The weather scurrying in off the Solent being distinctly dodgy, Kevin Phillips was obliged to seek an indoor location at Southampton's Marchwood training ground to offer his thoughts about this afternoon's Fratton Park derby against Portsmouth. The manager's office was unoccupied, so Phillips made himself comfortable in the chair once filled so impressively by Gordon Strachan and so recently taken over by Paul Sturrock that the congratulatory cards were still propped on the window ledge.
How had it been, we wondered, to see one Scottish gaffer replaced by another? "I think the lads have just dealt with it," said the in-form striker and former England man. "There were two weeks when we had no manager, and that was quite strange. The voice is different but the accent is still the same. I think they were both working to a similar pattern, and we got a bit of the old Strachan at half-time against Liverpool last weekend, so not an awful lot has changed."
The "bit of old Strachan" was the half-time rollicking from Sturrock which roused Southampton from first-half torpor to roll out a rousing 2-0 win over Liverpool and celebrate the new manager's debut. Sturrock himself elaborated: "We have to paper over the cracks I saw against Liverpool and move on. Some individual performances were indifferent and some units of the team were poor in parts of the game. I don't want to knock the players' confidence because I appreciate what a fantastic result it was, but neither do I want to mask a disappointing showing. We didn't come to the table until the second half, and if we hang back like that against Portsmouth we could get ourselves in real trouble."
Since then, of course, Pompey have been to Anfield and suffered a 3-0 thumping, something which merely adds to Sturrock's concern. "Portsmouth will be smarting from that defeat and also wanting to avenge the couple of results Southampton have already had against them this season."
It is so early into Sturrock's reign that he has not even had the opportunity to line up his four top strikers, Phillips, James Beattie, Brett Ormerod and Marian Pahars, on the same practice pitch. He admits to a spot of "tinkering" already with what he inherited from Strachan. "For instance, we need a sharing of the goalscoring. You can't rely on your front two all the time, and the players are starting to realise that.
"The 29 goals we have scored [in 28 games] is not good enough. We are relying on the two strikers scoring and the defence being excellent, but sooner or later one of those departments will seize up. Kevin dried up earlier this season and we started to lose games, same with James. So it's important we share the load."
Phillips has rediscovered the knack of scoring and is back to the form which earned him eight England caps. Acknowledging the value of this asset, Sturrock also paid tribute to Phillips' ability to "link the team from back to front". He found the revival especially praiseworthy in view of "the ropey time Kevin went through at Sunderland last season, having to fight relegation and having his confidence knocked". What swung things back to the positive, asserted Phillips, is having his family settled with him in the Southampton area. "I was six years at Sunderland and to be honest I never felt I would leave the North-east, so it was difficult down here on my own for the first three months." Now, he says, his wife, Julie, and their three children, Millie (six) and the two-year-old twins Toby and Tia, are happily reunited with him. "So I am more settled off the pitch, the goals are flowing, things are coming together again."
Having suffered relegation with Sunderland, Phillips acknowledged he had sympathy for the plight of today's opponents. "But we are not going there thinking, 'Poor old Portsmouth'. Steve Stone said the other day it was time for Pompey to stand up and be counted. Those were exactly the kind of things we were saying last year at Sunderland. But time's running out for them and we are pushing for the upper half of the table. After Liverpool we want to push on. This is a great opportunity to make things more difficult for them."
While Sturrock endorses that opinion, he concedes that he differs from the overwhelming majority of his team's supporters in hoping that Portsmouth avoid the drop. "I would love them to stay in the Premiership. You want the kind of games we're going to have. There is an edge to derbies, it is exciting stuff. If you get too emotional it can cause a lot of concern, but if you don't match the cup-tie spirit of the other team, that can cause you concern as well. We have to make sure we are disciplined in our approach and also make sure our strike force has plenty of ammunition." And, having missed Southampton's League and cup wins over Portsmouth this season, Phillips will be eager to fire the bullets.Reuse content