Kevin Phillips

Former Player Remembers: Kevin Phillips

When former Leicester City striker Kevin Phillips spoke to Club historian John Hutchinson, the conversation was about his phenomenal career, which saw him progress from non-league to England international.
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The aptly-nicknamed ‘Super Kev’ scored a truly impressive 287 goals for a total of nine clubs, gaining promotion to the Premier League with five of them. The only Englishman to ever win the European Golden Boot, he was particularly prolific playing for Sunderland between 1997 and 2003. In 2014, he became City’s oldest debutant and goalscorer.

Kevin began: “I was an associate schoolboy at Southampton between the ages of 12 and 16, travelling from my home in Hertfordshire to play on Sundays. I trained during the week at a couple of training centres in Slough and Harlow. I moved to Southampton as an apprentice when I was 16, but wasn’t offered a professional contract when I was 18. I moved back home, got a job and played for Baldock Town in the Beezer Homes Southern Division. Scouts watched me, resulting in Watford’s Glenn Roeder giving me a week’s trial, which led to a professional contract (in December 1994), which was amazing for me.”

At Watford, Kevin quickly established himself, scoring nine goals in his first 15 games: “I am deeply grateful to Watford. Ironically my debut, on a cold Tuesday night, was against Sunderland, where I later went on to make quite a name for myself. It was just fantastic to play in my first professional game. I was awarded a new contract at the end of that season. Unfortunately, at the start of the next season, I picked up an injury which kept me out for almost a year. I managed to come back from that and score a few goals. Unfortunately, Watford were relegated (to the Second Division) in 1997. It was a sad time, but I owe Watford an awful lot.”

In July 1997, Kevin moved to Sunderland, who had just been relegated from the Premier League. The fee was £325,000.

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Kevin Phillips & Niall Quinn
Kevin Phillips & Niall Quinn

Phillips formed a fearsome partnership with Niall Quinn at Sunderland.

He remembered: “I nearly joined George Burley’s Ipswich, but although I agreed terms, the deal fell through because the clubs could not agree a fee. After the talks broke down, I was in the Ipswich carpark with my agent who then rang Sunderland manager Peter Reid on his speaker phone to ask if he would be interested in signing me. Unaware that I was listening to the call, Peter Reid said: ‘Definitely. Get the lad up here!’ I drove to Sunderland the next day.”

Kevin made the mistake of driving to Sunderland’s new Stadium of Light, unaware that it was still a building site, but finally met up with Reid at the old Roker Park ground.

He said: “I trained the next day and got settled in really well. Despite relegation, we still believed we had a strong enough squad to really challenge for promotion. We came very close.

“I scored 35 goals in my first season there. The 35th was in the play-off final against Charlton, when we drew 4-4 and lost 7-6 on penalties. I was the first Sunderland player to score 35 in a season since Brian Clough in 1961/62. The following season, Clough presented me with a shirt to commemorate this achievement. The play-off final was a day of mixed emotions. I scored the 35th goal but we didn’t go up. I had to go off with cramp, so I didn’t get to take a penalty in the shootout. It was a shame.”

The following season, Sunderland did get promoted.

Kevin looks back fondly on that campaign: “The second season is the hardest for any player. We had strengthened in the summer and were tipped for promotion. There was pressure on myself and on the team to repeat our previous season’s form. I got off the mark really quickly. From that moment on, I started banging in goals but unfortunately, in a cup game on a Tuesday night at Chester, I went down to an innocuous tackle and all of a sudden I was out for three-and-a-half months which was a third of the season. When I came back, I still managed to get 25 goals that season and help the club get promoted. I firmly believe that if I hadn’t got injured I would have scored 35 like the season before because I was playing in a team that was creating unbelievable opportunities for me.”

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Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips

As well as the top flight's top goalscorer award, Phillips was the main man in Europe too.

Kevin’s exploits in the promotion season resulted in his selection for England: “There was talk of me and Michael Gray getting an England call-up but I put this to the back of my mind as I was at that point a Championship player. In the week the squad was to be announced, Peter Reid told me to keep my phone in my pocket in case I got the call. I was actually doing a Sky interview on the seafront when my phone rang. The cameras kept rolling and on live TV, Reidy informed me that I’d been picked for England. It was an incredible feeling and I couldn’t wait to tell my family.

“My first England game was against Hungary. I played alongside Alan Shearer. It was a great experience, although I drove my one good opportunity straight at the 'keeper. It was a great feeling to pull on that Three Lions shirt. Not many people have done it."

Interestingly, Leicester City’s Emile Heskey made his international debut in the same game, replacing Kevin in the 82nd minute. Back in the Premier League for 1999/00, some pundits speculated that Kevin would only score five or six goals at the top level. Kevin’s answer was to win the Premier League and European Golden Boot as the continent’s top goalscorer that year.

