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Apr 29, 2014

SuperKev's glories recalled as he calls time on grand career

When Kevin Phillips arrived at the Stadium of Light to join a newly relegated team hoping for a swift return to the Premier League, one legitimate reaction was to wonder whether Sunderland had bought the right Watford striker.

Another Watford man, David Connolly, was also available. There were even rumours he was Peter Reid's true target. Connolly would eventually play on Wearside but the move he made then, in the summer of 1997, was to Feyenoord.

If news of Phillips' acquisition, at the initial knockdown price of 325,000 pounds, failed to cause immediate excitement, the consequences -- for player and club -- were to be extraordinary.

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Seventeen years on, as the man known as "SuperKev" prepares to end a magnificent playing career, he is remembered as the one of the greatest strikers to wear Sunderland's red and white stripes.

His six years with the club ended unhappily with Sunderland relegated and Phillips wanting a move. Gathering doubts about his commitment were confirmed and he went to Southampton. But he had already done enough to ensure an overwhelming majority of fans would forever be grateful for the immense part he played in a brief but exhilarating spell in Sunderland's history.

It would be wrong to underestimate the contribution Niall Quinn made to the wonderful strike partnership that brought a runaway promotion and two successive top-seven Premier finishes under Reid. But attackers' reputations are made on goals and, while Quinn scored a good many of his own and was a superb provider, Phillips was utterly prolific.

Those six seasons yielded 134 goals, including the 30 he notched to win the Premier and European Golden Boot awards in 1999-2000. That was the season in which the former QPR, Manchester City and Tampa Bay Rowdies striker Rodney Marsh had blithely predicted he would struggle to score more than six.

Phillips at his best was a joy to watch, the sharp goal-poacher's instinct enhanced by outstanding vision and impressive athleticism to compensate for his lack of height.

Even in the relegation season of 2002-2003, when the goals were sparse and supporters moaned that he was not trying, I felt the bigger problem was that by then the team was so poor that he was having to do a great deal more than act as a forward. I even suspected he might turn into a combative but creative midfielder, but was wrong. The goalscoring knack returned at Southampton and was sustained at almost all of the other clubs for which he played in the final 10 years of his career.

West Brom, Birmingham and Blackpool fans, in particular, have their own fond memories of SuperKev. And who at Selhurst Park will ever forget the confident way he blasted home an extra-time penalty in the 2013 Championship promotion playoff final? It proved the winner that took Crystal Palace and not his old club, Watford, into the Premier League. Defying the advancing years -- he celebrated his 40th birthday two months later -- he remained at Palace for the first half of the current season before moving to Leicester City to assist in their promotion push.

Phillips himself acknowledges that he is most closely associated in neutrals' minds with his time at Sunderland. "That was where I made my name and I've still got huge affection for that football club," he said when announcing his decision to retire after Leicester's final game on Saturday.

As Phillips develops his media work and contemplates openings in management, one pressing question about his career has no adequate answer. Should he have played more often for England than the desultory eight games he was given? Football's jury is not so much still out as discharged in the knowledge it will never reach an agreed verdict.

Watching England's early exit from the Euro 2000 tournament in Belgium and the Netherlands, I felt relief that he had not even been sent on as a late substitute in any of the three matches to share the collective guilt. But I accept that Kevin Keegan, then the national coach, had reason to be dismissive of Phillips' form at international level: no goals from those eight games. We shall never know whether a longer run, or just a little luck in the outings he had, could have made him an England star.

But for supporters whose happiest sporting moments are spent watching their clubs and not their countries, Kevin Phillips will always be revered as a complete striker who embraced a succession of causes in style.

And I am delighted to note that memories of the Phillips/Quinn partnership will be revived next Monday when they team up again to play for a Sunderland XI against Wolves in testimonial match for another former Sunderland player, Jody Craddock. There'll be plenty to talk about over post-match drinks.