The season of goals that turned Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn into award-winners and cult heroes

The season of goals that turned Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn into award-winners and cult heroes

This feature is part of Duology

There have been few darker moments at the Stadium of Light than when, on 21 April 2018, Sunderland were relegated to the third tier of the English football league for just the second time in their 139-year history. Sadder than that was the fact that a second consecutive relegation for the Black Cats always looked somewhat inevitable and, in the end, was certainly deserved.

Sunderland aren’t ‘better’ than League One, as demonstrated this year. But, all the same, it doesn’t sit well that the biggest event this year at the Stadium of Light might be Take That’s 25th-anniversary gig. It’s an upsetting sight for any football fan to see such a famous and well-regarded ground hosting well beneath its means. Newcastle fans may have a smile on their face but they’ll know the same feeling better than most after two recent stints outside of the top-flight. 

If there was ever a time to look back at Sunderland’s former glories, it’s now. And it wasn’t too long ago that things looked very different thanks in large part to one of the greatest and most unlikely strike partnerships in the history of England’s top flight.

Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn are often lost among the superstar names that quickly spring to mind when discussing the league’s finest double acts. They do not belong to the realms of the stylish, continental strike partnerships that Premier League football fans have become accustomed to over the past 20 years. Nor are they revered with the same wanderlust as serial trophy winners such as Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. So it is all too easy to forget that while Henry and Bergkamp were unquestionably world class, their very best season produced 34 goals between them. Phillips and Quinn managed 10 more than that. 

Add to that the fact that Kevin Phillips is still the only Englishman to have won the European golden shoe, thanks in no small part to his gangly strike partner, one wonders why they are often overlooked by the current generation of football fans when debating history’s finest strikers?

Perhaps the gloss of celebrity footballers and HDTV has changed how we view and value footballers. Looking back at footage and photos, Quinn and Phillips seem worlds apart from strikers in the polished moulds of Neymar Jr and Cristiano Ronaldo; players who know that image and branding can now win or lose a Ballon d’Or.

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To the contrary, Phillips looked for all the world like an ambitious new apprentice at Quinn’s home improvement business. There was no ego, no limelight, and no hair gel, but they were bloody brilliant, and their apathy to the David Beckham era of football shouldn’t stop us remembering them as such. So let us do just that, starting in 1996. 

Afflicted by injuries, and in the twilight of his career, Quinn considered seeing out his time as a footballer quietly in far-off Malaysia, before being persuaded by then Sunderland manager Peter Reid to move to the top flight outfit for a then club record fee. He’d be forgiven for regretting his decision after Sunderland were relegated that year, with Quinn scoring only twice and playing 12 times. Seeking a return to the Premiership, Reid wanted to galvanise Quinn by bringing in his Republic of Ireland strike partner David Connolly, but after Connolly joined Feyenoord, Reid instead settled for signing an unknown 23-year-old from Watford. His name was Kevin Phillips.

Just five years before, Phillips had been working as a baker. He was shunned by Southampton for his diminutive five foot seven inch frame but found work playing as a right-back for Baldock town. A chance opportunity as a striker saw Phillips start upfront. He scored twice and never looked back. He earned himself a £10,000 transfer to Watford and, despite three unremarkable seasons, earned himself a move to the north-east, where he would stumble upon his footballing soulmate. 

It was a match made in heaven, born out of the most unlikely, unplanned, and untidy set of circumstances. Phillips was the catalyst for the most astounding and unexpected second-wind of Quinn’s career and, in return, Quinn enabled Phillips to become one of the Premiership’s most fearsome goalscorers, together becoming the most quintessential and successful little and large partnership in football.

The two notched 43 goals between them in their first season together upfront, before a playoff defeat denied Sunderland a return to the top flight. No mistake second time around; another 41 goals from the duo saw Sunderland promoted, but even Phillips doubted the impact he could have on the Premiership. “The Premier League is a different ball game. You generally only get one or two opportunities in a game and really you need to try and take one,” he said. “I’ve never ever doubted my own confidence, my self-belief, but when it’s a big jump and you’ve only had a couple of years in the Championship it was a big step.”

Even those who had seen Phillips and Quinn in the championship could hardly have anticipated what would happen next. A 4-0 opening day defeat to Chelsea threatened to set the tone for Sunderland’s season. Instead, it set a platform for one of the league’s greatest underdog stories.

