By Chris Dunlavy
KEVIN Phillips is 40. That’s forty. Four zero. “Really?” says Leicester’s new striker when yet another question brings up his advancing years. “I don’t think anyone’s mentioned that in a while.”
Phillips is joking of course. After ten clubs and 23 years, he has long since become used to seeing his name prefaced.
“I don’t even notice anymore,” he laughs. “‘Veteran striker’, ‘40-yearold Kevin Phillips’ – I get them all but I see it as a compliment that people are still talking about me. And if I can write a few more headlines from now until the end of the season, I don’t care what people call me.”
In fairness to Phillips, you would never guess you were talking to a man in his fifth decade. Though the face has a few more lines and the shaven scalp a fuzzy hint of grey, the body remains as taut and lean as it was in Phillips’ goal-laden glory days at Sunderland.
“It’s just a number,” insists Phillips, who has joined the tabletopping Foxes from Crystal Palace until the end of the season.
“I’m still fit enough, I can still get around the pitch. And hopefully with my knowledge and finishing ability, I can still be useful.
“Obviously, it doesn’t get any easier. When I have a tough training session now, recovery probably takes me a day or two longer than the younger lads.
“But it’s a natural process that comes to us all. Just look at hangovers. How long does it take now, two days to recover? Not that I have too many mind.
“I pretty much know what my body needs. The last couple of managers I’ve worked with have been brilliant in giving me extra days off here and there. And Nigel Pearson will be pretty lenient in letting me do my own thing. He just wants me ready for games.
“When I signed for Crystal Palace last season, a few eyebrows were raised. But by the end of the season, I think a lot of them were saying ‘What a shrewd signing’. I hope that by May, Leicester fans will be saying the same thing.”
Shrewd doesn’t cover it. Signed by Ian Holloway, his former manager at Blackpool, Phillips scored six goals in 16 games for the Eagles, the last coming in the play-off final at Wembley, an ice-cool penalty in the second half of extra-time that ultimately clinched promotion to the Premier League.
It marked Phillips’ fourth promotion from the Championship and his first in the play-offs since a heartbreaking penalty shoot-out defeat to Charlton while at Sunderland in 1997-98.
Yet for all that experience, Phillips says he was as nervous last year as he was before that showdown with the Addicks.
“I definitely was,” he says. “The nerves are the same at 39 or 21. The difference is that you can draw on your experience. If I was a 21-yearold, more than likely I would have missed. But you learn to control your emotions and trust in your technique.
“I still get the butterflies, whether I’m playing or not. Physically, you approach it differently. But the nerves, the buzz of a match day – that’s all still there. That’s only natural and the day it goes is the day you pack in and stop playing football.”
Not that Phillips – despite saying he wants to “finish my career in the Midlands” is willing to set a date yet.
“I don’t want it to end,” admits Phillips, who won the European Golden Boot with 30 Premier League goals for Sunderland in 2000 and has a career record of 280 goals from 645 matches. “Ex-players will always say ‘You’re a long time retired’, which is true. And the closer it gets, the less I want it to end. That’s why I work even harder to keep myself in tip-top shape.”
Though he spent time coaching at Palace, Phillips won’t have an official role in the Leicester dugout. However, he will be happy to dole out advice and, having started his career at Non-League Baldock while stacking shelves in Dixons, the striker sees much of himself in Foxes hitman Jamie Vardy.
Signed for £1m from Non-League Fleetwood in the summer of 2012, Vardy has been in sensational form this term.
“I played against Jamie for Blackpool when he was at Fleetwood in the Conference,” says Phillips. “It was an FA Cup tie and we won by four or five, but he scored and he absolutely shone for them that day.
“He’s got tremendous pace, great work-rate. And from what I’ve seen of him he’s got a very good attitude.
“What did he come here for – a million quid? That’s a decent fee for a kid out of Non-League football and it brings a lot of pressure.
“I know what it’s like. I went straight from Non-League to Watford and it takes a while. For a couple of months I was playing reserve games and it just wasn’t happening for me.
“But once I got settled in and started enjoying it, the goals came. It’s a similar path to the one Jamie’s been down. Like me, he’s found his feet now and I think you’re seeing the fruition of Jamie as a top striker at this level.”
And talking of old foes, Phillips is happy to be working for Foxes boss Pearson rather than playing against him.
“Yeah, he’s huge isn’t he?” laughs Phillips. “I played against him at Middlesbrough. I remember Tony Mowbray too – both big, uncompromising centre-halves. I’m glad they retired, and I won’t want to get on the wrong side of Nigel, put it that way!”