True Faith’s Sam Dalling got the chance to spend the day at South Shields FC in the company of resident Toon bête noire Kevin Phillips, discussing not only football management and the Shields project, but also Ruud Gullit and that monsoon. Turns out he’s an annoyingly good bloke, after all. (Cover photo courtesy of Mark Pinder – https://markpinder.net/)
“It was the loudest I’d ever heard a football ground.” No small admission from a diminutive man with a huge career, one that earned him eight England caps and a European Golden Shoe. “Just before kick-off, the whistling was deafening,” continues Kevin Phillips.
Sunderland were newly promoted, Phillips having been integral. It was his first Tyne-Wear derby. The Newcastle mood music was sombre, the rain biblical. Ruud Gullit’s shitty football.
“I’d heard a lot about this derby. It was just a surreal night; the weather; (Alan) Shearer was left on the bench; Duncan Ferguson was benched; Rob Lee wasn’t even in the squad; Gullit was potentially getting sacked if they lost; and we hadn’t won at St James’ for a long time. Everything just stacked up in our favour. We still had to get the job done, though.”
Mackem manager Peter Reid was no shrinking violet, not estranged from a little exuberant ‘gee-ing up’. But it was not necessary: Gullit had done the heavy lifting. “Peter’s man management was excellent,” Phillips explains. “We expected this big rousing speech. All he did was pin the team sheet on the wall and just said, ‘Look at that. No Shearer. No Ferguson. Do I need to say more? Gullit’s going to get the sack’. That news had filtered through to us on the bus. We were buzzing”.
St James’ Park rocked. ‘Shearer, Shearer’, bellowed the Gallowgate, a human thunder accompanying the gushing rain. Kieron Dyer put United one up, his first since arriving from Ipswich. Paul Robinson – Shearer’s replacement, and a former Sunderland season ticket holder – played the through ball. From the side-line, Ferguson cut through the lashing rain with his iron fist: ‘Get the f___ in’. Phillips was booked for dissent.
But Niall Quinn and Phillips were, as painful as admitting it is, a worthy Wearside double act. The former levelled just after the hour, a glancing header past emergency loanee Tommy Wright.
The pitch continued to sodden, continued to squelch, continued to gather water. “Another 10 minutes and I think it would have been called off,” Phillips admits.
Suddenly, he was in. Wright smothered. But the loose ball trickled, barely moving. Time stopped on Tyneside as Phillips deftly wedged the ball into the corner. His arms flew up, while Gullit’s firmly folded.
“A cracking game,” he says, cracking a smile. “To get the winning goal in your first derby was an incredible feeling. To do it away from home was great.”
From deafening noise to deathly silence. “My wife at the time was up in Gods. I asked her afterwards what it was like up there – she said the atmosphere was amazing. I couldn’t hear them. It was surreal.”
Three days later, Gullit was given mercy. His time was long done. “They were magical games to play in,” says Phillips, reflecting. “I can’t wait for them to come back. I want them to come back. Everyone enjoys that northeast derby.”
Phillips enjoyed a magical season, 30 goals making him the only Englishman to finish a season as the continent’s top scorer. Another 23 strikes had brought promotion, banishing that heartache 12-months prior.
Wembley. The Play-Offs. The lottery. Phillips had taken his tally to 35, passing Brian Clough’s then post-War record. But a severe cramp arrived, and he departed. Helpless and stranded, it was agonising. 3-3 at full-time; 4-4 after extra time; 7-6 on penalties. To Charlton. Micky Gray endured a moment that will forever haunt.
“I didn’t train for about a week leading into the Final.” Phillips laughs when True Faith suggests that he would not take ‘cramp’ for an answer as manager. “And we’d already been on one of Reidy’s team bonding weekends. So, you can imagine there was a bit of alcohol consumed!
“Dehydration at Wembley on a hot day. It was stupid really. I just couldn’t carry on. I was really gutted. Watching that penalty shoot-out unfold in front of you and not being able to do anything about it was horrible.”
To this day, he remains ‘Sewpa Kev’ in the north-east. He hears it randomly and loves it too. The buzz. The electricity. That is what he feeds off. Has it ever gone too far? “In my whole time, even when I played here and when I’ve been back, I think I’ve only ever really had a couple of scary situations.
“People are quite respectful. It amazes me when I talk to someone now. The first thing they feel they have to say is ‘I’m a Newcastle fan.’ I’m like, ‘I’m an Arsenal fan’. I’m not bothered at all who you support. But that will never change because they are so passionate up here”.
The northeast is a second home for Phillips. Three of his four children are Citizens of Durham, where he resides now in a flat rented off one of Shearer’s pals.
