When Kevin Phillips warms up on a Premier League touchline this season, going through a routine designed to limber up ahead of coming on as a substitute or even preparing on the pitch ahead of a game, most fans will not realise it is something he rigorously practices in the comfort of his own home.
“I am a believer in stretching an awful lot,” Phillips told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I’m stretching every day, every opportunity I get, watching TV or whatever I’m doing. I’m always stretching and trying to keep flexible, which I think is the key to longevity.”
Such is the life of a 40-year-old who has spent nearly two decades in professional football. Phillips was handed another chance in the top flight with Crystal Palace after scoring the penalty which put them back in the Premier League, the extra-time winner against Watford in May.
“Having played in the [English second tier play-off] final three times before and lost, I know what it’s like to lose," he said. "The pressure was there but if I’m being honest, I didn’t feel an awful lot. Usually I get butterflies in the stomach when I do take a penalty, but that time I just felt confident. Perhaps I felt it was my time, I don’t know.”
Phillips’ time in the top tier has come again, having last appeared in the Premier League with Birmingham City, with whom he experienced relegation in 2011.
There was Teddy Sheringham, Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen who I was competing against. I take it as a compliment that I managed to get eight caps amongst that level.
“If I was being honest, I didn’t think I’d get another chance in the Premier League, but nothing surprises me in this game any more," he said. "I came in a little bit later to professional football – I didn’t start until I was about 21 – so perhaps I’m making up for a little bit of lost time. If you pitch up at a club and you’ve got the right manager who believes in you, all of a sudden you’ve got another crack at it.”
That manager is Ian Holloway, who has a reputation for eccentricity, an acerbic wit and a renowned sense of humour.
“He’s a funny guy but he’s also deadly serious,” Phillips noted. “His enthusiasm and his knowledge for the game are excellent. There are lots of little things to his character. On away trips he’ll set out 11 chairs in an empty room and he’ll have us standing up and marking them, just crazy things like that. For me personally at this stage of my career, he’s perfect because his enthusiasm rubs off on me. I owe him a lot for giving me this opportunity.”
The chance that Holloway has presented Phillips is a reward for a career that sees the forward remain the only Englishman to win the European Golden Shoe, and the last English player to end a Premier League season as top scorer, managing 30 league goals for Sunderland in 1999/2000.
Phillips reflected: “I do get reminded of that quite often. It’s great that [the record] is still standing but it’s sad in a way. It just shows that [England] have not been producing the kind of striker that we’d like to. I don’t see the European record getting beaten for a long time with the likes of [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo still going. I’d like to see an Englishman win the Golden Boot in the Premier League, it would be quite satisfying because it would have a knock-on effect for the England team as well.”
Phillips’ own international career saw him travel to UEFA EURO 2000, but not see any action, and he failed to find the net in eight appearances for his country.
“Of course I would’ve loved to have scored for my country, but I have no regrets,” Phillips said. “The way I look at it, there was Teddy Sheringham, Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, really top strikers who were at big clubs at the time, who I was competing against. I take it as a compliment that I managed to get eight caps amongst that level.”
Phillips may have been trying to build relationships at international level, but he was also famed for his strike partnership with Niall Quinn while at Sunderland. During his career, English football has moved away from the use of two forwards.
“Certainly I’ve had to adapt,” Phillips admitted. “Since I’ve been at Palace the manager likes to play with two wide men and one up the middle. Now I’ve had to adapt my all-round game, come short to get the ball with link-up play, and try to get in behind as well. It’s a part of the game that I quite enjoy because you’re more involved. I’ve had to work a bit more on my fitness because you’re having to get up and down a little bit more.”
Phillips will need all that fitness training with the frenetic pace of the Premier League, and he is anticipating an exciting 2013/14 season, tipping a former team-mate to shine for reigning champions Manchester United.
“Wilfried [Zaha] has certainly got the potential, he’s still got a lot to learn,” Phillips noted. “He’s still very raw, but he’s at the right club to learn his trade and get better. There’s no doubting his technical ability but he certainly needs to add quite a few things to his game. If he does that over the coming season and he learns quickly, he’ll be a major threat.”
As a former top scorer in the Premier League himself, Phillips is well placed to judge the credentials of the top flight’s top marksmen, and one of Zaha’s new team-mates leads the running.
“I don’t think you’re going to be looking much further than Robin van Persie again," he said. "[Sergio] Aguero will be up there too. I fancy Man City for the Premier League this season, so I imagine he’ll be banging goals in left, right and centre.”
On away trips he’ll set out 11 chairs in an empty room and he’ll have us standing up and marking them, just crazy things like that.
As for Phillips, the joy of banging goals in has not diminished in spite of him doing so for over two decades. “It feels exactly the same," he said. "If you ask any ex-player who was a goalscorer during their career what they miss, they don’t particularly miss the training, the running. The most important thing is that feeling when you score a goal, when you see the ball hit the back of the net, there’s no better feeling in football.”
Becoming only the third outfield player to grace the English Premier League beyond his 40th birthday obviously leads Phillips to think about his future in the game.
“Come the end of the season, or maybe during the season if I get a chance, I’ll look to start my coaching badges and get them on board," he revealed. "First and foremost though, I want to help Crystal Palace stay in the Premier League.”
If Phillips scores in any of the final three scheduled fixtures of Palace’s Premier League season, he will beat Teddy Sheringham to become the oldest scorer in the competition’s history. He will be hoping that his golden goal is another memorable one for the Palace fans.