Greatest individual seasons: Super Kevin Phillips goes goal-crazy and bags the Golden Shoe (1999/2000)
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, few expected Phillips to go on and rip it up in the Premier League.
But 12 months later, 30 goals in 36 games made Rodney Marsh and other doubters pipe down.
Boot boy wins
In an unforgettable season, Phillips was named Premier League Player of the Season. Not only was he the league’s top scorer by seven goals, it was Newcastle’s Alan Shearer - whose boots Phillips used to clean when the pair were at Southampton - who finished second. Locally, the press named him North East Football Writers' Player of the Year after Sunderland took four points off their bitter rivals, with Phillips scoring three times across the two games.
It was Newcastle’s Alan Shearer - whose boots Phillips used to clean when the pair were at Southampton - who finished second
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 by grabbing 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'd beaten the Magpies but those in the away end that day witnessed an unforgettable comeback.
After Niall Quinn equalised for Sunderland, Phillips scored at the second attempt 15 minutes from time after seeing his initial effort saved by Tommy Wright. The eventual finish – a clipped effort over Wright and the retreating defenders which nestled into the net – was glorious.
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.
Joy on the Niall
It was the classic little-and-large partnership that worked for Phillips. He was partnered up top by the veteran targetman Quinn, who also added 14 goals of his own and grabbed eight assists. Together they hit 77% of Sunderland’s total and were both aided by a capable wingman Nicky Summerbee, who helped service from wide areas. Phillips’s speed, quick feet and eye for goal were giving him the upper hand on most of the league’s defences.
Niall Quinn added a further 14 goals and grabbed eight assists. Together, they hit 77% of Sunderland’s total
Five goals the following month led to Phillips picking up his first personal gong of the season in October's player-of-the-month award. Two goals against both Bradford and Aston Villa had him well on course to reach his personal target of 20 for the season.
He went on to better that by a third, of course. When since 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...”
But what a strike it was. 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 by smashing a dipping volley past Ed de Goey, and added a second 13 minutes later to cap a memorable day.
After a reasonably dry run by his standards – 'just' two goals in five games – Phillips knocked in his 20th goal of the campaign in a mid-January home defeat to Leeds.
In his next appearance at home to arch-rivals Newcastle, he again proved to be the Magpies' nemesis. A goal in either half saw the hosts come from two down to finish level, the dramatic second scored eight minutes from time and causing a jubilant pitch invasion. Phillips had taken his tally to 22 – eight more than Shearer, who'd been the league’s top scorer for three of the previous five seasons.
Leading by example
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 one at home to Everton which came thanks to a late Phillips winner (obviously).
He eventually hit the 30-goal mark in Sunderland’s final home outing, converting a Summerbee cross to send West Ham back south empty-handed.
But despite Phillips banging in the goals from all angles, Sunderland missed out on European football as Aston Villa’s superior goal difference helped the Midlanders sneak into the Intertoto Cup.
Sadly for the striker, his scintillating start to life in the top flight was short-lived. After being overlooked by England manager Kevin Keegan for Euro 2000, Phillips struggled to keep up the high standards that he'd set for himself – he never hit more than 14 goals in a Premier League season.
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 Crystal Palace in England’s top flight, but that vintage season - now some 18 years ago - is what he will always be remembered by. And won't be forgotten.