Phillips keen to make up for lost years

Sunderland's loss can be Southampton's gain as former England striker regains his zest for life - at a club he once served
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The Independent Football

It wasn't relegation that convinced Kevin Phillips it was time to take his leave of Sunderland - it was a nagging feeling, a worry, that had weighed on his shoulders for over two years and held down this quicksilver striker. Phillips knew back then, in the summer of 2001, just as the Wearsiders had again finished seventh in the Premiership, that he had to leave.

Let him explain. "I felt a lot longer than before the end of last season that I needed to move - maybe a year ago, if not two years," he says. "I felt the second season we finished seventh that we never went out and bought the players that I felt I deserved to play alongside, and that the supporters deserved. I felt then that maybe I needed to get away to try to better my career and my international prospects. But I stuck by the club. I'm not knocking them, because I had fantastic six years there, but I perhaps felt when it was time to go that it was two years too late. But that's hindsight."

Hindsight mixed with a sense of déjà vu. For Phillips, 30, has gone backwards to go forwards. Back to Southampton, the club who released him as an apprentice - he once cleaned Alan Shearer's boots. They were never convinced that, with his slight build, the man who went on to break Brian Clough's scoring record at Sunderland and then collect the European Golden Boot was good enough. "I never thought I would come back," says Phillips. "Even when Southampton were first mentioned as putting a bid in, I thought, 'That'll never happen', but it is amazing what happens in football."

The £3.25m transfer on a four-year contract, says Phillips, was the show of faith he needed after a season in which the goals dried up. Just nine compared to 18 the year before, and 30 before that. At Sunderland, he boasted the impressive return of 132 goals in 234 appearances.

"Southampton wanted me and were prepared to pay the money," he says. "By that I don't mean wages but the fee that Sunderland were looking for; I thought that was great. Fair play to Southampton. They are not the biggest club in the world, but they are a good solid club."

Nevertheless, going back was still a big decision - although both Phillips and Southampton have changed greatly. "I was only 16 [when I left] and I've grown up since," he says. "I did have to think long and hard about it. When I was here before I did not have any family, but now I have a wife and three children and it is a big move. But in football terms I did not have to think about it. I looked at what they achieved last season, how they have come on, with a fantastic new stadium and everyone's respect, and I wanted to be a part of that. Obviously the European football as well, which is something I have not had, attracted me to it. Southampton have given me that chance."

That European football - courtesy of finishing runners-up in last season's FA Cup - starts on Wednesday with a Uefa Cup tie against Steaua Bucharest. "It is a tough draw, but they would have all been tough. At least we are at home in the first leg, and maybe if we get a decent result then we can go there and shut up shop.'

He is settling in - but knows things will get better now he has reached match fitness (Sunderland did not play him in any pre-season friendlies for fear he would be injured while they trying to sell him) and, more importantly, when he moves his wife, Julie, and children down. "We have found a place. The sooner they get down here the better. Until then it is living out of a suitcase and trying to get back and forth as much as I can, which is a bit stressful but is part of the job."

Another factor in his contentment is James Beattie. "James is the kind of player I like to play alongside. It has been well documented what Niall Quinn and I did [at Sunderland], so if we can strike up a similar kind of partnership then it should be successful. There are similarities, although James is obviously quicker and has a better eye for goal than Niall did."

That eye for goal lifts the burden somewhat off Phillips. "In a way it takes a bit of the pressure off. If we can both chip in with 20-odd goals then that is fantastic, we are going to be up there challenging," he says. And also, maybe, following each other into the England squad to add to Phillips's eight caps. "Whenever inter-national week comes round, as at any Premiership club, the training is quite sparse. There are not a lot of players left, and you always think, 'I'd love to be away with them'. You never know, that might come again, but I need to get back to scoring regularly."

So far he has one goal and three "assists" - including that controversial penalty last week against Wolverhampton Wanderers, when Phillips was, or wasn't, caught by Denis Irwin. "All I would say is that I agree with a lot of managers who are saying that we seem to be talking about referees all the time when we should not be," Phillips says. "I've got myself in trouble talking about referees, so I want to just shut up. But, at the end of the day, it was a penalty."

At Sunderland he would have taken that spot-kick - at his new club, Beattie has the right. Goalscoring is something Phillips has missed. "It is great to be involved in goals, but you ask me, or James, or any centre-forward, and you want to be scoring. You want to pick the paper up the next day and your name is there. It has been a long time since I have been able to do that regularly and, believe me, when it is happening it is a fantastic feeling. And that is what I want to get back to doing." Back doing it where he first started.