Exclusive: Kevin Phillips reveals his heartbreak at Sunderland's relegation - but is backing the new regime
Kevin Phillips knows only too well how much the people of Wearside adore their football club.
Having been a part of the Black Cats’ most successful spell in recent years, it’s a love that Phillips shares – and one which has left him feeling heartbroken at Sunderland’s downward spiral.
Frustrated that there was nothing he could do to arrest the decline, the Hitchin-born goalscorer has opened up on how he felt watching Sunderland slip down the leagues from afar.
But now, the 44-year-old is hopeful of some positive change in Sunderland’s fortunes after being enthused by the start made by Stewart Donald’s new regime.
Despite being somewhat surprised by the appointment of Jack Ross as manager, Phillips believes that Sunderland can achieve promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt this season.
The Sunderland legend was speaking exclusively to the Echo in his role as ambassador for the Fans’ Museum based in Monkwearmouth Station as the historic building celebrated its 170th birthday on Friday.
Happy to pose for photographs and sign as many autographs as requested on the evening, Phillips’ conduct further emphasised just how dearly he remembers his time on Wearside.
And such affection left Phillips feeling the same way that most fans have after Sunderland’s back-to-back relegations.
“I’m frustrated,” he admitted.
“From the outside looking in – and having been a part of this football club in what you would have to say was the most successful part for a long, long time – since then there’s been such a decline in the club.
“Yeah, there’s been a couple of promotions to the Premier League in there, but the last four or five years – to see that decline in the football club has been heartbreaking really.
“Not being able to do anything is even harder.”
Yet, as has been the belief of many fans this summer, Phillips believes that relegation to the third tier could give Sunderland a much-needed fresh start.
And the former European Golden Shoe winner is keen to see the Black Cats follow in the footsteps of several clubs, such as Wolves, in rebuilding in League One and bouncing back immediately.
That is much easier said than done, though.
“I wouldn’t say I’m delighted that they’ve gone down to League One, but maybe it was the right thing to start again,” he said.
“I look at Wolves – they went from the Premier League to the Championship and then to League One, had a big clear-out and started from scratch. And now look at them (heading into the Premier League as Championship champions).
“That’s what I look at that could happen here at Sunderland, but they’ve got a big season ahead of them because it’s not going to be easy in League One.
“Everyone wants to beat Sunderland Football Club at this massive stadium, so I’ll be interested to see how they fare this season.”
The fresh start at the Stadium of Light has seen new owners and a new manager come in with Stewart Donald and Jack Ross now steering the ship.
Phillips, although surprised at the appointment of former St Mirren manager Ross, is keen to back the new owners and hopes that they can fulfil the undoubted potential possessed by the football club.
“From what I’ve heard, I’m quite impressed,” Phillips added.
“Actions speak louder than words, but so far they’ve said all the right things.
“I’m a little bit surprised by the appointment of the manager but, nevertheless, he’s appointed so you have to get behind him.
“I’ll get behind him as well and lend my support from afar.
“The takeover was much-needed and you just hope that these guys, the backers, have got the money to put into this football club to get it back to where it once was.”
The hope ignited by a new regime has seen over 20,500 thousand season tickets snapped up by supporters.
Phillips has first-hand experience of the positive effect that a vocal backing at the Stadium of Light can have on a Sunderland side and – provided the correct players are recruited – he believes the fans will once again get behind the new owners and manager.
“It doesn’t take a lot to get them back on side,” stated Phillips.
“It just takes passion, heart, desire and hunger to play for this football club.
“If you get players on the pitch that will do that then these will turn up in their thousands and back you.
“I’m not telling Jack Ross how to run his team, but they’re the sort of players you need for League One anyway.
“Coupled with a little bit of quality, this could be a place that could be a bit of a fortress.
“If they get that right, I’m sure they’ll win a lot of football matches.”
But winning football matches isn’t something Sunderland have done regularly enough over recent years.
That needs to change this season, with Phillips believing it is imperative Sunderland bounce back to the Championship at the first attempt – with anything less deemed a failure.
“The obvious answer would be promotion,” said Phillips, when asked about the Black Cats’ aims for the new campaign.
“The size of this football club, the new owners – I don’t think you can accept anything but promotion.
“Whether it’s first or second or through the play-offs, it doesn’t matter.
“I think it’s so important you bounce back first season.
“Wolves did that and then they consolidated in the Championship for a good few seasons before they got to the Premier League. That’s got to be the benchmark.”