Through Gritted Teeth #7: Kevin Phillips

by Adam Bate

It’s fair to say that Kevin Phillips came to national prominence when he started banging them in from all parts for Sunderland. Not as far as I’m concerned. I vividly remember the little scamp popping up with this last minute equaliser for Watford at Molineux.

Of course, I couldn’t have known back then that this chap would be my club’s nemesis to this very day.

I’ve always thought it amazing how Paolo Maldini was a legend for a well over a decade before he retired. He just kept adding and adding to the weight of evidence that he was a footballing god. In a similar fashion, Phillips was despised by the Molineux masses at a time when he’d hardly even started toying with us. Oh yes, this was just the start.

Following his move to Sunderland in 1997, Kevin was kind enough to go an entire season without scoring against us. He was still on the pitch celebrating in front of the South Bank when Kevin Ball hit an 88th minute winner in February 1998 though. Six months later, he was the protagonist not the cheerleader — cancelling out Robbie Keane’s goal with yet another 90th minute equaliser at Molineux. At least he was good enough to allow Niall Quinn to deliver the killer blow — again in the 90th minute — in the return fixture.

There followed a blessed period of relief as Phillips took his goalscoring exploits to the Premier League and international stage while Wolves continued to tread water in what is now the Championship. We were away from the media glare and away from Phillips’ right boot. By the time we met again, the striker was finding new ways to antagonise me.

Wolves gained promotion to the Premier League for the first time in 2003. It was always going to be a struggle and by the time I made the long trip to Southampton in the autumn things already looked bleak.

There was an old friend waiting for me on the South coast. Phillips appeared to be winding down his career at Saints having now turned 30. And when he ran after a channel ball at St Mary’s I even afforded myself a giggle when he fell over with Denis Irwin in pursuit. I don’t know why I laughed — the referee pointed to the spot. Phillips had done us again. Come the spring he even felt it necessary to relegate us with a brace in a 4-1 hammering at Molineux. This was getting beyond a joke.

Phillips didn’t get the chance to play against Wolves in his brief spell with Aston Villa. Not competitively anyway. He did play in a pre-season friendly. And yes, he scored. But it was the move to arch rivals West Bromwich Albion that really unsettled Wolves fans. You just knew what was coming. And so it proved.

In his first season with Albion, the record books will show that Kevin Phillips scored four goals against Wolverhampton Wanderers. He also broke our hearts. Three of those four goals were in the play-off semi final. Two of them were at Molineux. It was painful stuff – particularly his first goal that day which he curled home from 25 yards with such ease that you actually felt fortunate he didn’t do it more often. He was a remarkable player.

And that really should have been that. When Albion were promoted the following season they decided not to offer him a two year contract on account of his advancing years. Curiously, Birmingham City were not so concerned by this and he helped fire them into the Premier League instead. They retained his services for the 2009-10 top flight campaign but he was used sparingly. In fact, Phillips scored just four goals that season. Unfortunately — and admit it you are laughing at me by now — half of them were against Wolves.

They weren’t meaningless goals either. Scrapping for our lives, we were holding onto a 1-0 lead with less than 15 minutes remaining. Alex McLeish summoned Phillips from the bench. He soon equalised and then delivered the killer blow in the manner of a chap who knew it was inevitable. One more beating for the road. He said as much afterwards:

It just happens sometimes that you have these clubs that you score against. And I have always done well against them. I can remember scoring against them for most of my clubs. They must be sick of the sight of me.

Well, sort of. But I’ve lost count of the amount of times in the past decade that I’ve had Wolves fans say to me: “You know who we should sign — that Kevin Phillips.” He is the go-to striker for any Wolves fan. And let’s face it — we know better than most what he’s capable of.

Sick of the sight of him? He doesn’t know the half of it. But what a striker.

Adam is co-editor of the excellent Ghostgoal and writes regularly for FourFourTwo, When Saturday Comes, and other such luminous organs. Follow him on Twitter @ghostgoal.

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