Alan Shearer didn’t win the Golden Shoe award as he was never the top hitman in Europe; this despite being the Premier League’s record goalscorer and hitting 30 or more goals in three consecutive seasons. There was only one Englishman who bagged that prize – and he used to clean Shearer’s boots as an apprentice at Southampton.
That apprentice was Kevin Phillips, who was actually considered too short to be a centre-forward at five-foot-seven and then not good enough to even be a right-back. He was released by Southampton at 18 and yet, somehow, with a little luck and determination – and a slightly elitist coefficient system – the only English striker with a golden Adidas boot is Phillips.
It was the year 2000 that Phillips peaked, helping Sunderland to finish seventh in the Premier League by scoring 30 goals in 36 games. Ahead of that campaign, Rodney Marsh predicted he would struggle to get five all year, but that hot take was cold by October as he hit ten in as many games. There was no way Marsh, or anyone, could have known that Phillips would go on to be – still to this day – England’s only winner of the Golden Shoe as five years earlier he was playing right-back for non-league side Baldock Town.
“I didn’t play too many games at right-back in non-league but then we were struggling for a centre-forward one game and I put my hand up and said I’d have a go because that is what I always wanted to do,” Phillips said in 2008. “I played my first game, scored two goals and never looked back, it was a lucky opportunity that came through injury. We needed someone up there so I volunteered.”
Phillips had to wait till 1994 to make it back to professional football, signing for Watford for a fee of £10,000. He scored nine times in the First Division before an ankle injury kept him out for almost two seasons, but that was enough to interest recently relegated Sunderland, who snapped him up for £325,000.
He quickly built a reputation as a clinical finisher on Wearside, forming an efficient little-and-large strike partnership with Niall Quinn. The Irishman’s disruptive style, and deceptively assured touch, would cause mass destruction to defensive lines and Phillips would forever be close by to sniff out a sight of goal.
By the time he reached the top-flight, Shearer had established himself as the league’s top striker, hitting 30 goals three years in a row and briefly breaking the transfer record with a £15m move to Newcastle United. And yet, somehow, he hadn’t won a Golden Shoe.
The Phillips-Quinn partnership worked rather well in the Premier League; despite a thumping 4-0 defeat at Chelsea on the opening day, Phillips bagged the first of eight braces that season in the next match against his former club, Watford. The team then drew at home to Arsenal and lost away to Leeds but claimed their first big scalp with an away victory at fierce rivals Newcastle. Phillips scored the winner, lobbing Pavel Srníček from a tight angle, late on.
The derby win was the start of a ten-game unbeaten run for the Wearsiders, which included a hat-trick in a 5-0 battering of Derby at Pride Park. A 4-1 demolition of Chelsea, in the return fixture at the Stadium of Light, was sealed by Phillips’ best goal of the campaign, a looping 30-yard volley over Ed de Goey.
He scored the last of the 30 against West Ham in the penultimate game of the season. His form earned him a call up to the England squad for Euro 2000 but he didn’t make it off the bench in the Netherlands and Belgium as the national side would be something of a glass ceiling.
Still, it was quite some run, culminating in a seventh-place finish for Sunderland and Phillips crowned top marksman in Europe. Technically, though, he actually wasn’t. Under a new coefficient system, Phillips’s 30 goals earned him 60 points, which is two points per goal for the Premier League. In the Primeira Liga, goals only counted for 1.5 points each, so the 38 times Mário Jardel scored for Porto only earned 57 points. That put him third on the list that year, behind PSV Eindhoven’s Ruud van Nistelrooy, who only scored 29.
Since 1996, the Golden Shoe award has been given out by European Sports Media (ESM), a consortium of football magazines, but until 1990, it was handed out by Adidas (hence why it’s the golden Adidas boot). According to ESM, the famous sports brand didn’t trust certain records that smaller leagues had put forward; Red Star Belgrade’s Darko Pančev scored 34 goals 1991 but he didn’t receive his award until 2006 after the Cypriot FA reportedly claimed to have a striker on 40 goals. It later transpired they had two separate players with 19 each.
The final straw for Adidas came when a player under contract with Umbro was not allowed to attend the winning ceremony of a rival brand, according to ESM. As such, it ended its participation in the awards and the next five seasons went without trophies. In those years, Ally McCoist finished top scorer twice and David Taylor of the Welsh Premier League hit 43 goals in 1994, but neither have a golden Adidas boot for their troubles.
When ESM took over, it made an arrangement with Adidas to use a coefficient whereby goals scored in one of the top-five European leagues would be worth more than the rest, creating an elitist system that ensured the famous players always came out on top. So, for example, David Taylor’s 43 goals in the Welsh Prem would only be worth 43 points, which would be beaten by 22 goals in the Premier League.
Unfortunately for Jardel, the Portuguese top tier was, and still is, outside of the top five, however he didn’t let that get in his way in 2002, scoring an impressive 42 goals (18 times more than Thierry Henry for Arsenal).
Interestingly, if the coefficient system had been in place from 1991, Ian Wright would have picked up the award for scoring 29 goals for Crystal Palace and Arsenal. Two years later, Andy Cole would have trumped David Taylor with 68 points and 1995’s award would have been Shearer’s, as his 34 goals in the UEFA ranking would have outscored both Arsen Avetisyan and Vardar Skopje.
Sadly, the former England international didn’t start the 1999/00 season well; he was sent off in the first game and, following a dispute with Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit, he was benched. The arrival of Bobby Robson at St James’ Park helped Shearer find his form – and 23 league goals – but he couldn’t catch the free-scoring Phillips.
The best on the continent couldn’t match Phillips either, with Andriy Shevchenko only finding the net 24 times for AC Milan and Gabriel Batistuta managing 22 in his final season for Fiorentina. Notably missing from the list is Inter’s Ronaldo, who would miss most of the season, and all of the next, with a serious knee injury.
In the following years, England had a shortage of worthy candidates, with no strikers making the top three for the Golden Shoe until Tottenham’s Harry Kane in 2017/18. The Spurs hitman would be the first Englishman after Phillips to hit 30 goals in a Premier League season, but that only landed him third on the list that year – it also wasn’t the most in the league as Mohamed Salah bagged 32.
Phillips never reached the same levels after the 1999/2000 season and became something of a journeyman over the next ten years, plying his trade at seven different clubs. Despite the highs with Sunderland, he spent more of his career below the footballing elite, and yet, somehow, he still managed to grab one of their most illustrious prizes.
By Bobby Hellard @BobbyHellard