Having joined Sunderland in a £325,000 move from Watford following the Wearsiders’ relegation to the First Division, Phillips could only manage four goals from his first 12 matches in red-and-white.
However, the opening goal in a 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest in November 1997 sparked a sensational scoring run that established his credentials among the Sunderland fans and fired the Black Cats to the play-offs.
Phillips scored in nine consecutive matches at the Stadium of Light – a club record that featured doubles against Sheffield United and Reading and reached its crescendo when he scored in the closing stages of a 4-1 win over Stockport.
He failed to find the target in the next home game against Birmingham, but ended his maiden campaign as a Sunderland player with 35 goals in all competitions, a post-war club record.
Unfortunately, he was carrying an injury going into the play-off final with Charlton, and limped off 17 minutes before the end of normal time as Sunderland went on to draw 4-4 and lose on penalties.
Scoring four goals at Bury on the night Sunderland secured promotion
Phillips’ second season as a Sunderland player saw him make a blistering start to the campaign, scoring in nine of the club’s first 11 matches.
However, injury struck when he broke his toe in a League Cup match against Chester, and he was sidelined for almost three months as he gradually regained his fitness.
He failed to score in four of his first five matches on his return, but regained his form towards the end of the season, with an April double over West Brom proving especially significant.
Later that month, Sunderland headed to Gigg Lane looking to secure promotion, and Phillips claimed four goals in a memorable 5-2 win.
His hat-trick was sealed in the opening 33 minutes, and he ended the campaign with 25 goals to his name despite having been sidelined for a third of it.
Making his England debut while still in the First Division
A fortnight after the Bury game, Phillips enjoyed arguably his greatest moment as he made his England debut in a 1-1 draw in Hungary.
Kevin Keegan had been watching him for a number of weeks, and even though he was plying his trade outside the Premier League, he was named alongside Alan Shearer for a friendly in Budapest.
Shearer scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot, and Phillips returned to the international ranks when he started a 2-1 win over Belgium at the Stadium of Light in October 1999.
In total, Phillips won eight international caps, with his final appearance coming against Holland in 2002. He never scored for his country, but regards his time in an England shirt as the most cherished of his career.
“As a kid, growing up, all I ever wanted to do was play for my country,” he said. “When I got that opportunity - when I was still a First Division player with Sunderland - it was a dream come true.”
Forming the Quinn-Phillips partnership in the Premier League
Phillips linked up with Niall Quinn in the First Division, but it was the pair’s first season together in the top-flight that led to them being hailed as one of the most potent partnerships in English football.
They were a classic “little and large” pairing, with Quinn’s aerial presence enabling him to win a succession of headed knockdowns, while Phillips’ pace and movement took him behind opposition defences to take advantage.
The high point of the pair’s relationship is generally regarded to have been the 4-1 home win over Chelsea in December 1999, a game that saw them both claim two goals.
Phillips’ first strike was one of the best of his Sunderland career, a dipping 25-yard half-volley that arced into the top right-hand corner of the net.
His second goal was a more predatory finish, as he followed in to score from close range after Quinn’s initial shot had been saved.
Scoring the winner in a 2-1 win over Newcastle at St James’ Park
When Sunderland travelled to St James’ Park in August 1999, they had not celebrated an away win at the home of their bitterest rivals for almost a decade.
That all changed on a rain-drenched night that has entered Tyne-Wear folklore thanks to Ruud Gullit’s controversial decision to drop Alan Shearer and the second-half fight-back that earned Sunderland all three points.
Trailing to Kieron Dyer’s opener, Sunderland levelled through Niall Quinn shortly after the hour mark.
Only 15 minutes remained when Phillips raced through towards the Leazes End, and while Tommy Wright saved his first shot, the striker swivelled with his back to goal to hook a follow-up shot into the far corner.
Of all the 134 goals Phillips scored as a Sunderland player, his derby winner is the one the club’s supporters remember most fondly.
Winning the European Golden Boot
Prior to Phillips’ first season as a Premier League player, pundit Rodney Marsh famously claimed he would struggle to score “more than five or six goals”. In fact, he ended the season with 30.
He claimed the European Golden Boot as the continent’s leading scorer, and remains the only Englishman to have achieved the accolade.
A hat-trick in a 5-0 win at Derby was a particular highlight, and Phillips scored two or more goals in nine Premier League matches during the 1999-2000 season as he proved all but unplayable.
His final goal of the campaign was the winner in a 1-0 victory over West Ham, helping Sunderland to a seventh-place finish, and while the Black Cats went on to finish seventh again the following season, Phillips was never able to fully recapture the form he displayed in his first nine months in the Premier League.