Kevin Phillips undeniably got the rough end of the stick when it came to England call ups. Yes, he was initially capped as a Championship player – albeit one who’d scored 60 goals in just 80 games – but I never thought he got a genuinely fair crack.
After scoring 30 in his Premier League debut season – becoming the only Englishman to date to win the European Golden Boot in the process – he was named in Kevin Keegan’s Euro 2000 squad, but never made it off the bench as the country failed to get out of the group stages.
Kevin Keegan’s tenure as England manager game to an abrupt end as his charges went down 1-0 to Germany in the final game to be played at ‘Old’ Wembley – a World Cup qualifying game in which Phillips, again, watched on from the sidelines.
Frustration was the overriding emotion. Phillips had undoubtedly proven his credentials, but to be overlooked again must have left him wondering what he had to do to get a place in the national team.
Keegan walked, and in came the FA’s Technical Director, Howard Wilkinson, to take his place for another qualifier – this time away in Finland.
Phillips was dropped altogether, in a huge snub from Wilkinson. Yes, there were an array of other great strikers at the time, but no one was scoring as many as Phillips, and they were all playing for more successful teams, too.
At the time, it seemed like no one would give him a break – looking back with the benefit of 22 years of hindsight, it’s scandalous.
Although it may hold some clues as to why, less than two years later, Phillips and Wilkinson never seemed to click when the former Technical Director talked Bob Murray into giving him another crack in top flight management.
As it went, it wasn’t just Phillips who was frustrated a few days later as league action returned with a home game against Chelsea. After finishing seventh (much lower than looked likely with three months left of the season) the year before, Sunderland had had a bit of a slow start to the season – sitting 14th after two wins, three draws and three defeats in the opening eight.
Reidy was frustrated that we’d not clocked up more points, and was left wondering whether our ‘surprise’ value that came naturally in the opening stages of the previous campaign carried greater weight than he’d estimated.
The squad had been improved during the summer – Don Hutchison the headline signing. And, while the former Everton skipper had hugely impressed so far, he’d clocked up five yellows in six games and was sitting this one out.
That air of frustration also pervaded the stands. A bumper Stadium of Light crowd arrived to news of a power cut. The match looked unlikely to go ahead at one point, however, someone found a couple of quid for the meter and the game finally got started – an hour later than planned.
Of course, for fans of the home side, the 4-1 trouncing of Chelsea the previous season was still fresh in the mind – as it evidently was for the Blues, too, who turned in a far more solid display than they offered 10 months earlier.
The lads did think they’d taken an early lead, however – newly arrived Argentine Julio Arca crashed a shot off the underside of the bar, bouncing down over the goalline. The crowd rose, Arca celebrated, Reid and the bench appealed vociferously, but match ref Jeff ‘centre of attention, please’ Winter and his band of merry assistants turned it down.
He wasn’t great, Jeff.
These early months of 2000-01 was probably Kevin Kilbane’s best in a Sunderland shirt.
Switched to the right wing after Arca’s arrival on the left, Kilbane was strong, fast and direct, and was driving past players at will. He’d had a cracking game – and scored a beautiful goal – at home to Derby a few weeks earlier. And on this particular afternoon, he was torturing direct opponent Graeme Le Saux, who picked up a yellow in the process for a foul on the Irish winger.
On another occasion, Kilbane skipped past Le Saux once again, putting in a lovely ball in that evaded Ed de Goey but also Niall Quinn.
Quinny headed straight at de Goey, Arca put the ball wide when he should have scored, and Craddock went close with a header before the half time whistle blew.
Sunderland had turned in a performance that, in some respects, had been every bit as good as the fixture the previous season, and around the hour got their just rewards. Mario Melchiot held Niall Quinn in the box, and Phillips took out his frustration by hammering the penalty past the keeper. One-nil. The stadium, which now had light, erupted.
Moments later, so did Le Saux. After Kilbane getting the better of him once more, the full back lashed out with an elbow on his opponent – clear as day. It must have been, as Mr Winter saw it.
However, he also saw Kilbane’s frustration get the better of him – pushing Le Saux to the ground. Red for you, red for you, off you both pop.
The last 25 minutes was played out 10-a-side. Ferrer came close but that would have been undeserved – and the lads held on for a valuable win that lifted the team to 10th and kickstarted a run of only two defeats and 10 wins in the next 15 league games – a run that saw us sitting second in the table towards the end of January.
It was a stunningly good afternoon at the Stadium of Light – a performance that gets overlooked because the goals didn’t flow – but it got the season back on track.
Well, for everyone apart from Kilbane. He missed the next three through suspension, and when he returned he’d found Don Hutchison had taken his place on the right of midfield. Kilbane never got back into the team in that position with any regularity – and looking back, he never again managed to hit that form again for Sunderland.