'This is why I love football' - Sunderland legend Kevin Phillips lifts the lid on his South Shields ambitions and FA Cup dream
A quarter of a century has passed since Kevin Phillips initially arrived in the North East determined to prove himself with a newly-relegated Sunderland.
Despite an impressive return of just under a goal in every two and half games with Watford, little was expected of the striker as Peter Reid looked to mark a historic first season at the Stadium of Light by guiding the Black Cats back to the Premier League at the first attempt.
Rising to the challenge was something Phillips did throughout his career, whether that be as a non-league prospect arriving at Watford, a prolific second-tier goalscorer finding his way in the Premier League or a European Golden Boot winner handed a maiden shot at life on the international stage.
Now, on his second coming in the North East, Phillips is answering questions all over again after moving into management with South Shields. There have been failures, with an atrocious away record seeing the Mariners fall short in their bid for automatic promotion into the National League North, before wasting a second chance by falling to a play-off final defeat against Warrington Town just weeks later.
But there are now signs of genuine development and improvement during the Sunderland legend’s first full season in charge at the 1st Cloud Arena after he put his own print on his squad with a progressive summer of recruitment. Boosted by the arrivals of the likes of experienced duo Michael Woods and Gary Liddle, there is a solidity and belief about his side, who currently sit in a play-off place but hold games in hand on the four clubs above them in the table.
This weekend, Phillips will oversee his first ever FA Cup first round tie when the Mariners face League One strugglers Forest Green Rovers in front of the BBC Match of the Day cameras. Phillips stands pitchside after a narrow home win against Warrington Rylands as he assesses what lies ahead with the floodlights casting long shadows over the 1st Cloud Arena pitch.
Does he still feel he has to prove himself as a manager and will Saturday’s tie offer him an opportunity to quieten any doubts? The question is met as if it were a Niall Quinn knockdown or a Nicky Summerbee cross and the answer is hammered home in typically emphatic fashion.
He told The Gazette: “I’m not daft, I’ve been around, of course I know this is big for my own credentials as a manager. I get judged on the league because our main aim is promotion, but nationally, going down to the draw, the tie being on BBC, the cameras being here is great exposure for myself as a manager.
“I am still proving myself as a manager and you can take the golden boots, the Championship title win, the England caps, being seventh in the Premier League, but days like this are what make me even more proud.
“This is why I love football, it’s days like this, this is why I wanted to get into management and it won’t always be like this. There will be tough days for us as a club and for me as a manager but that’s when you prove yourself and this tie against Forest Green is a chance for us all to prove ourselves.”
Ten months ago, with 2022 still in its infancy, South Shields chairman Geoff Thompson shocked the North East non-league scene by handing Phillips his first chance as manager when he was named as successor to former boss Graham Fenton.
Thompson has thrown his financial support behind the former England striker as Phillips oversaw something of an overhaul of his squad during the summer. Several players with Football League and National League experience were recruited as the Mariners looked to continue their march up the non-league pyramid.
As Phillips has routinely stated, promotion is the main goal, but occasions like Saturday’s meeting with Forest Green can only breath new life into a journey that began when Thompson reinvigorated his hometown club in 2015.
“It’s days like this why Geoff has invested and put so much of his personal money into the football club,” explained Phillips. “He had a vision, he had a dream and that is what was sold to me. I wanted to be part of that and you have to learn to walk before you can run, so we know we need to get out of this league.
“That is our priority but FA Cup runs, being in the first round, being on television and having the BBC here, that can only help. What it can do is enhance your chances of signing players to help you on that journey because they see what is here, they feel the atmosphere, they want to be part of it.
“So days like the one we will experience against Forest Green can only be a positive for the future of this football club and to help us get to where we want to be.”
The fact the BBC cameras will be in place at the 1st Cloud Arena tells you that many onlookers see this tie as a potential upset as South Shields look to produce a shock win over their League One opponents.
The visitors are enduring something of a struggle in their first season in the third tier of English football after winning just three of their seventeen league games. They currently lie four points from safety and only Burton Albion are preventing them from propping up the table.
A trip to a non-league club in front of the live cameras will test their questionable confidence - but Phillips is keen to stress there is still a four-division gap between the two clubs and believes his players will have to be ‘at their maximum’ to produce a giant-killing on Saturday lunchtime.
He said: “One thing is for sure, our lads will run just as hard as them, we will be as fit as them and we will give it everything we have got. We will have to be disciplined, we will have to be controlled and we will have to be solid.
“Everyone will have to be at their maximum and hopefully we will get a little bit of luck that can come in the FA Cup. You just never know in this competition, I’ve seen both sides of it and shocks can happen. Hopefully we can come out on the right end of it.”