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Kevin Phillips reveals how Kenny Sansom stopped him quitting football

15 March 2019

For any young boy enamoured with the highs and lows of football, their father is often instrumental in igniting a passion for the beautiful game when, as their son is only small, they take them to their first match to begin a life-long journey following the sport through thick and thin.

For former Palace and Watford forward Kevin Phillips, however, his father's sparking of a passion for football not only led to unremitting fandom, but a career at the very top of the game for 20 years, too.

However, aged just 21, Phillips lost that spark unexpectedly when his father, Ray, passed away.

“It broke my world really,” he says looking back. “I joined [Watford] in the January and my dad passed away in the summer. I’m not just saying it, it broke my world.”

In 1994, having recently forced his way into professional football when signing for Watford from non-league Baldock Town, Phillips had only just begun to realise his dream when the man who first inspired him passed away, his son only a young man taking his first steps into the senior game.

Reflecting on the time, Phillips continued, saying: “I just felt: ‘Well I’ve turned professional now and my dad got me the seat, he’s seen me play professionally, he saw me score a professional goal. I don’t really want to carry on.’ Part of me as a kid wanted to do it for my parents, it’s only as you grow older that you want to do it for your family and you want to do it for yourself and be successful and achieve.

“I always played with him in the back of my head, as you do. You see a lot of players who’ve lost people in their lives and when they score a goal they look to the heavens. I kind of had that inner strength because I knew that he was watching over me and it really drove me on to succeed.”

But supporting Phillips through that challenging time was another name familiar to the Crystal Palace faithful: Kenny Sansom. It was Sansom - then a 36-year-old veteran - who stepped in for Phillips, 15-years his junior, as ballast.

“I have nothing but good words to say about Kenny,” Phillips reflects. “We were away in Portugal [on a pre-season tour] at the time... Kenny flew back with me, he made sure I got home, he looked after me and took me under his wing.

“He was like a rock to me, to be honest. I hold him in high regard. At that time, I wasn’t keen on playing football anymore and Kenny was one of the main reasons I kept going.”

Recounting events himself, Sansom spoke with to reflect on the time and said: "I was the first-team coach and I know what it’s like. When he said his dad passed away and the club said he best go home, I just said to the manager: ‘I’ll go with him because he’s not going to enjoy it on his own.’

"I didn’t want him to travel on his own. I thought it was important that someone travelled with him so I made that decision. He was pretty good, he kept a smile on his face even though I know he was hurting deep down. I got him home safely to his family."

But travelling home was only part of Phillips' battle and supporting the now-47-year-old in being willing to continue his career despite the absence of his earliest inspiration was the main challenge for Sansom, who suggests he merely kept the 21-year-old talking about something he had an evident passion for.

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"When he was travelling home," Sansom recalls, "I tried to talk football to him, try to make him forget about what had happened to his family and his father. He had to keep concentrating on football. I said: 'It’s important, you’ve got to enjoy it.'"

And today, 26-years later with Phillips having played over 650 career games, how does looking back feel?

"Really fantastic, to actually do that for someone and then for someone to admit that I helped them is really-" Sansom interrupts himself and pauses: "I didn’t do it for that reason," he continues after a moment.

"I did it purely because I knew he was going to need someone sitting next to him. I didn’t do it for me or for anything else, I did it because I knew he needed that sort of help. I just wanted to make sure that he had someone by his side. I’m just touched he appreciates it many, many years later."

It was the iconic Sir Bobby Robson who, speaking on what it is that defines a football club, famously once said: "It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love."

Fortunately for Phillips, his father Ray was there to grip his hand and lead him up the steps to the hallowed stretch of turf beneath him, where he would go on to forge a remarkable career at the forefront of English football. But, and perhaps just as fortunately, there was Kenny too: keeping that career going and guiding another man's early support to emphatically proud fruition.

READ NEXT: Programme exclusive: McArthur on gritty Glasgow upbringing

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