Greatest seasons: Super Kevin Phillips goes goal-crazy and bags the golden shoe
The £325,000 Sunderland handed over to Watford for a 24-year-old Kevin Phillips in 1997 was probably the best money the Wearsiders have ever spent.
The Hitchin-born hitman scored 35 goals in his first season in the North East, followed by 25 in his second as Sunderland were crowned champions of Division One. But for all his success in the second tier that even yielded the first of eight England caps, not too many people expected him to go on and rip it up in the Premier League. However, 12 months later, 30 goals in 36 games made Rodney Marsh and other doubters pipe down.
In an unforgettable season for Phillips, he was named Premier League Player of the Season and not only was he the league’s top scorer by seven goals, it was Newcastle’s Alan Shearer - a man whose boots Phillips used to clean when the pair were at Southampton - that finished second. Locally, the press named him North East Football Writers' Player of the Year as Sunderland took four points off their bitter rivals, with Phillips scoring three across the two games.
There was no joy for Phillips on the opening day as Sunderland were taken apart by Chelsea, but he got off the mark in the Black Cats’ first home game. He grabbed a brace against his former side, Watford. The first came from a controversial penalty, but the second was a cracking 25-yarder past goalkeeper Chris Day.
Goals continued to flow and just four days later Sunderland took on Newcastle at a soaking St. James’. It was 20 years since they had beaten the Magpies but a few hundred in the away end witnessed an unforgettable comeback. Niall Quinn had equalised for Sunderland and then, 15 minutes from time, Phillips scored at the second attempt after seeing his initial effort saved by Tommy Wright. An extended powerslide followed after Phillips recovered to clip the ball over Wright and the retreating defenders into the net.
The 5ft 7in forward was finding his feet, and next up was an outstanding overhead kick that salvaged a draw at home to Coventry. Phillips properly announced himself on the big stage with his first Premier League hat-trick away to Derby in September, a game that Sunderland won 5-0.
It was the classic little and large partnership that worked for Phillips. He was partnered up top by the veteran target-man Quinn, who also added a further 14 goals. Together they hit 77% of Sunderland’s total and they were both aided by the fact they had a great winger in Nicky Summerbee, who more than helped out with service from wide areas. Phillips’s speed, quick feet and an eye for goal was also giving him the upper hand on most of the league’s defences.
Five goals the following month saw Phillips pick up his first personal gong of the season as he was named player of the month for October. Two goals against both Bradford and Aston Villa had Phillips well on course to reach his personal target of 20 for the season.
When asked to name his favourite of that 30-goal haul, Phillips replied: “Against Chelsea at the Stadium of Light. It was a 25-yard dipping volley then, but now years later it’s a 40-yard volley lol!”
What a strike it was too. In a game that many Sunderland fans identify as the best to have been held at their new stadium, Chelsea were battered 4-1. In the first half Phillips scored one of the goals of the season as he smashed a dipping volley past Ed de Goey. He added a second 13 minutes later to cap a memorable day.
After a reasonably dry run by his standards, of just two goals in five games, Phillips had knocked in his 20th goal of the campaign by mid-January in a home defeat to Leeds.
In his next appearance in the home game against Newcastle, he again proved to be their nemesis. A goal in either half saw the hosts come from two-down to finish level. The dramatic second was scored eight minutes from time and caused a jubilant pitch invasion. Following the derby, Phillips had taken his tally to 22, which was eight more than Shearer, who had been the league’s top scorer for three of the previous five seasons.
Despite Phillips’s heroics in front of goal, the players behind him weren’t quite doing the business. It wasn’t until the end of March that Sunderland picked up their first win of 2000, a narrow win at home to Everton that came thanks to a late Phillips winner (obviously).
Phillips eventually hit the 30-goal mark in Sunderland’s final home outing, as he converted a Summerbee cross to send West Ham back south empty handed. Despite Phillips banging them in from all angles, Sunderland missed out on European football, with Aston Villa’s superior goal difference seeing the Midlanders sneak into the Intertoto Cup.
Sadly for Phillips, the great start to life in the top flight was short-lived. After being overlooked by England manager Kevin Keegan for the European Championships, he struggled to keep up the high standards that he had set for himself.
In the three seasons that followed he scored 14, 11 and six goals respectively for Sunderland, leaving after the Black Cats' relegation in 2003. He went on to play for Southampton, Villa, Birmingham and Palace in England’s top flight, but that vintage season - now some 14 years ago - is what Phillips will be remembered for by many.
After helping Leicester City to a Premier League return last month, Phillips called time on his playing career. However, he has already left an attacking legacy in England – his 12-year-old son Toby is part of the Wolves academy and plays as a number 10.
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