Football: Southampton reject Phillips has the last laugh

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Sunderland 2

Phillips 30, 90

Southampton 0

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 40,860

KEVIN PHILLIPS never did get to play for Southampton. At the Stadium of Light yesterday he got to play against them for the first time since Chris Nicholl showed him the door at The Dell and told him to find a career away from professional football. He made the most of it, too, showing his former employers precisely what they have missed out on. Adding two more Premiership goals to his burgeoning tally, the rejected Saint consigned his one-time employers to defeat.

Told in his apprentice days at The Dell that he was too small to be a striker and then, after converting to right-back, that he was not good enough to make the grade, Phillips now has 19 goals from 18 Premiership matches. He should have 20 - a figure no Sunderland player has reached in a top-flight season since Neil Martin in the 1966-67 campaign - but his most clear-cut opportunity went begging yesterday. His 82nd-minute penalty-kick was saved by Neil Moss, who started the afternoon on the bench.

"The great thing about Kevin is he doesn't worry when he misses chances," Peter Reid said. "He just dusts himself down and gets on with it." And the great thing about Sunderland, under Reid's astute management, is that they have arrived at Christmas with 37 points - just three less than the total with which they were relegated in 1997.

"I think that's us safe now," Reid remarked. His tongue was very much in his cheek, but the Sunderland manager still refused to be drawn into citing European qualification as a new year target.

That Sunderland have a goal poacher at the top of the Prem-iership scoring charts is a sign of their new-found status. So is the pounds 13m deal they signed with BSkyB on Friday. Of more immediate value to Phillips is the pounds 2.5m investment in Kevin Kilbane, though Reid chose to start with the flank- man waiting alongside him in the wings yesterday.

There was one Republic of Ireland man assisting Phillips from the kick- off, Niall Quinn having passed a pre-match fitness test on an injured ankle, while Claus Lundekvam was patched up to face Sunderland's in-form strike force after fracturing the little toe on his right foot in Southampton's third round FA Cup win at Ipswich last Monday night.

The Norwegian enjoyed considerable protection from his colleagues, too, Dave Jones having sent out his Saints to stifle their hosts with what, in the opening stages, amounted to a 10-man defensive blanket.

In attempting to draw the Southampton players out of their own half, Sunderland conceded the first chance, Marian Pahars intercepting Nicky Summerbee's attempted pass to Paul Butler and firing a 20-yard drive that Thomas Sorensen gathered comfortably enough. Phillips had to drop into the left-back position to gain possession for the first time but it was his industry that pulled Sunderland out of their straight-jacket.

Drifting out deep on the right, he crossed to tee up Quinn for a looping header that had Paul Jones at full stretch for the first time. The Southampton goalkeeper was struggling again in the 10th minute, though fortunately for him the chip shot Phillips delivered from the right edge of the area dropped on to the roof of the net. Phillips was off target with another chip and also miscued a half-volley.

The breakthrough came on the half-hour, a clinically fashioned and clinically finished goal. Michael Gray hoisted a free-kick from deep on the left, Quinn headed down on the right edge of the penalty area and Phillips, on the right angle of the six-yard box, pounced to smack a first-time shot past Jones.

The goal was not the only blow Southampton suffered. Jones was hurt while diving at the feet of Phillips and taken off to hospital, where six stitches were inserted in a facial wound. Moss, his replacement, was not seriously tested until the 55th minute and, even then, Butler's powerfully struck volley lacked the direction required to beat him.

Attempting to save his team from the sidelines, Dave Jones sent on James Beattie and Matthew Le Tissier. He very nearly succeeded, too. But Beattie, Pahars and Stuart Ripley all failed to apply finishing touches as the Saints swept forward threateningly on the break.

At least their shivering band of travelling supporters had something to cheer about in the 82nd minute, when Phillips - who had been brought down by Lundekvam - had his penalty kick saved by the diving Moss. Phillips, however, had the last laugh.

Two minutes into injury time, Kilbane, who was an 87th-minute replacement for Stefan Schwarz, crossed from the left and Quinn headed the ball down at the far post for Sunderland's No 10 to hook in his second goal of the afternoon, his 19th of the season.

To Southampton, without a goal in four League games, it was another one for the one who got away.