SORRY Sunderland closed ranks yesterday as marksman Kevin Phillips dismissed suggestions that he is like the lone gunman in a side staring down the barrel of relegation.

Europe's top scorer and a Golden Shoe winner with 30 Premiership strikes only three seasons ago, Phillips has found goals hard to come by since the ultimate break-up this term of his once-prolific partnership with the now-retired Niall Quinn.

Former boss Peter Reid paid a club record £8.2m to Rangers after finally identifying Tore Andre Flo as Phillips' new frontline foil.

But the pair have failed to gel and Howard Wilkinson, who succeeded the sacked Reid in October, has now turned to promising local product Michael Proctor to lend support to Phillips.

Wearsider Proctor has made a major impact and both players scored in last Saturday's 3-3 draw in the FA Cup fourth-round tie at Blackburn.

But all the encouraging signs were swept away as Southampton inflicted Sunderland's seventh home League defeat this season.

Wilkinson's side remain third bottom, two points worse off than Bolton, and this weekend's visit of Charlton now represents a searching test of the Black Cats' resolve to claw their way out of the mire.

But the fans' patience is wearing thin. The 34,102 crowd on Tuesday was the lowest at the Stadium of Light for a Premiership game and there were calls for the head of chairman Bob Murray.

Phillips, whose demotion from the England squad owes as much to Sunderland's struggles in the last two seasons as it does to his own lapse in form, has managed five goals this term in a shot-shy side despite missing six matches early in the campaign after hernia surgery.

The 29-year-old striker fell below his usual standards against Southampton when he failed to convert a one-on-one chance with goalkeeper Antti Niemi.

But he insisted: "I felt I did the right thing. I just didn't lift the ball enough and the keeper stopped it with his foot. That's the way it's going for us.

"I don't feel isolated in the team. We've got good forwards who are working hard and we're all in this together.

"The whole club had a bad night, but there are no excuses for the performance of the team.

"The only positive thing is we have a home game on Saturday when hopefully we can put things right.''

With skipper Michael Gray alongside him in a show of unity, Phillips added: "Mickey and I have seen some great times here. I'm sure we all felt a difficult time was going to come, but we probably didn't think it was going to last as long as this.

"There have been signs that we've been getting better, especially after the game at Blackburn, and we thought we would beat Southampton.

"There's a different atmosphere in the dressing room when we're away from home. When we're away we relax a bit and knock the ball around.

"But at home we've been a bit tentative. I would never have a go at the supporters, but you could sense they have probably had enough.

"You can't blame them, so it's up to us. We've got to have a go because no-one wants to mention relegation, but we're in it and it's as simple as that.

"We have to get back to free-flowing football, get the supporters back on our side and go for it from now until the end of the season.''

Gray launched a passionate defence of Phillips, the club's leading post-war goalscorer, but admitted the entire squad must do some soul-searching.

"Everybody is down,'' said Gray. "We had high hopes before the Southampton game because I think the last four performances have been a bit more promising.

"The manager said if we didn't get the ball down and start playing he would take us off.

"But he couldn't take 11 of us off, so we just have to take a good look at ourselves.

"We're as disappointed as the fans. The manager said that we're all in this together and we have to try to get out of it together.

"We have seven games left at home in the League, and the quicker we can make this a tough place to come to again for the opposition, the better.

"Kevin has got his goals because he knows where the back of the net is. We know Kevin is going to get goals for us like he has done in the past. He's scored over 100 for this club. We have international players here who know what it's like to finish seventh in this League two seasons running.

"We're under-performing now, so we have to work hard to put things right quickly.''

* Sunderland have terminated the contract of centre-back Stanislav Varga by mutual consent.

The Slovakian international has agreed a settlement on his contract, which still had 18 months to run. Varga, 30, was signed by Peter Reid from Slovan Bratislava for £875,000 in July 2000.

But he made only 33 senior appearances, scoring once, and figured in just two games this season, the Worthington Cup ties at Arsenal and Sheffield United

* Tickets for the England against Turkey match at The Stadium of Light go on sale to the public from Thursday February 20 at 10am.

The vital Euro 2004 qualifier will take place on Wednesday April 2, kick-off 8pm, and is sure to be a sell-out.

Tickets are available on 0870 9020005 or www.ticketmaster., and prices are £45, £35, and £25. Disabled section are priced at £25 and tickets for disabled supporters are available from 0207 745 4776.

Read more about Sunderland here.