Kevin Phillips: Love, care and devotion at South Shields
Written by Simon Austin — April 14, 2023
AS a player, Kevin Phillips scaled the heights.
He won the Golden Shoe after finishing 1999/2000 as Europe’s top scorer, he played for England and he is still Sunderland’s record post-war goalscorer.
Now, as a manager, he finds himself in the foothills of English football, plying his trade in the seventh tier. It might seem like a big drop down, but the 49-year-old disagrees.
He's just led South Shields to promotion to the National League North in his first full season in charge and has his sights set on much more.
“The remit when I came in was to take Shields through the leagues, to the Football League," the 49-year-old told TGG. “That’s a huge ambition, but there’s no point coming out of this league and just sitting in the middle of the table above.
“We need to go for another title next year and go for it again. Then, before you know it, we could find ourselves close to the EFL.”
Phillips was appointed manager in January 2022. After 25 years as a player and then a few seasons as an assistant, he felt it was time for a crack at management.
“I feel my strengths are as a man-manager, so I was ready for this,” he said. “I know what the players are going through, on and off the pitch.
“Once I’d come in to speak to the owner (Geoff Thompson) and saw the facilities, it just felt right. Geoff has been involved at the club for the last seven years. When he came in, the ground only held 400 to 500, now our capacity is 4,000.
“We opened a £3m stand last summer. He has ploughed millions in and deserves huge credit. As a Shields man he is involved day to day and has been great for me. I feel I owe him promotions.”
There was massive disappointment last season, when Shields finished third in the Northern Premier League and went on to lose to Warrington Town in the play-off semi-finals.
“I felt I let people down - and ultimately let myself down,” Phillips admitted. “But I always said I wanted to be judged on my own team, my own squad, and said, 'Give me a summer to bring my own players in.'
“We had a real big job to do in the summer. We brought in a new Head of Recruitment, Joe Monks, and ended up signing nine players, getting rid of a load; there was a major overhaul of the squad.
“We identified certain areas and positions we needed to strengthen. The players we brought in have been exceptional. Not one of them has let me down, hence where we are at the moment.”
Fittingly, Shields opponents for their promotion homecoming tomorrow will be Warrington. And this time Phillips and his players will be celebrating.
'LOVE EVERY PLAYER’
Even though he scaled the heights, Phillips isn’t one of those who harks back to his own career now he's a manager.
“I just don’t see the point of having an ego in this profession,” he said. “My career is done and dusted now. I started playing in non-league (with Baldock Town) and I’d like to think I didn’t have an ego when I was a player.
“I would very rarely go, ‘When I played I did this,’ because the players would go, ‘Boring, boring. We are not in the 1990s or 2000s now.' My playing career is done and I care about my players and their careers going forwards.
"If they want to pick my brains about my career to help their careers, then I am happy to do that, but my devotion is towards my players.”
This is a theme throughout our interview - and Phillips has always remembered a piece of advice given to him by Steve McClaren, when he was assistant to the former England manager at Derby County in 2016/17.
“We were drying off after getting showered at the end of training and I was picking his brains,” Phillips remembered. “I said to him, ‘Man management, what is it all about?’
“He said, ‘Kev, listen. As much as you don’t want to, you have to love every player in your squad. I know it’s difficult, because some players will have an attitude, some will have egos, and that might not sit well with you, but if you want to get the best out of those players you have to love every one.
“You have to find out about them as an individual, what makes them tick, their lifestyle, their family, and make them feel wanted and give them love. That struck a chord with me and I thought, ‘He’s right.’
"Thinking back to when I was playing, there were some managers who wouldn’t talk to you and you just thought, ‘I don’t really want to play for you.’ Then there were others who wanted to know everything about you and you thought, ‘If he leaves me out on Saturday, yes I am disappointed, but he cares.’
“That is the biggest thing for me - caring about your players. It is hard to dislike someone who you know actually cares about you. It is crucial to be able to build relationships with players.
“I will give the same amount of care and love to an 18-year-old in my squad as I will would to the oldest player, Gary Liddle, who has played 600, 700 games. Yes, you would respect the older one a little more because of what he has done, but they are still in the same profession and I wouldn’t treat them any different.
"We are all in it together.”
This is why decision-making is a collaborative process at South Shields.
“I don’t mind being challenged,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers for everything and I am still developing as a manager and coach. I am a person who asks questions.
"You put yourself in a position to be challenged, that is part and parcel of being a manager in any walk of life.”
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MANAGER AND A COACH
However, the final decision will always rest with the manager and Phillips said this is ultimately what differentiates a coach from a manager. He should know, because he was first-team coach and assistant at Leicester, Derby and Stoke before becoming a boss in his own right.
“When you go up to manager, you have the final say and you feel that responsibility for everyone,” he admitted. “And not just the players, but the whole club. It comes with a big burden, lots of pressure and is a unique job.”
Phillips used the example of Paul Clement as an elite-level coach who had found the transition to management difficult. Phillips was Clement’s assistant at Derby.
“Paul, for me, was a fantastic coach, is a great guy, and I got on really well with him,” the former England striker said. “I learnt an awful lot off him. I just think he will always be a great coach. I think he would probably agree that managing, he found it a little bit difficult.
“Maybe just making that final decision. When you’re a coach you don’t have to do that. You’re not getting people constantly knocking on your door, challenging you, upset with you, annoyed with you, don’t want to talk to you.
“I’m not saying Paul couldn’t do that, and he dealt with it, but sometimes it’s hard to focus on what you’re very good at if you’re also having to think about that as well.
“He was very hands-on, he took a lot of sessions. Especially now, to be able to do both - be a manager and also do lots of coaching - is very difficult. Hence now why you see clubs who have teams of people, two or three assistants, coaches, development coaches - you need it now to keep everyone happy.”
Someone Phillips said is very suited to management is Gary Rowett, whom he worked under as first-team coach at Derby and Stoke. Their stint with the Potters was short-lived, ending in the sack after eight months, but Phillips said that was more down to the club's shortcomings than the staff's.
“As soon as we went in, we realised, ‘This is a challenge,’” Phillips admitted. “We had players in there who were clearly disappointed to be in the Championship and didn’t want to be at the football club.
“There were players who were kept on Premier League money and others weren’t. That caused rifts in the changing room. It was trying to manage loads of egos, which was very difficult, and also trying to win football matches.
“It was one of those clubs where it just didn’t fit at the time. It showed that when Nathan Jones went in afterwards, he couldn’t turn it round. Then Michael O’Neill come in and it took a while for him to get rid of all the players who were there.
“Even now, with Alex Neil going in, they are still languishing in the bottom half of the Championship. It was a tough challenge for us, it was just one of those that didn’t work out.”
Phillips said he was delighted to see how well his old Stoke colleagues Rowett, and his Head of Performance Dave Carolan (“a top man”) were now doing at Millwall.
“Look at what Gary is doing now - it proves he’s a very very good manager,” he said. “I think given time we would have turned it around at Stoke, but unfortunately if you don’t get results you lose your job.”
Now, at South Shields, Phillips is fortunate to have a supportive owner and the club are on the up. Their win at Whitby earlier this week secured promoted with two games remaining, meaning next season they will be in their highest position in the football pyramid since reforming in 1974.
The club are part of a wider renaissance in the North East, with Newcastle United flying high in the Premier League and Middlesbrough and Sunderland going well in the Championship.
“There is a feelgood factor in the North East at the moment and we have to try and jump on the back of that,” Phillips said.
There will definitely be a feelgood factor at the 1st Cloud Arena tomorrow when Phillips and his players celebrate promotion in front of their fans.