Kevin Phillips is a hero of derby past to Sunderland fans – but unlike others his goalscoring exploits belong in the present tense. In this exclusive interview with Mark Douglas, he talks about derbies, Thierry Henry and Wearside returns.
“The reception I got with Birmingham was just magnificent. I was really touched by it – I think Sunderland fans thought that would be the last time I’d be there as a player so they really made it special.
“Who knows, I might be back again!”
If he was, few on Wearside would begrudge him a repeat of the heroic homecoming afforded for a modern-day legend.
The stats tell the story – with 113 goals in 208 games Phillips is one of Sunderland’s greatest strikers.
He was taken to Black Cat hearts, however, for his extraordinary feats in Tyne-Wear tussles down the years. In an era when Newcastle have so often got one over on their Wearside rivals, Phillips is a reminder of a period when Sunderland didn’t tend to freeze on the big occasion.
His introduction to the derby was the unforgettable, apocalyptic St James’ Park meeting that ended in a 2-1 win for Sunderland against a backdrop of monsoon rain and Alan Shearer’s face of thunder as he sat on the bench in Ruud Gullit’s final game as United boss.
But he also scored a pair to rescue a point for Sunderland in another memorable encounter at the Stadium of Light in 2000. Another goal in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in 2001 cemented his reputation as something of a derby-day assassin.
Phillips, now combining his playing time with a role as one of the smartest new pundits on the television, was quick to accept this interview request to chat about derby memories. It is one of the privileges of scoring in the derby that you’ll always be asked to share your thoughts when the fixture comes back around.
“Just talking about it brings back some brilliant memories,” he says. “I’ve played in a lot of derby games but, to be honest, the Sunderland-Newcastle one was the biggest one I played in.
“The atmosphere was just absolutely incredible – I’d been told about it beforehand but you don’t really understand until you’ve played in it. The noise is unbelievable. As a new arrival to the area you’re left in no doubt about how much it means to the people up there, who live and breathe their football.
“They are the most passionate in the country and it meant so much to Sunderland supporters that we win in it, which just adds to the occasion.
“I remember the game at the Stadium of Light when we were two down early on but came back to draw the game. When I scored to make it 2-2 – that was the loudest noise I heard in my entire career. It nearly lifted the roof off.
“Just talking about it gets the adrenaline flowing. To be honest, I really wish I was playing in it now!”
Phillips has been impressed with the Martin O’Neill-led renaissance of Sunderland over recent months but still feels that it will be “difficult” to upset Newcastle in their own back yard. “They will need to play so much better than they did at the Hawthorns,” he said.
“But this is a one-off game, so it doesn’t really matter what went before. Newcastle have been doing well and both teams have been in superb form.
“It’s going to be very, very tight – I can see there being one goal in it. I’d love to see a Sunderland victory – so I’m going to predict 2-1 to them.”