‘I wanted to join Ipswich Town... we’d agreed a contract’ - Phillips on why his move to Portman Road fell through

Kevin Phillips was extremely close to joining Ipswich Town in 1997 but moved to Sunderland instead. Picture: PA

Kevin Phillips was extremely close to joining Ipswich Town in 1997 but moved to Sunderland instead. Picture: PA - Credit: Archant

Former Sunderland and England striker Kevin Phillips has revealed just how close he came to joining Ipswich Town, during an interview with the Benjamin Bloom Football Channel.

Kevin Phillips, pictured during his Watford days. Picture: PA

Kevin Phillips, pictured during his Watford days. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

Oh what might have been.

Ipswich Town have been close to signing plenty of players over the years before ultimately missing out.

Paul Gascoigne was on trial at the club during the 1980s, for example. A more recent case saw Charlie Austin so nearly make the move to Ipswich before signing for Burnley in 2011.

But one often discussed move which never was centres around a striker who went on to score 134 goals in 239 games for Sunderland, winning a Premier League Player of the Year, the top flight’s Golden Boot and European Golden Shoe in the process.

That man, was Kevin Phillips.


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Rewind to the summer of 1997 and the striker was at Watford, where he’d impressed in the third tier, but, at the age of 23, was keen on a move.

MORE: Emyr Huws on a big week, a private chat with Lambert and his Ipswich Town futureGeorge Burley needed a new striker (he signed David Johnson just a few months later) and had his sights set on Phillips, to the extent that a contract had already been agreed and the forward already at Portman Road.

But it didn’t happen and he instead headed to the Stadium of Light for a fee said to be a little over £300,000.

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Phillips takes up the story.

“I don’t mind saying, I’ve said it plenty of times, that’d I’d agreed a contract with Ipswich Town,” he said during an interview with the Benjamin Bloom Football Channel.

Kevin Phillips was top scorer in the Premier League in 1999/2000. Picture: PA

Kevin Phillips was top scorer in the Premier League in 1999/2000. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

“We made the journey, me and my agent, up to Portman Road and had a tour of the ground. At the time they trained opposite the ground and we had a tour there too.

“George Burley was brilliant and was keen to get me on board and we had agreed a personal contract with David Sheepshanks, who was the chairman at the time.

“I was very excited about joining the football club because I was a bit of a home boy at the time and, having lost my dad not so long before, I didn’t want to move too far away from home. My wife was expecting our first child so I’d kind of already identified an area we wanted to live around Bury St Edmunds, which was about halfway between Ipswich and Stevenage.

“But then the news came through that the two clubs couldn’t agree a fee and the only way they could then do it would be to go to a tribunal. I believe at the time either Ipswich or Watford had a player going to a tribunal and you couldn’t have two players going to one at the same time.

“I knew I’d have to wait between a week and two weeks for that to be resolved before mine could go to tribunal but I wasn’t prepared to do that. That would have meant I’d have had to go back to Watford and train knowing I didn’t really want to be there.

Kevin Phillips skips away from Mark Venus at Portman Road. Picture: PA

Kevin Phillips skips away from Mark Venus at Portman Road. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

“I’d made my mind up I wanted to join Ipswich so I was left with a dilemma. Do I wait at home for two weeks and not train or do I try to find a solution?

“So me and my agent were sat in a car at Portman Road and I told him I didn’t want to wait and asked what other options there were. He said he’d call Peter Reid because he knew he liked me and he was impressed.

“Unfortunately for Ipswich the phone call went well. I had to make a decision there and then and I told my wife I was going to travel up to Sunderland there and then to have a chat. Even my mum said it was maybe best I got away from the area to get over my dad with some new surroundings, so that was it. I packed my car, moved to Sunderland the next morning and the rest is history.

“I apologise to the Ipswich fans, but yes, I was very close to joining.”

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Oh what could have been.

Phillips scored in his first game against the Blues following his failed move (a 2-2 draw at the Stadium of Light in 1998), before doing the same at Portman Road the following August to help his side claim a victory which set them on course for promotion.

He scored 30 times in his first season of top flight football, winning plenty of personnel accolades along the way, while also beginning an England career which ultimately brought him eight caps.

From Ipswich’s point of view, Johnson was signed the following November and was of course a great success, ultimately helping Town reach the Premier League in 2000.

But what might have been had Phillips arrived in 1997? Could Town have reached the Premier League sooner? Could they have done it without needing to sell Kieron Dyer? Could they have become a more established top flight club?

Kevin Phillips battles with Titus Bramble at the Stadium of Light. Picture: PA

Kevin Phillips battles with Titus Bramble at the Stadium of Light. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

The answers to these questions we will never know.

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