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Phillips opened his account three days later, against his former club Watford, and had notched six times before the end of September, thanks largely to the space and opportunities created by his partner, the six-foot-three Quinn, who had become almost unplayable in the air, training relentlessly to anticipate the long-ball better than any defender could manage.

This became the foundation upon which Phillips and Quinn built an almost telepathic network. Like the circumstances that brought them together, this was not a partnership crafted carefully by management. It was instinctual; as though their skill-sets were already perfectly matched; as though Peter Reid’s job was finished once he’d put them on the pitch.

“It was all instinctive, all intuitive,” Quinn recalls. “The reality was, we had simple enough ideas between us, he was great at reading things. I was the main target and he would be working off me. Generally, we had a little rule that if I was going up for a header, he would always feint to on the outside, move his man a yard and I would head it on the inside.” In fewer words, Phillips echoes the sentiment of his former partner in crime. “Niall knew what I was going to do and I read what he was going to do. Call it telepathy or whatever you like, we just clicked.” 

Fortunately for Sunderland, that connection was at its strongest during the 1999/2000 season, and if there were ever a match that perfectly captured the devastating synchronicity and impact the two were capable of, it was the return fixture against Chelsea in December. 

Riding high in the table, and with revenge on their minds, Sunderland burst out of the blocks and were rewarded within 45 seconds as Quinn made it 1-0. The Irishman’s role in the match is often overshadowed as, almost half an hour later, Phillips volleyed in from 25 yards in what he still refers to as his greatest goal. 

Chelsea were stunned, Sunderland’s strikers were turning world-beating defenders into Sunday league pretenders. Ten minutes later, Quinn forced a wonderful save from Ed de Goey, only to see Phillips claim the rebound and make it 3-0, his 17th of the season. Phillips almost had a hat-trick a minute later, denied only by the Chelsea goalkeeper, but from the resulting corner, Quinn added to Chelsea’s suffering by scoring a volley of his own. It was 4-0.

A brace apiece; the two had made a mockery of Chelsea’s title charge and took even greater joy in seeing World Cup-winning defender Marcel Desailly subbed off at half-time. He wasn’t injured, no, he just wasn’t good enough that day to handle Phillips and Quinn.

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Sunderland were in third place on Boxing Day and, although the team were unable to keep up such impressive momentum in the second half of the season, Philips eventually reached 30 goals on the final day, while Quinn increased his own contribution to 14 goals and seven assists. Together, the two were involved in 77 per cent of Sunderland’s goals as the club finished seventh, the club’s best league finish in almost half a decade. 

Phillips was awarded with the European golden shoe, all the while playing for a promoted club that finished seventh, a feat that is difficult to imagine will ever be repeated given the dominance of Europe’s elite clubs and the stratospheric numbers posted by their strikers. 

There was no silverware, but that didn’t matter. Sunderland fans had been treated to the most spectacularly unexpected season, spearheaded by two of the league’s best strikers, and would soon be treated to more of the same. Although Phillips and Quinn managed a comparatively modest 21 goals between them the following year, the rest of the Sunderland side upped their game as they once again found themselves third on Boxing Day before yet another seventh-place finish beckoned, as their rivals began to wise up to the attacking duo’s methods.   

Quinn, 35 by this point, played in every match of the following season, but his partnership with Phillips began yielding fewer goals, and Sunderland narrowly avoided relegation. “Ultimately I was getting old too, and as the season wore on I wasn’t at my best. But there’s no real regrets because we achieved as much as we could,” recalled Quinn. Quinn retired shortly after and Phillips left the club with him, moving on to Southampton where his height was suddenly no longer an issue. Though he remained an ever-reliable goal scorer, he never reached as he high as those years with Quinn.

Just five years after they were brought together by fluke and happenstance, and 185 goals later, something that almost never happened ended, consigned to what now seems a like a very distant part of Sunderland’s history. For a little while, and in stark contrast to recent years, a thousand things went in the Black Cats’ favour, allowing Quinn and Phillips to find each other.

Football can be like that, though, it’s why we love it and, regardless of what has happened to the club since, their fans have something many other sides have never had: they can claim as their very own one of the best strike partnerships that England has ever seen. In a footballing world now saturated with hyperbole, wonderkids, and branded megastars, these are two footballers we should try not to forget, along with the short piece of history that they created together for a club that was so lucky to have them.

By Frederick Clayton @FrederickJC1

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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