Football: Phillips revels on front line
Norman Fox talks to a striker in the habit of beating the odds
Sunday 29 August 1999
He really did clean Shearer's boots at the Dell. Though not lacking in defiant confidence (badly needed in his undulating career), he never believed that one day he would partner Shearer in the England team, as he did against Hungary last April, let alone upstage him in a North-eastern local derby as he did for Sunderland against Newcastle on Wednesday when Shearer was dropped and Phillips scored a typically calm and skilful winning goal.
Neat and nimble, the 26-year-old Phillips will never be a direct replacement for Shearer in the England side, but his pace and belief that "I've always been able to be in the right place at the right time" make him ideally suited for the Peter Beardsley role or, for now, as a useful stand-by if Michael Owen is unavailable. Essentially he is a natural goalscorer who slips defensive nets with remarkable agility.
He thinks Keegan may see in him a little of Brian Clough, whose Sunderland goalscoring record he has surpassed. Keegan agrees: "He impressed me when he joined the squad earlier in the year with the way he adapted to the international scene. He looked comfortable with the more experienced players. He certainly didn't let us down in Budapest. I had confidence in him because last season Sunderland were a Premiership team in all but name. He was so keen to join us at the hotel that he almost got there early enough to meet the last squad going home."
In the final few minutes of the match in Budapest he was substituted by Emile Heskey who, because of his physique, is clearly the most likely attack leader to take Shearer's position if and when Keegan decides the time is right. Phillips, though, needs to play up to his form of the last two seasons even to remain a long-term squad member, which in itself would be remarkable for a player whose career has had so many setbacks.
His four years as a teenager at Southampton were frustrating since he wanted to be a striker, "and everyone with ambitions like that there was compared with Alan Shearer, so when you're only 5ft 7in that's not easy." Although Phillips had been a prolific schoolboy goalscorer, Chris Nicholl, then the manager at the Dell, told him he was too small to play up front. "I think I've proved him wrong." The pleasure in securing that proof has been hard won.
"There have been times when I've wondered whether I would ever play again, like when I was at Watford and I got an injured foot. No one seemed to know what the problem was." Eventually the club surgeon identified a hole in a ligament. After an operation an entire year was missed. There have been many other dark valleys on his journey from working in a Sunblest bakery, being a shelf-packer, playing non-League football for Baldock Town and knowing that Watford were only too happy to get pounds 350,000 for him from Sunderland since they had no great confidence that he would ever be fully fit.
Scoring in nine consecutive home games for Sunderland after their relegation from the Premiership in 1997 turned him into an instant local hero. "I hadn't known what to expect when I first moved up here," he said. "I didn't know much about the North, but the people have been great." His elevation to England squad member earlier in the year took his breath away and he realistically acknowledged that it probably only came about because Keegan was short of strikers.
This time he is in the squad on merit. He may not actually win a second cap, but his performance against Newcastle confirmed his ability to get crucial goals when under pressure. His 23 in the First Division last season, together with Niall Quinn's 18, guaranteed Sunderland promotion, but only if he can emulate that in the more demanding Premiership will he force himself back into the England team rather than just the squad.
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