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

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Joining us for an exclusive sit down interview to talk about his Sunderland career is club legend Kevin Phillips. Here, in part two, we hear about why he turned a return down, some funny Howard Wilkinson stories, and how he’d like to be our manager one day.

SLand v Ipswich X

RR: Heading into Euro 2000 you were the Premiership’s top scorer. Kevin Keegan gave you the chance when you were in the second tier, but then didn’t pick you for England when you were the best striker in the league. How was your relationship with Kevin Keegan? Did you feel frustration at not being picked at Euro 2000? And did you feel being at Sunderland held you back?

KP: Three questions in there. First and foremost I was delighted me and Mickey got picked when we were in Division One as it was at the time, it was unheard of so it was a great achievement.

My relationship with Kevin Keegan was fantastic because he was a striker, I grew up watching him so working with him would be fantastic. It was a privilege.

Frustration? Yeah, having finished the season as the Premier League’s top goalscorer, winning the golden boot - I thought I’d at least get some minutes. Of course, we get knocked out in the group stages, we’re not playing well, not scoring - I honestly thought I’d get on, but I was competing with some top strikers then, so there’s no ill feeling towards Kevin Keegan, I’m not bitter. I was privileged to sit on the bench in a major tournament.

If you asked him now, because he is an honest guy, he’d probably say he should have given me more of a chance - I couldn’t have done any worse.

Do I think I would have had more chances if I wasn’t at Sunderland? Yeah, I have to say I do and it’s no slight on Sunderland. As I said I could have moved on, but it was my decision to stay and I think it was the right place to be.

Had I gone to a Aston Villa or a Leeds - and I was linked with Arsenal - I probably would have had more caps, but I have no regrets. I was competing with six top class strikers, if it was nowadays I would only really be competing against Harry Kane, Vardy has retired now. I would probably have double the amount of caps. I have no regrets though, I am proud to have eight England caps and to have went to a major tournament.

RR: Sunderland are a massive club, the North East as a whole is huge, but players like yourself, Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe to an extend were largely ignored at international level. Why do you think that is? It’s not like we’re a small club.

KP: At the time Villa and Leeds were doing well and the history of both clubs are bigger than Sunderland’s and certainly Villa with the European cups they won. That’s the only reason.

I think with Sunderland, Newcastle, Middlesborough - the stature of the clubs, the fan-base, the size of them make them huge, huge football clubs. You’re battling against history, but in terms of playing it shouldn’t matter.

I think Gareth Southgate has changed that. He’s been a breath of fresh air, if you’re in form, scoring and doing well - you’ll get a chance.

Sunder v Chelsea
“...it never felt right playing with anyone but Niall”
Getty Images

RR: At Sunderland, aside from Niall Quinn, who was your favourite strike partner?

KP: That’s a really tough one because I never played with anyone outside of Quinny for a twenty-thirty game spell.

Dich (Danny Dichio) had spells where he came in and did well, similar stature to Quinny but, and it’s not a slight on Dich, but he wasn’t a patch on big Niall. Tore Andre Flo came in and was disappointing and it never got going.

Michael Bridges I liked playing with and he was a great player, but it really is a tough question because I built up such a good partnership with Niall. When I was playing with someone else I’d always be thinking “hurry up and get fit Niall”.

I don’t want to have a go at anywhere, but it never felt right playing with anyone but Niall and I think the stats would show that.

RR: I think we all felt the loss of Quinny when he retired.

KP: I think if I hadn’t came to the club, we might have lost Niall earlier too. We were both great for each other, I gave him a new lease of life and he is big enough to admit I probably helped give him another two or three years of his career and also some of his best. What he went on to achieve after that, becoming Chairman and everything too.

We were really good for each other.

RR: Your final season at the club was one of the most difficult in memory. The manager who brought you to the club had left and Howard Wilkinson came in. We have all heard the stories, but what is your abiding memory of Wilko? Any funny stories that stick out?

KP: My memories are of disappointment really.

Great man he is, fantastic for the game of football and what he’s done but it just wasn’t right. It wasn’t the right appointment, I think it was like chalk and cheese with him and Steve Cotterill.

One of the first UEFA Licensed Coaches in the country, he was young, enthusiastic and he had all good ideas but then you put him alongside Howard, who was quite old school. It just didn’t feel right.

When the appointment was made, as disappointed as we were Reidy had left, we were excited to see who was coming in to get us going. You hear all sorts of rumours and nobody even guessed it would be Howard Wilkinson.

I’ve never asked Sir Bob Murray about that, and I’ve made a conscious decision not to!

It was analysing training, meeting after meeting after meeting and a meeting about a meeting and it dragged the players down.

Kevin Phillips felt Peter Reid’s successor was the wrong man.

RR: We’ve spoken to Matt Piper and Tommy Butler recently and they told us all about the David Attenborough story...

KP: He comes in with a plastic carrier bag in his hand and straight away all the lads are looking at each other and thinking ‘what’s he doing now?’.

He starts walking up and down, doing his team talk and he starts going on about ‘who is going to stand up, who is going to take the reigns, who is going to grasp the nettle?’.

‘Which one of you is going to do that because I tell you what, I’ll grasp the nettle if none of you do it’.

So at that point he opens the carrier bag, puts his hand in the carrier bag and brings out a great big bunch of stinging nettles.

So he says “There you are, I’ve grasped the nettle, I’ve done it, I’ve shown that I’m a man!”

He goes round “who wants to take them?” and all the lads are like “I’m not taking them”, so he puts them back in his bag and carries on his team talk.

