May 02 2012

Part 2: 20 Years of the Premier League Awards – Sunderland

The Premier League is set to award a multitude of honours celebrating 20 years of the greatest league in the world. One of the awards is set to go to the Premier League’s best player over the course of its existence, and so we thought it would be fun to carry out our very own The North East HUB Blog award for the very best of the best in recognition of some of the outstanding talents to have graced North East football.

It wouldn’t be fair to just award one player the accolade, and would no doubt cause debate about how and why this player was greater than X, Y or Z player from another club, so instead we’ve awarded a player from Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough as the greatest to play for their club, whilst leaving the debate of an overall winner to the fans of each club.

The awards will be split over three separate articles to ensure each player gets the space they deserve – last week we announced Alan Shearer as Newcastle United’s greatest Premier League player, and this week we take a look at Sunderland.

Sunderland – Kevin Phillips

Ask any Sunderland supporter to name their favourite player of the Premier League era and most will instantly say ‘Super Kevin Phillips’, their former hero scored some fantastic goals for the club, and with 113 goals in 208 appearances had a strike rate that would make even the top modern day strikers envious. However it could have all been so very different for ‘Super Kev’ who actually started his career as a right back at Southampton, before being released and signing for non-league Baldock Town who converted him in to a striker.

45 goals in 71 appearances earned Phillips a move to second division side Watford, and despite missing a year due to injury the future Sunderland legend managed to score 24 goals in 59 games in his three seasons at the club, showing his impressive eye for goal wasn’t just a mere fluke or down to playing against poor opposition, and giving a glimpse of the player that graced the Premier League with such aplomb.

Despite missing such a large part of the season Sunderland took a punt on the diminutive striker and signed him for a meagre £350,000 (eventually rising to £600,000), and that gamble paid off almost immediately with Phillips bagging 31 goals in 46 games, however despite being the first player to score 30 plus goals in a season since Brian Clough, Sunderland lost the play off final on penalties in a game that will be remembered as a true classic for years to come.

The next season Sunderland weren’t to be denied promotion though and finished top with 105 points (a then record) despite Phillips missing nearly four months of the season due to a toe injury. Remarkably he still managed to score an incredible 23 goals in 26 league games and along with being promoted Phillips also received his first England call up. An amazing achievement for a player who was plying his trade in non-league football only five years previously.

Phillips’ upward surge continued the next year with the second 30 goal haul in his career – and this time it was in the Premier League. Many had doubted his ability to cut it at the very top level, but throughout his career Phillips had taken every step with ease, and he finally started earning the respect he deserved. Not only could the former Watford man score regularly but he had an amazing array of talents at his disposal with deft finishes, great technique, sublime strikes and a never say die attitude – Phillips had it all, and Premier League defences didn’t know what had hit them. Not only did Phillips’ 30 goals in 36 appearances net him the Premier League Golden Boot, but also the European Golden Boot too – an award never won before or since by an English player.

Sunderland finished an impressive seventh and repeated that feat the following season, although Phillips could only manage a respectable 14 goals in 36 league games this time around. However the club wasn’t able to match this during the next campaign and slipped to seventeenth in the league, and it was a slippery slope that the Wearsiders weren’t able to get off, and the next year they were relegated with the worst points tally in the Premier League’s history. Philips, despite scoring 11 league goals the previous season, could only manage six this time round, and his love affair with the club was to end on a low note.

Phillips went on to play for Southampton, Aston Villa, West Brom, Birmingham City, and is still scoring goals for Championship side Blackpool – however he will always be best remembered for his time with the Black Cats. I asked about Super Kev’s most memorable goals on a forum this week and the fact there were many different replies shows that Phillips really had a knack for scoring great goals – there was the half volley against Grimsby, the 25 yarder against Liverpool, and the curler against Everton as just some of the examples of his talent for scoring special goals.

Super Kev will go down in Sunderland history as a true legend, and it’ll be a long time before the club finds another player who not only knows how to score goals, but is also a team player – strikers can be notoriously selfish players, and to find someone who knew the importance of being a team player whilst also bagging on average more than a goal every two games was, and still is, a rare find. For these reasons, and the excitement he gave the Sunderland faithful we rightly award Kevin Phillips the greatest Sunderland player of the Premier League era award.

Many thanks to Glen Cardy who provided a great photo for this article