He added: “I couldn’t wait for the season to get underway. I was just dying to prove people wrong. Our first game was away at Chelsea. We lost 4-0, and I didn’t get a sniff! However, I had the belief I could score goals, given the chances. In the next game, at home to Watford, I got a couple of goals and I was off and running! As a player you go into the season thinking you want to get off the mark and score early. Then you just want to try and get as many goals as you possibly can. You are not thinking about Golden Boots and being the top goalscorer in the whole of Europe. But when I got near the mark, I really wanted to get the Golden Boot because it was some achievement

“I am the only Englishman to have won the European Golden Boot and memories like this stay with you forever. At the moment you have [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi, [Luis] Suárez, and Neymar playing, so I don’t think anyone will match this for a long time!”

That season, Sunderland just missed out on a UEFA Cup place: “We played a classic 4-4-2. It was a well organised and well drilled. Everyone knew their job. We had players like Nicky Summerbee (later of Leicester City), Allan Johnston and Micky Gray, who could create opportunities for big Niall [Quinn] and myself.”

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Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips

Kevin earned eight caps for his country.

The following season, 2000/01, Kevin broke Sunderland’s post-war goalscoring record with his 104th goal for the club. Once again, the Black Cats missed out on a European place by one position.   

“Niall and I became marked men," he continued. "It became a lot more difficult. That close season, we didn’t strengthen the squad enough. From then on, we lost a few players and we never recovered the form that we had shown in those first two seasons in the Premier League. The next two seasons were tough and in the end we ended up getting relegated. This meant that there were financial cutbacks and the club had to sell me. Those six years at Sunderland will stay with me forever. Wonderful memories.”

Kevin moved to Southampton in August 2003. His debut for the Saints was against newly-promoted Leicester in the Foxes’ first-ever Premier League game at their new stadium. 

He remembers it well: “I nearly didn’t play that day as I had lost my mum earlier in the week. I didn’t really feel in the right frame of mind but my family said my mum would want me to play so Gordon Strachan put me on the bench. We were 2-0 down after 10 minutes. When I came on at half-time, I just felt I had to make an impression on my Southampton debut and try to turn the game. Fifteen minutes from time, I managed to score a wonderful first goal into the top corner from about 20 yards out, and then I had a hand in the second goal. I always remember that Les Ferdinand (making his debut for City) came over and congratulated me on my performance. That was great coming from a player that I really admired. It was a great start for my Southampton career.”

Kevin spent two years at Southampton, before moving to Aston Villa in the Premier League. He then then achieved promotion to the Premier League with both West Bromwich Albion and then with Birmingham City, moved to Blackpool and got promoted again to the Premier League with Crystal Palace.

His final promotion to the top flight came with Leicester in 2014.

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Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips

Kevin's famous 'zimmer-frame' celebration at Bournemouth.

Kevin explained that, following Leicester’s visit to Crystal Palace in April 2013, he’d had a chat with Craig Shakespeare, who had suggested the possibility of a future coaching role for him at Leicester: “The conversation stuck in my mind. I had never considered going into coaching. I then got promoted with Palace. The following January (2014), a call came out of the blue from Shakey (Shakespeare) and Nigel [Pearson] asking if I fancied coming to Leicester for the remainder of the season with a view to joining the coaching staff towards the end of the season. Leicester were flying in the Championship. I jumped at the chance. When I came on board, we had a fantastic end to the season and got promoted.”

At Leicester, Kevin became the oldest player (at the time) to make his debut for the Club when he came on as a substitute against Leeds United at Elland Road and did a step-over dummy, enabling David Nugent to score. When he scored himself against Bournemouth at Vitality Stadium in February 2014, he became, at 40-years-old, the oldest player to ever score for the Foxes.

Kevin recalled: “I was delighted to get off the mark. I then just decided to do the ‘zimmer-frame’ celebration. I hadn’t pre-planned this. It got talked about an awful lot afterwards. I didn’t score as many goals as I would have liked to, but I like to think I contributed in other ways off the pitch, using my experience and knowledge to talk to players.”

Kevin’s last professional game was the celebratory game on 3 May, 2014 against Doncaster Rovers when the Championship trophy was presented.

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Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips

Phillips was presented with the Sir Tom Finney Award recently.

He reflected: “I knew our last game was going to be at home in front of a sell-out crowd and I thought this would be the right time to retire.

“I knew that Nigel would start me and then bring me off to give me a good send-off and I thank him for that. It was an emotional day. All my family were there. I was gutted that I never scored! I would have loved to have finished off with a goal. The send-off I got from both sets of supporters when I came off will stay with me forever.”

Kevin then developed his coaching career at Leicester: “It was a learning curve for me. My first session with the boys was on a pre-season trip to Austria. It was nerve-racking to go from playing with these boys to coaching them. It made me wonder if they were going to listen to me, or take the mick but they showed me respect, doing everything I asked of them. They were great.

“The transition from playing to coaching went smoothly for me. That was all down to Shakey, Nige and the backroom staff. It was a great experience.”

In 2015, Kevin, who most recently worked at Stoke City, was awarded he Sir Tom Finney Award for Lifetime Achievement.

He concluded: “Getting this award was a massive honour. It meant that I’d had a successful career which people respected. It was a great night. My wife and I went down to London to receive the award and it sits very proudly on the mantelpiece.”

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