On New Year’s Eve 2021, he received a text from the South Shields’ owner Geoff Thompson. Phillips was at a function at Durham’s Ramside Hall Hotel but promised a conversation the following day. When he got back to his Lichfield base things escalated rapidly.
“I was really impressed with what Geoff said. Within a couple of days, I was in the car driving up to have a look around. As soon as I set foot in the stadium and saw that new stand I was blown away. What impressed me as well was the pitch. It is like a carpet. It’s stunning.”
The first thing he did was call his pal Keith Havelock, who tragically passed away a short while later. They had become firm friends during his Sunderland days, Keith being a huge fan. They would drive home together from away games, while Keith lived in Phillips’ Sunderland pad when he moved to Southampton.
Keith knew the Shields tale. He told Phillips that Thompson had saved the Mariners. When he first got involved in 2015, Shields were playing in Peterlee, unable to agree a lease on their home turf. So, Thompson brokered, and paid for, a deal to buy it outright. A new main stand now looks magnificent. It cost Thompson £3 million and has 15 hospitality boxes. It is impressive. It is part of a long term sustainability plan.
And then there is the training ground. Four days a week Shields’ staff descend upon the Harton & Westoe Miners Welfare Club. Again, Thompson played a decisive hand. With the Welfare in danger of folding, he saved the site for the community’s benefit. Now, the club’s youth sides and women’s team all play and train there. Sometimes the players are locked out if there is a wedding or funeral booked.
“I was expecting…well, it was better than Blackpool,” Phillips says. “It was incredible for the level we are at”. Phillips was a Tangerine towards the back end of his career. Historically, Blackpool did not pay properly during the summer, with contracts stipulating a weekly wage of £90. Phillips and Barry Ferguson orchestrated change.
And the final piece of the puzzle: Wess Brown. What Brown has forgotten about the northeast’s non-League scene, most people – even those who follow the Northern Leagues – have never learned.
He is smart, quiet, unassuming, and he misses not one beat. Back then he was Academy manager, but he is now Phillips’ assistant. On matchdays they bookend the technical area, both leant against the dugout frame. Periodically, they meet in the middle for a discussion.
“Wess is Mr. South Shields,” Phillips begins. “Born and bred here. It means an awful lot to him to be part of the setup. It is in his blood. He’s a great person to have on your side. He is a very calm, collected, thoughtful guy, very knowledgeable. He’s got degrees. He sits back, soaks it in, and if he needs to say something, he’ll say it.”
Is there a bit of the old ‘good’ police officer, ‘bad’ police officer? A chuckle. “We can dish it out when we want to, but we are not that kind of duo. We think we feel we get more out players by just talking to them, by treating them like adults.”
“Ranting and raving doesn’t get you anywhere. We’re all human beings. If you hear a manager doing that week in week out, players just switch off. It has more impact if you’re not like that and suddenly do it. Then they think ‘ok, something is wrong here.’”
Phillips then cites Eddie Howe’s method: “If you’re going to dig someone out, the best way to do it is to pull them to the side.” Not like under Reid, then? More laughter. “And we’d give it back. Reidy used to love that. As long as it was done in a respectful way. But those days are gone. Reidy wouldn’t want to manage now! Times have changed.”
To his staff, Phillips has added Joe Monks, a young Londoner, as Football Operations Manager. His scouting experience is already extensive, and the players trust him implicitly. Phil Naisbett, who was at the Stadium of Light with Phillips, is goalkeeping guru, while Andrew Morris is the physio. Lee Picton, a former joint manager is Sporting Director, bridging the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’. They are supplemented by student analysts on work placements.
Together, they work in harmony: “I’ve seen it loads of times, where assistant managers or coaches are saying something totally different to what the manager is saying. You’re just like, ‘do you talk?!’”
“That for me is not right. Wess doesn’t always agree with what I do, but there’s no way he is going to go to a player and say ‘I’d do it this way. I’d do it that way. I don’t agree’. You’re very rarely successful like that.”
What, then, is success for Shields?
On the face of it, Phillips’ task looked simple last January: promotion with a squad already in the Northern Premier League’s top three. A squad who had recently turned full-time and had the division’s highest budget. But football does not work like that. Linear progress? Rarely.
“I had to try and work them out, and they had to try and work me out. When you’re coming in second in the table in January, it was hard to try and get to know them and continue to try and win football matches. It’s different if you’re coming in pre-season because you can work each other out pretty quick.”
Phillips replaced Graham Fenton, who had led the club to back-to-back-to-back promotions, as well as that FA Vase triumph in 2017. Julio Arca, he of both Wearside and Teesside, had been integral, likewise Carl Finnigan, a prolific academy and Stiffs striker at Newcastle in the early ‘00s.
