Football: Phillips finds his range

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Sunderland 1

Phillips pen 75

Queen's Park Rangers 0

Attendance: 41,008

BENEATH a lead-grey sky, darkened by the smoke of a hundred pre- match fireworks, Sunderland struggled to shake off last season's disappointment of missing automatic promotion by one point and losing the play-off final by one saved penalty.

Although they kicked off yesterday as 3-1 favourites to win the division and fielded two million-pound signings, a drab game and the black news of injury to Lee Clark did not lift the spirits.

QPR played what Ray Harford calls "quick football", keeping 10 men behind the ball when not in possession and breaking with speed down the right through Antti Heinola and Tony Scully. Yet for much of the opening 30 minutes, this left open a vast canvas on which Clark painted pretty passing pictures.

The most attractive of them came in the 20th minute when he pinpointed Niall Quinn's head. A classic centre-forward knock down set up Allan Johnston for a 20-yard volley that drifted just wide.

But Clark's game ended cruelly when in the 37th minute Keith Rowland caught him late, breaking his fibula. "He's going to be out months rather than weeks," Peter Reid, his manager, said. "It's a blow to the club and the kid himself and it's put a dampener on the day."

With Clark out of the equation Sunderland were reduced to long punts at Quinn's head. There were plenty of pieces to pick up but all at a distance that did not trouble Rangers' keeper, Lee Harper, who comfortably held another 20-yard drive from Johnston and watched a couple of sighters from Kevin Phillips, Sunderland's record post-war scorer with 35 goals last season, fly harmlessly high.

Until, that is, the 74th minute when Harper dropped Johnston's high cross under immense pressure from the leaping Quinn. Darren Williams stabbed goalwards and Ian Baraclough handled on the line. The red card was inevitable and he had not completed his slow trudge from the pitch by the time Phillips had converted the penalty.

Although Vinnie Jones, Rangers' assistant manager, bellowed from the bench, ferociously pummelling his hands together whenever a tackle was missed, the visitors toiled hard but made no clear chances until the 86th minute. Gavin Peacock sneaked a little space and fed Kevin Gallen, but Sunderland's new keeper, the Danish under-21 player Thomas Sorensen, spread himself well and stopped a grey day becoming even worse.