When Kevin Phillips dropped out of the Premier League in 2006, after scoring just four times in 23 matches with Aston Villa, a career which peaked with England recognition appeared to be in terminal decline.
There was even an unfortunate footnote when, a year ago, he was dragged away from a family barbecue at short notice to receive the Football League Player of the Year award on behalf of then West Bromwich Albion teammate Jason Koumas. Not having anticipated this involvement he appeared on stage visibly the worse for wear, dressed in scaggy tee-shirt, jeans and hoodie. Not quite the role model an elder statesmen should be.
He was back at the London Hilton on Sunday, suited and booted, and sober. This time he was there to collect the award, which follows a poll compiled by 4-4-2 magazine, in his own right. At 34 Phillips leads the Championship's goal charts striking his 17th League goal of the season to secure Albion's last-minute win at Sheffield Wednesday in midweek and bring them back within a point of the automatic promotion places. The tally is all the more remarkable given injury has restricted him to 24 appearances, many of them less than 90 minutes' duration.
The veteran looks a bit exasperated at the number of questions referring to his age - unsurprisingly given Teddy Sheringham will be 42 when he packs it in at the end of the season - but he admits, "I thought I'd still be going at 34, but I don't know if I would have expected to score as many goals as I have this year.
"I've got to give a lot of credit to the team. We create so many chances and I'm lucky I've been on the end of quite a few of them this year."
Phillips' next League goal will be his 200th, (Watford 24, Sunderland 115, Southampton 23, Aston Villa 4, West Brom 33 so far) but his immediate focus is the FA Cup. He has never gone past the last eight and recognises Sunday's quarter-final tie against Bristol Rovers represents an excellent chance of doing so.
"It's a great opportunity," he said, "and with the added incentive of a semi at Wembley which would be fantastic. You get there and anything could happen - all of a sudden you could find yourself in the FA Cup final. Just look at Millwall a few years ago. It's a great chance."
While Barnsley and Cardiff, the Championship's other survivors, have failed to win since the fifth round Albion go into Sunday's tie on the back of successive victories. The sign of a team which has kept its' focus, or merely a reflection of Albion's quality?
A bit of both suggests Phillips. "The Cup was never a distraction, until Wednesday it was not even been mentioned. We've got a lot of experienced players in our team and we're too professional to let ourselves get carried away."
He added: "Without a doubt we're good enough to go up. We've done exceptionally well this year but also we've let ourselves down at crucial stages. We've had a little slip-up but every team has had their little blip hopefully those wins will give us a little springboard."
Albion, last season's play-off finalists, are widely regarded as the best footballing team in the division. "I've never been in a team that's created so many chances, it's our manager (Tony Mowbray)'s philosophy. Great for a striker but, admits Phillips, "Sometimes we attack too much and that leaves us open to conceding goals.
"If we go up obviously we would need to strengthen but if you look at the way we play our football I think could match anyone and I've always said in the Premiership you get more time on the ball, it's more football.
"People have said we play a Premiership style in the Championship. Sometimes we play too much. There's teams in this league who have shown they don't play attractive football but it's effective. Those teams are sitting near the top of the Championship. Whatever works for a team and gets them promoted then so be it. Our manager's philosophy is to play football to get out of this league whether it'll be the right philosophy I don't know. I hope it is."
Phillips accepts if Albion go up he would play less matches but adds, " I'd love to get there, experience it for one more time and go from there. It's gone exceptionally well for me since coming to Albion. I suppose it's because I'm coming to the end of my career and I don't want it to finish. I'm trying my hardest, keeping myself as fit as possible and just enjoying it. People say you lose your pace but I've never been a quick, quick player - I don't feel I've lost that yard that people say that I've lost because I never really had it. It's just about knowing where to be at the right time and being sharp in your mind. I've found as you get older you need to be sharper a bit more upstairs and that's what I am at the moment.
"Teddy [Sheringham] is a role model for me - I was fortunate enough to work with him in the England days and what a credit to him. I don't know if I'll still be playing at 40 - I don't know whether I'll want to still be playing at 40 - but he's still got a sharp mind and is still a tremendous player.
Playing non-League [for Baldock Town after being released by Southampton] is also a factor. I've been out there in the big wide world, worked in warehouses. I did that for two-and-a-half years and, no disrespect to anybody who works in warehouses, that's what I didn't want to do. So when I got my chance in football I grabbed it with both hands. I know it's not a long career because mine's nearly over now. And you've got to take it while you can.
"I've enjoyed my career - we're standing here talking as if it's over but I think I've still got another good two, three years left in me. The only thing would be if I could recover from injuries - and from a night out! - a bit quicker."Reuse content