Sunderland legends interview, part 2: Gary Rowell and Kevin Phillips on their SAFC memories

Gary Rowell meets up with Kevin Phillips. Picture of Frank Reid
Gary Rowell meets up with Kevin Phillips. Picture of Frank Reid
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In a way – though it ended in relegation – that six months when I first broke into the team regularly in the 1976-77 is hard to beat.

That’s because we had looked relegation certainties half-way through the season and the manager put youngsters like myself and Shaun Elliott and Kevin Arnott in and we just started flying.

Certainly my favourite week in football was winning 4-0, 6-1 and 6-0 in games against Middlesbrough, West Brom and West Ham.

It’s fantastic when you’re young and you’re doing what you want to do and we were winning every week it seemed.

I’d nailed down a place for the first time in my career and it would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for that last game of the season. Everton’s one of those games you wish you could play again because if we could have got the point we needed it would have been up there with the all-time great escapes.


You know, I’d probably have to say my very first season at Sunderland, the first one at the Stadium of Light.

In a bizarre way – bizarre because it ended in failure – I would have to say my first season gave me most satisfaction personally.

I had nothing really to prove because no-one really knew who I was and in that sense there wasn’t really much pressure.

But with me being the way I am, I put my own pressure on myself to make an impact, to make a name for myself.

And for me to score 35 goals in my very first season at the club, that was just an incredible experience for me.

It helped that we had moved to the stadium to the new stadium as well.

I think the board were a bit nervous beforehand, you know, thinking can we fill such a big stadium? But we were fairly confident we could get the good times back again.

I’m sure the first game against Man City was a near sell-out and for me to get off the mark in my very first game was exactly what I needed.

It was one of the most enjoyable times I ever had in the North East.



Getting injured which kept me out for the season and most of the next.

I tore my knee ligaments badly in 1979 – only a month after scoring hat-trick against Newcastle United at St James’s Park.

I had been flying and I was playing in possibly my favourite role, in between the midfield and behind a strikers and I could only see it getting better.

The injury was bad enough but it was awful being out as long as I was.

I was in plaster for three months and eventually ended up coming back too soon, which set me back. In some ways, knee ligament injuries in those days were worse than a broken leg in terms of time it took you to get back.



Relegation and leaving the club.

That last few months were awful. Mick McCarthy came in and he had such a tough job to do.

I think the rot had already set in by that stage and it was such a tough time. And then after relegation, there was coming back for pre-season and he had me training on my own because I wasn’t in his plans and I knew I would be leaving.

It was not a good time.



It would be easy to say Newcastle but derby games are only great if you win them or at least don’t lose them.

My favourite team and ground to play against was Arsenal at Highbury. Whether it was at Roker or Highbury we always seemed to have a number against them.

It was a ground which always felt a bit like Roker to me and I always felt at home.

Arsenal were always the glamour club and it used to bring the best out of me.


I would have to say Manchester United.

I know that I grew up as an Arsenal fan and Highbury and then the Emirates was a special place for me.

But there was just something about playing against Manchester United and especially at Manchester United when they were in their pomp.

The Theatre of Dreams and all that, it really gave me a buzz.

As a footballer you knew you were playing on the biggest stage of all and it was a chance to make a mark. Scoring a goal at Old Trafford was always a bit special and I’ve been lucky to have scored a few there.

I think all the goals I scored there were from range because they were too good to let much drop to you in the box and you had to rely on a pot-shot or two from distance.



I was always being linked with clubs and I know that at one stage – around the time Wolves were making Andy Gray a £1m signing – they put a big bid in for me.

When I left, I could have gone to Chelsea or Arsenal.

I had advanced talks with Chelsea but then when I met Ken Brown at Norwich, I liked what they had to say, I liked the role they had for me and I liked the friendliness of the club.

Sadly I was injured in my first pre-season game for Norwich and didn’t come back until February/March time. It’s one of the regrets of my career that I couldn’t have done more for them.

I joined Norwich on the same day as a promising young defender called Steve Bruce, who had come up from the lower divisions.

Don’t know what happened to him.


There were a few over the years and I was tempted several times.

But I stayed with Sunderland because for a long time we were kicking on and I was hoping that would continue.

I could have gone to Aston Villa, potentially Tottenham Hotspur and I think there was half an opportunity to go to Arsenal.

You have to remember though that once we got into the Premier League we had two seventh place finishes and had been second at Christmas twice.

So I really felt at the end of both those seasons that we weren’t too far away from making a couple of good signings and getting into Europe. From my point of view I was happy at Sunderland, my family were settled and I had high hopes that I could achieve all my ambitions here.



We were always just a couple of players away it seemed – although most teams could probably say that.

For me there were two major moments – and the first was if we hadn’t got relegated at Everton in the 1976-77 season.

That team was set up for top flight football and we were better suited for that, than the Second Division. I know that Jimmy Adamson had his eyes on a couple of top signings had we stayed up and that felt like a real missed opportunity.

The other time was under Alan Durban when we used to beat the top teams around – Liverpool, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest – when they were European champions.

We just didn’t have the squad depth and the quality to routinely beat the mediocre teams.

We had Venison and Pickering coming through, Turner in goal, Brace in midfield, Cummins and McCoist were around, Leighton James, Frank Worthington, Shaun Elliott, Jeff Clarke.

We had teams I always felt had a chance regardless of who we played. Inconsistency plagued us and one or two good signings might have made all the difference. They sacked Durban though and next season they were relegated and a couple of years later were in the Third Division.


I think the closest we came to real success at Sunderland was the season in which we finished seventh in the Premier League for the second season in a row.

We had made the transition to that level at that time, brought in a few good signings, let some of the players go who had come up with us originally.

And I thought we had the basis of a really good Premier League side which only needed one or two more quality signings to push on into the European spots.

Sadly the new signings that came in just didn’t cut it. I think the club was looking abroad because home-grown players were so expensive at the time and the players that came in simply weren’t good enough.

At the same time, there were players who were coming to the ends of their careers or who were being sold on who had been really important to us and who we found difficult to replace.

Just when I thought we had the potential to go higher still, we started to spiral downwards.

It was such a shame and Sunderland have reached nowhere near that level since. To me, for the money that’s been poured into the club since then and the support they have had, they should be finishing much higher.