HIS career spanned 20 years, nine clubs and international football, but Kevin Phillips says the most intoxicating atmosphere he ever played in was a Wear-Tyne derby.
And when he says intoxicating, he means it literally!
Drunk on the joy of scoring a late equaliser against Newcastle at the Stadium of Light he plunged into the crowd, only to reel away feeling drunk on the fans’ fumes!
“It’s still a vivid memory” he laughs. “I was pulled in by the supporters and in the crush all I could smell was this incredible stench of alcohol.
“It was overwhelming!
“I mention it at talk-ins these days and the story always goes down well.
It was the most incredible atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in a groundKevin Phillips
“But I think the reason for that is because it combines two things pretty much every Sunderland fan loves – beer and football!”
Phillips means it though, when he’s talking about the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light that day.
“It was the most incredible atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in a ground,” he says, casting his mind back to February 2000.
“It was the season we had come back up to the Premier League and beaten Newcastle 2-1 in the rain at St James’s Park.
“And when the return fixture came up, their fans were desperate for revenge and ours were desperate to rub their noses in it further.
“The atmosphere at the start of the game was amazing but we didn’t do ourselves justice, going 2-0 down early on.
“I got one back before half-time and that gave us something to hold on to to and then in the second half, with the crowd behind us all the way, we just threw everything at them hoping to get back into it.”
Salvation took its time coming, Phillips not getting his second goal of the game until the 82nd minute, as Sunderland squeezed out a 2-2 draw.
But the Black Cats’ leading post-war goalscorer said he felt there was an inevitability to it as the game went on.
“You hear that expression now and again about the fans sucking the ball into the net and that was the perfect example of it,” he reflects.
“The supporters were so up for it, and that gave us such a lift and put Newcastle under such pressure, that I never gave up hope we’d get something out of it.
“At the final whistle there was fantastic pride and relief that we hadn’t let the fans down, that we’d got out of jail and hadn’t been beaten.”
Phillips was the hero that day and he accepts that the derby more than any other game, offers a player the chance of lasting glory.
“If you’re a player in the North East derby, it’s the best possible opportunity you’re going to get to write yourself into folklore.
“There’s so much importance and excitement attached to it.
“I didn’t appreciate how big the game was until I started playing in the region.
“I reported on the Aston Villa v West Brom derby recently and the North East derby is much bigger than that.
“It’s also bigger than the North London game between Arsenal and Spurs, which was my local derby growing up as a kid.
“And if you can score a goal in it, fans don’t forget it.
“That’s something that I’m sure will be crossing the minds of Sunderland’s strikers this week, and probably Jermaine Defoe and Steven Fletcher more than anyone.
“Fletcher has had an up-down time of it at the club but he’s just scored a hat-trick for Scotland and he could be coming into this game at the right time.
“He’ll know that if scores this Sunday, he gets to be a hero in the fans’ eyes again.
“As for Jermaine, he has struggled to make an impact after scoring early in his Sunderland career and he missed a really good opportunity in his last game against West Ham.
“So he’ll be wanting to get back in the goals again and he could be a key player this weekend – he’s always scored goals and he’s experienced so much in his career that the derby won’t faze him.”
Phillips’ own Roy of the Rovers derby moment came when he scored an iconic goal at rain-lashed St James’s Park in the 1999-2000 derby.
With the rain stair-rodding down, Nicky Summerbee crossed from the right and Phillips at the far post lashed the ball high into the net after keeper Tommy Wright had parried his initial effort.
“I scored better goals in my Sunderland career but so many fans tell me that one was their personal favourite,” he says.
“I guess it was a dramatic moment in a game and made all the more dramatic by the torrential rain.
“It was a fantastic result though because we’d gone into it as underdogs, we’d gone behind early in the game but we came back to win it.
“And from my point of view, scoring such an important goal is something I can take pride in, even all these years later.”
This week the 41-year-old will be glued to his TV set to see how his old team get on – and he has a warning for the current crop of Black cats strikers.
“I was a bit surprised that this weekend’s game was allowed to go ahead at 4pm,” he said.
“That’s a lot more drinking time and if I know North East football fans, a lot of them will be starting their pre-match drinks on Friday night!
“All I would say, is that if any Sunderland player scores this weekend, they should maybe think twice about jumping into the crowd!”