Football: Poacher ready for United plunder

Phillips, the man who can't stop scoring, trains his sights on the champions
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ANYTHING COULD happen when Manchester United make their first visit to the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night - to the Sunderland Stadium of Light, that is. Fergie's Treble-winning stars could produce a blinding display, to leave Peter Reid's bright young things in the shade. They could, of course, be outdazzled themselves by the rising stars of the Premiership, as Chelsea were on Wearside three weeks ago. One thing, however, is more likely than anything else to happen. According to the law of averages, Kevin Phillips will score a goal.

Even if Sunderland's No 10 registers a blank at Goodison Park today, he will line up on Tuesday night boasting a goal-a-game record as a Premiership striker. After 18 matches of his debut season in the big league, Phillips has 19 goals, three more than Andy Cole had at the same stage of his first top-flight campaign with Newcastle six years ago. Cole proceeded to top the Premiership scoring chart with 34 goals that season and if Phillips exceeds the 30-mark he will be the first Sunderland player to do so in the top division since the Wearside club last won the championship. Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney scored 31 goals each in that historic 1935-36 campaign.

Not that you will catch Phillips consulting his club history book and his calculator. "I said at the start of the season my target was to get 20 goals in the Premiership and I won't be revising it," he said. "Anything can happen in football and if I make it to 20 I'll be happy. I'll take whatever I get after that."

It is a mark as much of Sunderland's gross underachievement over the years as of the impact Phillips has made that his next goal will make him the club's first player to score 20 in the top division since Neil Martin in the 1966-67 season. Sunderland have not even finished in the top half of the top division since the 1955-56 season, a feat they will surely achieve even if their form falters in the new year. Phillips, however, has his sights set higher - on challenging Manchester United's domestic domination.

"Why not?" he said. "We've got the stadium. In the next two or three years the capacity could go up to 60,000. And in two or three years we could get to Manchester United's level on the pitch too. It won't happen overnight. But I feel this club can definitely be up there. Definitely."

The power of such positive thinking has taken Phillips a long way in the two-and-a-half years since he moved from Watford for pounds 350,000. In that time he has scored 79 goals for Sunderland, emerged at the top of the Premiership goal-scoring table and broken into the England team - all this at the age of 26, and having been thrown on the football scrap heap at 18 by Southampton.

Against the Saints eight days ago Phillips showed how finely finished an article he has become: intelligently tugging the seams from Southampton's blanket defence with his perpetual running out of position, pouncing to score the opening goal with a first-time shot and then, after missing from the penalty spot, getting himself in the right place at the right time to bury a close-range header.

Reid has compared him to Gary Lineker, though there is a discernible shade of Gerd Muller in Phillips' penalty-box sniffing and his no-fuss finishing. Amid all the fuss and attention, Reid's pocket-sized poacher merely smiles and recalls his non-League days with Baldock Town, when he spent his working week stacking warehouse shelves and driving fork- lift trucks.

"This is all I ever dreamed of," Phillips said. "When the Premiership started I wasn't even a professional. I used to sit and watch it, wanting to be a part of that, and now I'm probably one of the most talked about players in the Premiership.

"I'm loving every minute of it. I think I'm showing that on the pitch. It's not affecting me, the pressure I'm under to score goals. I thrive on that. I think it's the same for every player in a Sunderland shirt because we're playing some good stuff and we're at the right end of the table. Everything's going spot on for us at the moment."

It is indeed, with Sunderland occupying third spot in the Premiership, 13 points ahead of the Chelsea team who thrashed them 4-0 on the opening day. "I think the biggest thing we've got now," Reid said, "is that we know we're difficult to beat. We know we've got an outstanding keeper. We know we're solid at the back. And we're always liable to make chances and get a couple of goals... We're not a bad side."

Just how good a side Sunderland are will become clearer on Tuesday night at eight o'clock when the champions of Europe roll into town. "We've been looking forward to playing them here since the fixtures came out," Phillips said. "And the way we've been playing we're confident we can get a good result against them. If we can play the way we did against Chelsea I don't think they'll stop us. But it'll be an entirely different ball game."

It certainly will for Phillips. He has never played against Manchester United before. He has never scored against them, of course, which means he will have a new target to aim at on Tuesday. The chances are he'll hit the bullseye, too.