But this division has proven a challenging adversary. Shields’ first attempt at exiting through the roof ended in play-off final heartache against Warrington Town. Then the 19/20 campaign was declared null and void. Shields were a dozen clear. 20/21 was also curtailed early. 21/22 saw Warrington Town again step in the way, this time at the 1st Cloud Arena in the semi-finals. Penalties. Again.
Phillips could not watch, but the reaction of those around him told him everything. “Like I said earlier, the play off final penalty shoot-out with Sunderland… I couldn’t affect it. And that for me is the worst. That made me even more determined this season to succeed and try and get it right.”
Phillips was back at work three days later. He did not take a holiday that summer, instead staying in the Northeast. “It took me a bit of a while to get over it, but once I did, my head was back in the game, back focused. Restructure the group, you know, bring my own players in and we go again.
“For me, the big message was, yes, we’re all disappointed, and, yes, I failed. But judge me next (ie this) season when I’m able to build my own squad with the backing of the owner, who has been brilliant. Never, ever said no to me. We brought in nine new players. We got rid of about nine or 10 players.”
“We’ve had little bumps in the road but not a lot. And now you know, as we sit talking today, we’re in a fantastic position. And that is everyone. It is a collective thing for everyone, not just me”.
The Shields gig is Phillips’ first foray into management. Immediately after retiring, he went into coaching with Leicester City – his final club – Derby County and Stoke City. But this was his first go in the hot seat. “I never had a break, so I was ready for it. Did we see the sack coming? Probably because things weren’t going great. And then you think ‘I’ll be back in a job within a couple of months.’ It just shows you how hard it is to get back in.”
Around the pandemic, Phillips continued to build a punditry career that had begun as a player. He was, at times, Soccer Saturday’s man on the gantry, and admits to dreading post-match interviews with managers. He shudders recalling one such conversation with Keith Curle, who offered one-word answers.
There was no need to return to the day-to-day grind. But football is, whether player or supporter, addictive. “I was happy doing the media. It was a happy medium,” he explains. “But I always felt like I’d have liked a crack at management. It felt like it had to be the right job, and this felt like the right one.”
There is natural energy to Phillips, a human Lucozade (other energy drinks are available) bubbling along merrily. At training, he cuts a relaxed figure, striking a balance between ‘friend’ and ‘boss’.
Matchday is different, though. There are nerves, there is tension. At 1.30pm he delivers his first words. It is a moment he has been waiting for all morning. “I watch cookery programmes before a game: James Martin. That’s how I switch off. You have to. I know it’s hard, but the work is all done. And so, I try to switch off. Try. It’s not easy.”
Why Martin? “I had one night out with James from Winchester, right. And when I was at Southampton, I bumped into him, so I had a night out with him, a really, really nice guy. I’ve just followed his career and his career has gone. He’s a huge star. I love cooking programmes.”
Is Phillips himself a culinary expert? “I can cook”. That wasn’t the question Kev. “It’s quite hard being in a cramped apartment with three adults. The air fryer is the best invention ever. I’m serious: it’s permanently on in our apartment. An incredible invention.”
Following the warm-up, Phillips delivers another short, sharp burst. “It’s ten minutes of making them try to feel good about the game. Then it’s down to individuals preparing themselves. Nowadays, lads will have their earphones in when they go into the corridor, they go to the shower room and foam roll. They just want to be left alone.”
His method has put Shields 12 points clear with half a dozen games remaining. It is their title in spirit if not name. A goalless draw against second placed Radcliffe Borough last Saturday inched them closer. More than 3,000 were present, a decent chunk of whom had enjoyed a beverage at nearby Tams.
Their average gate is north of 2,000, quite remarkable given the neighbours. The away numbers are equally eye-popping, with a regular cohort of a few hundred. Bar Morpeth, most trips involve several hours travelling. “I went to watch a Fleetwood match against Forest Green ahead of our FA Cup match,” Phillips recalls. “It was a cold Tuesday night, pissing it down, and when we got to our seats a parent came over with a child in a South Shields shirt. I was like ‘what are you doing here?!’ They were on holiday in the Blackpool area and wanted to come and watch a game. That’s just bizarre.”
But then again, maybe it is not. Community is the bubble of Shields’ spirit level. They run academy sides; they dine at Epinany School for children with special needs (where the Head Teacher is a former player, and the students serve the food); they spend days off on the local beaches; they ensure mascots have a few hours they will never forget; they engage; they give back; they achieve. They are going up.
Sam Dalling @SamJDalling