While he is doing his team talk, you think I’m not listening any more, I just want to watch his hand and you could see him while he’s doing his team talk, he’s shaking his hand, he stung the hell out of his hand.

You have to give him credit for trying everything.

RR: When we got relegated on 19 points, we obviously lost a lot of our key players such as yourself, Gavin McCann, Tommy Sorensen etc. Did you ever think about staying, or did Mick McCarthy ever try and convince you to stay?

RR: Yeah, part of me wanting to stay but it was a combination of things. When Sunderland rewarded me with the best contract they’d ever given to a player then got relegated, you know people are going to lose their jobs and the clubs when you cut costs and that starts with the top earners, and I was no different.

I never had a clause in my contract about losing wages with a relegation because I signed it when we were on the up, I never thought we’d be relegated. I would have needed to say I’m taking a 50% pay cut but at the time I had a young family and I was still young. Financially the club had to get rid of me and football being football they got £3.5m I think from Southampton.

I would love to have stayed with Sunderland for the rest of my career. It was a disappointing end to my time there I have to say, I didn’t particularly get on with Mick [McCarthy] and we had a bit of falling out and he’s made it clear to me in the times since. I had sort of accepted I was moving on.

I was still there come the first game of the season against Forest, but Mick had me training on my own and I wasn’t part of the squad and I felt a bit harshly treated considering how well I had done for the club. But that’s football and it was better for everyone to move on at that time.

I was gutted to leave.

RR: You almost came back to the club when Niall took over the reigns and we had a bid accepted. Unfortunately for us you chose West Brom. At the time the bid was accepted, Roy Keane hadn’t been installed as manager. Would that have potentially changed your mind?

KP: No, I don’t think so. If I’m being honest, no.

I agreed to come up and have a chat with Niall, but nothing was agreed financially. I was given permission to speak to Sunderland by Martin O’Neill and I agreed to go and speak to Niall.

He said he had a big announcement on the manager and I asked him who it was, he just said “I can’t tell you Kev” - but I don’t think it would have made a difference, no.

It only really happened with West Brom because Bryan Robson rang and said “look, as a courtesy would you up to the training ground for a quick and see what we can offer you”. Knowing football the way I do now, once a club gets you into the training ground... Bryan Robson wasn’t letting me leave without signing. They threw everything at me.

When Niall rang me and asked me if I want to come to Sunderland I said yes straight away, but when the phone went down I thought about it. I had broken records at Sunderland, I spoke to people who had made similar returns and in truth... I didn’t want to ruin that and in hindsight it was the right decision.

Super Kev in the Roker Rapport studios.

RR: Many people have called for you to come back to the club as a coach, and even as a manager. Have you ever been close to a return or has it all been rumours?

KP: When Simon Grayson got the job, I was playing golf in a tournament at the Belfry and I get a phone call from Tony Adams, believe it or not.

Tony says; ‘Kev, I’m putting a consortium together to buy the football club.’ He said: ‘listen, if we get it, we would love you to come in and be the manager’.

Naturally again, without any thought, I went yeah, I would love to.

He says; ‘we are at the early stages, we’re going to put our bid in next week and once we know what’s happening, we’ll let you know. If we get it, we want you to come in’, I was like ‘yeah, of course, no problems Tony’.

They put their bid in the next week and I don’t think it was anywhere near what Ellis Short was looking for and it didn’t happen.

That’s the closest I have ever come to having any conversation with the club, regarding a return to the football club.

My returns now are coming up, chatting to you, watching the game just as a supporter and I enjoy doing that.

RR: Say you were given the chance tomorrow to return as a first team coach?

KP: No, I wouldn’t come up as a first team coach.

RR: Do you feel ready to go into management?

KP: Yeah, I would like a crack at it. Yeah, I wouldn’t entertain that (coming back as a coach).

RR: What was it like scoring for Aston Villa against Sunderland? The whole stadium fell silent, you didn’t celebrate.

KP: It was a weird, weird feeling. Firstly the whole build up to the game, staying at the Marriott in Durham where I was a member of the leisure club, people coming up to me saying how they were gutted I left.

I have to say I’ve never enjoyed playing against my former clubs, but it was sod’s law I’d get the opening goal wasn’t it? I already decided I wouldn’t celebrate. I knew the lads would jump all over me, but I made a conscious decision to just walk back to the centre circle.

The ground was quiet and all I could hear was the Aston Villa fans singing Super Kev, then all of a sudden the Sunderland fans started doing the same. I just thought, I’ve been sung about by both fans and its weird. Bizarre feeling.

RR: You came back with Birmingham and people seemed to know it would be the last time we saw you. You received a standing ovation coming onto the pitch and also going off it. Are you pleased your last appearance at the Stadium of Light was that rather than Villa?

KP: Don’t forget I came back with West Brom and got booed by a few people too...

RR: I tried to forget about that...

KP: That was a little bit hurtful. But when I came back for Birmingham it was a fantastic send off because I never really got a chance to say goodbye. Yeah, that was nice.

Sunderland v Aston Villa
This felt awful, didn’t it?
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

RR: Finally, what does Sunderland AFC mean to you?

KP: Well, everything really. It’s where I made my name.

Wherever I go now, anywhere in the world there’s always a Sunderland supporter somewhere and I always get recognized somehow.

I made my name here at Sunderland and it lives with me forever. I owe a lot to Watford, they gave me the chance under Glenn Roeder, and he told me it’s the best place to play football if you’re doing well, but the worst place if it’s not and that stuck with me and probably gave me the hunger to make sure I did well.

Ultimately though, my career is remembered for my time at Sunderland.