around.

RR: So much happened that season, but the big memory that sticks out for me is the Sheffield United play-off semi final at the Stadium of Light. What are your memories of that night and it’s electric atmosphere?

KP: The best atmosphere at the Stadium of Light apart from maybe the Newcastle home game where we drew 2-2 and I got the equaliser - that was incredible.

I got the winning goal that night, it was a deflected shot I sort of guided in, but when it went in the noise (exhales)... it was incredible.

We got fairly done over at Bramall Lane and it was an uncomfortable day, so we knew what was at stake and the atmosphere when that goal went in was electric and it really hit home what it meant.

When people ask me about atmosphere, that is right up there with the goal I scored at Wembley and also, of course, the Newcastle game.

Newcastle v Sunderland
Super Kev loved a derby goal.

RR: You came off injured in the play-off final, would you have taken a penalty?

KP: I wasn’t injured, I came off with cramp!

I took a knock in the Sheffield United game and we had ten day before the final, of which I didn’t train for a week of that. Believe it or not Reidy took us away for one of his famous “chill out” events which turned into a bit of a social. It was a hot day, the adrenaline, big old pitch and I probably didn’t take on enough fluids - but I would have definitely taken a penalty. I was gutted I didn’t finish the game.

Sitting on the sidelines and watching that was terrible, but putting my selfish head on again I managed to break Brian Clough’s record, but who knows if I had stayed on the pitch longer maybe I could have scored another couple like Clive Mendonca did - but it’s all ifs and buts.

RR: When Niall Quinn took over as Chairman he spoke about finding a note that indicated Leeds and Aston Villa had made a £20m or so bid for you, but we had rejected it. Were you made aware of the interested from other clubs, and did you ever think about moving at that point?

KP: I was aware there was interest from Leeds, but the Aston Villa one has a little story behind it.

I was on England duty and I received a phone-call about 8:30am and it was from my wife. I picked up the phone and she said “have you seen the front page of The Sun?” and I naturally I thought “what have I been up to, I haven’t been out for a few weeks. I haven’t been a naughty boy” (smiles). I immediately panicked.

As it was, she told me Villa had made a £15m bid for me, so I put the phone down and rang my agent and he said he’d find out and get back to me. Apparently John Gregory put a bid in.

Reidy rang me in an hour and said “look, you’re not going anywhere, I want you to sign a new contract”. I told him I hadn’t even had a chance to think about it, but he was adamant I wasn’t going anywhere.

We were doing well in the league, I really thought we could kick on, so whilst I had a little think about it, once I weighed everything up I was always going to stay. We ironed out a new contract, and I have to say Sir Bob [Murray] was fantastic in giving me, what was then, the biggest contract a Sunderland player had ever been given - so naturally I signed it because I was more than happy where I was.

RR: During your 30-goal debut Premiership season, you were presented with a shirt by Brian Clough on the pitch. Did you ever get a chance to speak to him at more length?

KP: No, I didn’t unfortunately because... well, he wasn’t well at the time and it was quite sad to see. All I remember is I was told I was going to be presented by the legend that was Brian Clough and you could see he wasn’t doing well.

He gave me the shirt and he said well done and I replied it was lovely to meet him. I remember he kept kicking the ball of my heels during the photo!

I was I could have had 10-15 mins chat with the main man, but it was just before the game. To be presented that shirt by him and to break his record was a great feeling for myself.

RR: How did you manage to develop such a knack for sticking the ball in the back of the Newcastle net? Which was your favourite derby goal you scored and how much stick did you used to get whenever you ventured into their city?

KP: (Laughs) I would say the most obvious is the chip at St. James.

When I first joined, being that Southern boy who didn’t know much about the North, I didn’t even know Sunderland Newcastle was a derby, so I found it very strange when people who would say how much they were looking forward to playing against them, because they weren’t even in the same division as us and I’m thinking “what you thinking about that for?”.

So, when we got promoted I looked straight at fixtures, I looked for the first game, who we had on Boxing Day - because that determines if you get Christmas at home! - then when we are playing Newcastle and it turned out we played them at St. James quite early in the season.

The build up to the game was incredible. People kept telling us how we hadn’t won there in quite a while, I went into the game full of confidence because I was scoring loads of goals. People were talking about me and Shearer, this and that.

It’s funny because even though I had scored sixty something goals before that game, I still didn’t feel I was part of Sunderland’s folklore or a legend till I scored a winner in the derby.

People say I meant to cross it, and when I saw Quinny in the box I did consider it but then I thought “sod that, I’m going for goal” and it was probably one of the sweetest chips I’d ever hit - after that, I felt like I’d become a legend at the clubs.

I know I scored a few against them, but I scored against a few. When I scored in the 2-2 draw in the return game, I know it’s a cliche to say the roof came off, but I really felt like it did that day.

Fantastic games to play in and I was lucky enough to get a few against them.

Catch part two here on the site tomorrow - or, if you can’t wait until then, listen to the interview in full on the Roker Rapport Podcast by clicking here.

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