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Kevin Phillips: I shouldn't have celebrated my winner at St Mary's
THEY say that with age comes wisdom.
At 40-years-old Kevin Phillips has possibly even gone beyond the veteran stage as a professional footballer.
But he can already start to reflect on an incredible career, and even admit to mistakes.
Take the last time he scored at St Mary’s – and it wasn’t for Saints.
Phillips was in the Birmingham team three years after he left Saints following the club’s relegation from the Premier League in 2005.
He was given all kinds of stick by Saints fans, some of whom incorrectly believed he made derogatory comments when he departed for Aston Villa.
Perhaps it was inevitable then that Phillips would pop up with the winning goal for Birmingham that day, just a minute after coming on as a sub.
He bucked the fashion of refusing to celebrate when scoring against your former club – and Phillips feels deeply attached to Southampton as he has spent six years there in total having grown up through the ranks as a youngster before getting released.
It’s something that, as he prepares to play at St Mary’s for what he insists will be the last time in his career, he now admits he regrets.
“It’s not the nicest thing in the world but I would never ever hammer Southampton fans,”
he said of the barracking he has received at St Mary’s.
“They were brilliant to me during my time at St Mary’s and I understand they are a passionate bunch.
“It would be nice to get a good reception this time. It will be my last time there and I have so much fondness for the club and the fans because I was there for six years as a youngster and a senior player and they treated me brilliantly.
“I don’t think it helped that last time I scored the winner for Birmingham.
“I shouldn’t have celebrated the goal. That was a mistake on my behalf.
“It was probably only a reaction but it still didn’t make it right.
“I am looking forward to going back and I’m delighted to be going back in the Premier League which is where Southampton belong.”
To be fair, Saints fans might well give him the warm welcome he certainly deserves when he shows up at St Mary’s this weekend.
Part of the vitriol was surely frustration.
Saints’ top flight relegation was horrible, especially given what followed.
Now, though, Saints supporters can be reflective.
They follow a club back in the top flight and on the up and up.
It’s exactly how they felt when Phillips opted to leave Sunderland to join them for £3.25m back in the summer of 2003.
“When I joined Gordon Strachan was in charge and James Beattie was one of the top strikers in the country and being talked about as being England’s number one choice pretty soon,” he recalled.
“Once I decided to leave Sunderland, which was a wrench because it was where I made my name, it was a great opportunity to link up with a quality manager who had just led the club to the FA Cup final and a striker who was banging in the goals.
“I gave it my all.
“It wasn’t the easiest start as I lost my mum a week before the season started but I put that to one side and scored on my debut and things were looking good.
“But when Gordon left, things began to spiral.
“All the chopping and changing gave the players no stability and the club were relegated.
“My two years were filled with lots of emotions.”
Things did change quickly.
Certainly Strachan’s departure had a huge effect.
“I had offers elsewhere but it had to be right for me to move from one end of the country to the other,” admitted Phillips.
“I spoke with Gordon and the place was on the up and they were in Europe that year which was exciting.
“It was a place I knew because I had spent so many years of my life there as a youngster, so it felt like I was going back home.
“I was really looking forward to it.
“Once Gordon left things got a little bit harder because he was one of the main reasons I decided to join.”
Things started well for Phillips, who was scoring goals regularly during his first season.
However, when Strachan’s departure was confirmed in February 2004, it was all change.
Paul Sturrock was appointed and was to be one of four managers in a year for the club.
There was always talk of unrest under Sturrock and Phillips said: “It’s a close-knit club and things do filter down to the playing group.
“We sensed when Paul was given the job there probably was a few raised eyebrows as to whether he was experienced enough to come into a tight-knit dressing room and handle experienced international players.
“Once he was appointed, though, as players you have to get behind the manager and give it your all.”
After Sturrock came Steve Wigley, who Phillips rated.
“I enjoyed working under Steve,”
said the striker. “He was a very intelligent man who knew his football.
“When he went it started to become a little bit comical.
“From the dressing room you want that stability. We had a good squad and some good players.
“To keep chopping and changing, it cost Southampton in the end.”
Wigley’s time was short-lived and then in came Harry Redknapp.
Many believed he would be the saviour but Phillips admitted Redknapp’s first game in charge, where Saints led 2-0 at home to Middlesbrough with one minute remaining but ended up with just a point, was a hammer blow from which they didn’t recover.
“We were 2-0 up and they got it back to 2-2,” said Phillips.
“We were winning so comfortably that day and let the lead slip and that hurt.
“It was a huge task. The lads were delighted to see Harry come in because of who he was and what he’d done including, dare I say it, at Portsmouth.
“We hoped he would give stability to the football club, we would survive and then build from there.”
Though Phillips scored 13 goals in both of his two seasons for Saints, during that crucial run-in, he spent most of his time on the bench, often as an unused sub as Redknapp preferred Peter Crouch and Henri Camara.
It was frustrating for Phillips.
“To be fair to Harry, he made me captain for his first game.
“I got a couple of goals early on but after that we started to go a bit more direct with big Crouchie up front and were hitting him early and playing off of him.
“For me it got more and more frustrating – we needed to win games and get goals and I was not in the starting line-up and not coming on.
“I was sat watching the team getting beaten and getting relegated. It was hard.”
Phillips still remembers everything about that day Saints lost to Manchester United and their relegation was confirmed.
“It was a huge blow,” he sighed.
“Of all the teams to have to play on that final day when you need a result ... Manchester United were the best team in the country, if not Europe, at that time.
“But we shouldn’t have let it get that far.
“That day was like having your heart ripped out.”
Since then, Phillips has continued his football odyssey.
His record since he was released by Saints and dragged himself up through non-league via Baldock Town reads eight clubs over approaching 19 years as a pro and a staggering 280 goals in 843 games.
He is also set to become the Premier League’s oldest outfield player before he hangs his boots up at the end of the season.
Even Phillips admits it’s hard to get his mind around it at the moment.
“You are mixed up in emotions still when you’re playing,” he reflected.
“Other players I speak to who have retired say that once they hung their boots up they had time to sit back and reflect on their career.
“I’m still very much in the thick of it.
“This certainly will be my last season and going back to a former club I know I won’t play there again.
“What I do know is that every time I have pulled on a shirt and gone out to play, I have given it my best.
“I’ve had a long career, I’ve enjoyed it, but I still have a job to do in trying to help Palace survive by getting some goals.
“We know it will be a difficult task on Saturday.
“It was a magnificent result for Southampton at Liverpool.
“They are playing really well so it will be a tough, tough match.”
If Phillips can call it a day, having helped Palace survive in the top flight, it might be the finest achievement of his brilliant career.
“If we go into each game not confident we won’t win, there is no point turning up,” he insisted.
“We showed in our first four games we are capable at this level.
“We were disappointed with how we played against Swansea (a 2-0 home loss last Sunday) but you can’t do well all the time.
“We need to continue doing what we did in the first four games.
“It is difficult for everyone in this league and for no one more than promoted teams, but we have a chance.”
It’s that kind of mindset that keeps Phillips belying his years.
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