They are football’s punctuation – the end point, for better or worse, of every promising beginning. Perpetually one swing of the boot from hero worship, one bitter bobble from ridicule, they carry the game’s greatest burden. This is why it’s often suggested that strikers are born, rather than made. And Kevin Phillips agrees – but only partially.
“You can always get better,” Phillips tells The Independent. “There’s a difference in terms of anticipation, being in the right place at the right time – I think you’re born with that. But in terms of finishing, you can 100 per cent get better.”
It’s a viewpoint informed by a career which saw Phillips climb from non-league beginnings to become one the Premier League’s deadliest goalscorers, and the only Englishman ever to win the European Golden Shoe. Released by Southampton as a teenager before dropping to semi-professional level with Baldock Town, Phillips went on to score 92 Premier League goals – including 30 in his maiden top-flight campaign in 1999/2000 – through spells with Sunderland, a return to Saints, Aston Villa and Birmingham City, earning eight England caps along the way.
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“My finishing certainly got better over the years,” Phillips says. “You can do all the practising in the world in training, about trying to be in the right place at the right time, but that instinct is something you’re just born with. But in terms of actual technique, you can certainly work on that.”
Although he wasn’t an avid watcher of football growing up – preferring instead to spend every free moment playing the game – Phillips held a particular admiration for Gary Lineker and Clive Allen, two of the most prolific poachers of their era. Through observing the former Tottenham pair, the young Phillips began to understand the singlemindedness required to score consistently at the highest level.
“These boys were ultimate finishers,” Phillips says of Lineker and Allen, whom he began to model his game on. “Outside the box, link-up play: you wouldn’t say it was their strongest point. But when the ball was in and around the penalty area, that selfishness kicked in, that desire, that hunger.”
From a technical standpoint, though, Phillips’ greatest influence was another Spurs legend, albeit one he never witnessed first hand, and who belonged to a distant era, with the lessons instead passed down by his father.
“My dad told me when I was a kid that Jimmy Greaves, one of his heroes, said you’ll score more goals by passing the ball into the back of the net than you will by smashing it,” Phillips remembers. “And that stuck in my mind ever since. When I think about the majority of my finishes over the course of my career, they were passed into the net; just guiding it into the corners.
“My preferred corner was the keeper’s left-hand side, because I liked to cut in on my right foot, and try to set it outside the post and bend it in. If you get the right connection, you don’t need to smash it, it’s just about placing it.”
When it came to working to perfect his craft, Phillips, who has coached at Leicester, Derby and Stoke since retiring, was an advocate of repetition and realism in training. In his view, a practise drill is only worthwhile if it reflects an in-game scenario, and true gains come only through hard hours.
“I understand that it’s not the same, but you’ve got to get it as close as you possibly can [to recreating match situations],” He says. “There’s all sorts of drills you can practise to make you better in terms of finishing. There are drills you can do with mannequins: coming in off the left-hand side, dropping your shoulder, little step-over, shift it and then curl it. It’s about repetition in training. One-on-ones with a defender is more realistic.
“One of the biggest things that stood out with me with Jamie [Vardy] was that he was a fantastic player but everything was 100 miles per hour with him,” Phillips says, reflecting back on his coaching the now prolific Foxes forward. “And that kind of related to his finishing. He would get himself a lot of opportunities and he’d smash them straight at the keeper.
“One of the things I started to help him with was: can you start to think about passing it into the corners? That sounds so obvious, but he may never have really been taught that on the training ground. It might have all been about: ‘I’ve got to hit the target.’ Well, yes, you do, but can you think through your process when you’re through on goal? Or, when you get half a yard, can you start curling it into the corners?
“I’m not saying that I’m responsible for Jamie going on and scoring a lot of goals, but I certainly think, with his finishes now, he must have taken on board some of what we were teaching him. Coaching on the training ground is hugely important in terms of finishing.”
And while he had a preferred method of finding the net, Phillips preaches the importance of a striker owning a wide arsenal of finishing techniques. “You need to practise all types of finishes. I’m only 5ft 7ins, but I scored a lot of goals with my head over my career. That came from practising heading a lot when I was a youngster – the timing.”
It is easy to ascribe a certain clarity of forethought and intent to a striker’s work after the fact. We assume the ball was destined for the corner it settled in long before the scorer drew back their foot, because they’d scouted the goalkeeper’s position, anticipated the defender’s movement and played the whole move out in their head seconds in advance. More often than not, though, it is a matter of the striker reacting to changing scenarios so quickly as to appear almost clairvoyant.
“The thought process changes every time because the picture changes,” Phillips says. “But you’ve got to have that selfishness in your thought process: ‘That ball is going to come to me. This ball is going nowhere else but to my head or my foot.’”
Along with the requisite selfish streak, and the technical ability to reliably find the corner of the goal, there is an underplayed psychological element to a striker’s remit – from the macro level of carrying the scoring responsibility of a team across a season, to the micro of dispatching high-pressure chances in tight games.
“If you go through one-on-one, the psychology of that comes into it hugely,” Phillips says. “It’s just you and the goalkeeper: who’s going to outwit who? In training, you practise that. You’ll have done your homework on the goalkeeper and have a picture in your mind about which side he prefers to go down.
“Players will go through one-on-one and they won’t score, and you’ll think, from the outside looking in, ‘You shouldn’t miss’. But psychologically they’re the hardest ones to score. In terms of the instinctive finishing, psychologically it’s more about you, not the keeper – it’s about picking your spot.”
There is a reason why a special kind of glory is reserved for goalscorers. Putting the ball in the net, it is widely agreed, is the most difficult thing to do in football. Those best at it combine natural instincts with a lifetime’s study in the game’s subtlest art.