Where Sunderland must go now – according to club legends Kevin Phillips and Gary Rowell

Gary Rowell slams home for Sunderland against West Ham in 1978
Gary Rowell slams home for Sunderland against West Ham in 1978
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Gary Rowell and Kevin Phillips fired their way into Sunderland folklore by scoring more than 100 goals for the club. In this final part of our special feature, the legends discuss modern-day SAFC and assess the club’s prospects with GRAEME ANDERSON.

HOW DO YOU SEE SUNDERLAND’S SITUATION CURRENTLY?

GR: The last few seasons have been replicas of each other - the great escapes.

It seems to happen every season!

The one great thing is that at least we do seem to win derbies now!

After about 20 years of always losing or drawing amid disappointment, we’ve won five in a row and that has been absolutely great.

But if I had to think of a description which sums us up in recent times it would be under-achievers.

I just look at teams like Crystal Palace, Stoke, Southampton and Swansea doing well in the Premier League and think why can’t we do that?

A new season is coming though and now we’ve got to put our trust in Dick Advocaat.

He did a great job with the great escape last season but a whole new season represents a completely different challenge and we have to hope he is up for it.

On the plus side, he has the support of the fans, seems to have the backing of the board and you couldn’t get a more experienced boss.

KP: I’m sorry too say it but I see another season of struggle for my old club.

That’s my initial thought and reaction for what lies ahead next season, though I hate to say it.

You asked me at the start of last season how I saw Sunderland faring and I was honest and gave you exactly the same answer - struggling and fighting to avoid relegation - and that’s exactly how it turned out.

It’s sad that that that might be the case again but I just don’t see where they’re going foward.

I found the appointment of Dick Advocaat on a one-year contract a very strange one - it was as if the board didn’t have a clear idea.

I mean unless Sunderland are going to bring in someone who can work alongside Advocaat I don’t see what the way ahead for them is.

They are going to be in exactly the same situation next summer with him leaving, unless they bring in someone who they can groom alongside him, a little like they seem to be doing with Giggsy at Man United.

If they did that, they would have someone at the end of the year who was familiar with the club and the players and who know what needed to be done and could take it on.

That’s what they need to do.

WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL TAKE SUNDERLAND ON?

GR: Player recruitment. Sunderland need a good transfer window and we haven’t had one for a while.

Again, you look at Southampton as a prime example of what can be done. They lost half their team, and not the bad half either, the good half!

But their player recruitment was excellent and they’ve actually moved on.

Sunderland haven’t had a good transfer window probably since Brucey. His last window caught up with him. But before that he’d brought in the likes of Bent, Cattermole, Larsson and Mignolet.

KP: I think they need a clear sense of direction and that has to run right through the club.

The owner, the board, the management and the players all need to pulling in the same direction.

And to do that you need good quality people, committed to the club rather than themselves, all working hard to succeed.

It’s a team game, a football club, and if you work hard for the club, I think the individual rewards usually follow.

They need investment and they need a long-term plan.

WHERE DO THEY NEED TO STRENGTHEN?

GR: I think every area - and I don’t say that lightly.

We need a pacey centre-half, more creativity in midfield and a new striker and that’s just for starters.

But pace in defence is an absolute must - to be more precise, at centre-back.

In a couple of the maulings we went through last season, your heart was in your mouth at how many we might eventually concede.

KP: Right down the spine of the team for me.

Not so much the keeper because the keeper is excellent I think, but certainly a centre-half, probably two midfield players and another forward.

Unfortunately we are all looking for those!

And for our clubs there’s not an awful lot out there for us.

WHAT REPRESENTS A SUCCESSFUL SEASON FOR SUNDERLAND?

GR: You don’t go from fifth bottom to fifth top anymore - those days are gone.

I think you have to look at Palace and say that mid-table should not be a big ask.

When I played in my best Sunderland top-flight team we struggled for consistency but on our day, I always fancied us against anybody and I’d love to see that feeling back among Sunderland fans when they watch their team. They had to watch too many performances last season where they were watching dross.

So my hopes for Sunderland next season are watching attractive football and a good run in the cups.

KP: Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, survival - just staying in the Premier League again will be an achievement of sorts.

That’s going to be the main priority and that’s what’s going to represent success.

And that’s just purely because the club’s history over the last few years has been one of ever so narrowly avoiding relegation.

I don’t really get the impression that a vast amount is going to change in the year ahead.

And so, for me, just staying in the Premier League again will be a success for Sunderland.

Recruiting some good players as time goes on will reap benefits over the coming years is all I can hope.

I hear talk about stuff going on in the background to improve the infrastructure of the club and I hope that’s the case and it pays dividends.

DID YOU EVER DREAM OR PLAN WHEN YOU STARTED, TO REACH A TARGET LIKE 100 GOALS?

GR: It never crossed my mind - matching Shackleton’s total?

People forget that when I first started for Sunderland I was a central midfielder and when I first nailed down a place under Jimmy Adamson, I was wide left.

It was only later I became an out-and-out striker, so scoring 100 goals was the last thing on mind when I first got into the team.

I was just happy to be playing!

KP: I dreamt when I first joined Sunderland that I might achieve something special but I never thought or assumed that I would.

More than 100 goals?

Certainly in the whole of my career, yeah, I would have thought that that was something I might do.

But to achieve it for just one club? Certainly not.

What surprises me looking back as how relatively quickly I did it. What’s interesting I suppose is how many I might have got for the club had I stayed longer than six seasons and the club had kept progressing.

GIVEN THE NATURE OF FOOTBALL WITH PLAYERS REGULARLY MOVING ON, DO YOU SEE A PLAYER SCORING 100 GOALS FOR SUNDERLAND AGAIN?

GR: Yes I do. Not as many stay as long but players do still stay a long time - Larsson, Cattermole already, even though they are not strikers.

Kevin Phillips smashed the 100 goals barrier, as I knew he would.

I accumulated goals, I probably played only half my games up front and so I crept to the target.

It can be done.

It’s not unheard of to score 100 goals for the one club these days, but it is more unusual now.

The key to it happening is for Sunderland to get success because then the star is not so tempted to move on.

KP: I don’t see anyone scoring 100 goals for Sunderland again in the near future, maybe not ever.

That’s just because of the nature of the game and the nature of the club Sunderland are.

Players move on quite quickly these days and even the top players don’t always stay - they’ll move from one top club to the other like Luis Suarez did.

If someone comes into Sunderland and scores 30 goals in his first season like I did, chances are a big club will come in for them straight away and they’ll be off.

It took me six years to get 130.

It’s possible of course, possible, but it would take a hell of a character to stay at Sunderland and ignore offers.

Do I want to see it happen. Probably not, if I’m honest because I quite like being the last have the record!

Just like I didn’t want Harry Kane to win the Golden Boot this season because I like the fact I’m the only Englishman ever to have won it. I think Sunderland fans probably like that too!