Phillips fights frustration of fallow period

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Last season's leading Premiership scorer believes his problems are character-building.

Last season's leading Premiership scorer believes his problems are character-building.

The man who was voted Europe's finest striker, above Ruud van Nistelrooy and Andrei Shevchenko, has many memories of his involvement in the European Championships.

He appreciated the golf course at the Balmoral Country Club in Spa, forged a close friendship with Richard Wright and thanked God for the invention of DVD videos. When it was all over, feelings of relief and frustration mingled within him.

Kevin Phillips never left the substitutes' bench and at no time during the tournament did he feel he was likely to. He summed up Euro 2000 with the words: "In any other team in the world if a striker had scored 30 goals in their domestic league, he would be a certainty for his national side..."

His moment came and went.

With the World Cup qualifier with Germany looming in the near-distance, Phillips seems far away from starting for England. Michael Owen, whom he faces at Anfield this afternoon, and Andy Cole have scored 13 times between them while, this week, Robbie Fowler marked his comeback for Liverpoolreserves with five goals against Bradford.

Where does that leave the winner of the Golden Boot and the Soulier d'Or, the award given to Europe's leading goalscorer, which had once graced the mantlepieces of Eusebio, Gerd Muller and Marco van Basten?

The various golden boots (four in all, including one from the Nationwide League and another from Carling) are on display at his home in County Durham; they at least have not moved but Phillips has slipped back. A knee injury cost him all of his pre-season preparation, but so precious is he to Sunderland that he was played right from the start with only three days' training behind him and his game has suffered because of it.

"There is pressure on me now; Sunderland fans expect me to score in every game," Phillips said. "When I meet them, their first words are never: 'Hello, how are you?' but 'Are you going to score on Saturday?' I don't blame them; I've created that attitude, but I've always said there will come a time when I don't get goals and it's how I deal with it that will make me as a footballer."

A Phillips goal drought is a strictly relative term; the longest he has ever gone without finding the net is four games. His background, too, has helped. The seasons in non-League football when he was stacking shelves for Dixons or delivering Sunblest loaves has given him a perspective on life someone like Owen can only imagine. Breaking Brian Clough's record of 34 goals in a season for Sunderland in his first year on Wearside did not change him and the few setbacks have done so still less.

He has scored twice in the Premiership this season; a lovely chest-down and volley in an otherwise shambolic defeat at Maine Road and a muscular effort to haul Sunderland out of the relegation zone against Derby.

Sometimes, starved of service by a midfield depleted by long-term injuries and without the crosses from Nicky Summerbee, who has fallen out of favour with Peter Reid, he has looked lost and out of sorts. "I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of chances I've had. Last season I was getting two or three every game."

There are wider reasons for this. They may have been the Premiership's finest partnership last season, but Sunderland are reliant on Phillips and Niall Quinn to an unhealthy degree: of the team's 57 League goals last season, 44 came from their two strikers. Although Reid has brought in Don Hutchison to provide ammunition from midfield, their pattern of play, with the long ball for Niall Quinn to nod down to Phillips, is sometimes predictable.

"Maybe we need to mix the play up more, not be so direct and play more on the ground rather than off Niall," he acknowledged. "I expected to be really tightly marked this season and I have been, but I was marked hard last season and I still scored 30."

Like Cole, Phillips has been given limited opportunities internationally and failed to make the most of the few scraps he was tossed, most notably against Malta immediately before the European Championships opened. Gary Lineker thought his treatment bizarre. If ever there was a striker in form, Phillips surely was it.

Reid, who played alongside one and managed the other, thinks there are marked similarities with Lineker and curiously the paperback version of Phillips's autobiography is called Strikingly Different, the same title used for Hunter Davies's book on English football's great boy scout, although Phillips is unaware of the fact.

Like Lineker and Cole, especially in his Newcastle days, people find fault with Phillips because in a match he generally does little else but shoot and score. While Alan Shearer, whose preference for Owen and Emile Heskey cost Phillips dearly last summer, is often found in the heart of defence or on the wing creating for others, the Sunderland striker is not.

"People always said Gary Lineker was a six-yard player and if I could have a career like his, then I'd be delighted," said Phillips. "I am a goalscorer; I have to improve my work outside the box but essentially I am paid to score goals.

"I was frustrated during Euro 2000 and any player who had achieved what I'd done would have been the same. Now the future is in my hands; the next two years are vital for me to make my mark on the international stage. By the time of the next World Cup, I'll be 29 and at my peak."

Phillips is driven by a basic hunger. Geoffrey Boycott said he always wanted to play because he objected to others "scoring my runs" and the same, in footballing terms, goes for Phillips.

On a wild, sodden night on Wearside last Tuesday he volunteered to play a Worthington Cup tie against Luton. He found the net once and created the other two. He still needs a little reassurance. Every morning of a home match he watches videos of himself putting goals away "just to prove I haven't lost the knack".

He played the tape last Saturday before the game against Derby and, this time, it worked.