The clearest indication yet that Kevin Phillips’ future lies away from Sunderland came today when his number 10 shirt was handed to Marcus Stewart.
Manager Mick McCarthy revealed his hand as the new squad numbers were announced, and Phillips, who will wear 19 if he is still at the club when the big kick-off arrives on August 9, is not the only big name to be affected.
Keeper Thomas Sorensen, another of those who appeared to have played his last game for the Black Cats in the final-day defeat by Arsenal at the Stadium of Light on May 11, has been given the number 25 shirt with Estonian international Mart Poom taking over at number one.
Skipper Michael Gray, midfielders Gavin McCann and Claudio Reyna and striker Tore Andre Flo, all of whom have been linked with moves away from Wearside, have also slipped down the pecking order with record signing Flo, who wore nine last season, having to make do with 29.
“As far as Kevin, Thomas and Gavin are concerned, for example, the squad numbers simply reflect the fact that these players are in ongoing discussions with various clubs and the likelihood is that they won’t be at the football club that much longer,” McCarthy told the club’s official website, www.safc.com.
“I’ve got to accept that. I’ve spoken to the players involved in changes in numbers before going public with the squad list and they don’t have a problem with it.”
Phillips, perhaps the debt-ridden club’s biggest asset, has been courted by Rangers, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough, but his valuation – thought to be in the region of £4m (€5.6m) – has proved a stumbling block.
Sorensen and McCann – now number 41 – have attracted the attention of Aston Villa while Everton have admitted their interest in the midfielder, Reyna is a target for Blackburn and Flo has turned down the chance of a move to Turkey.
Emerson Thome, currently on trial at Rangers and Phil Babb, were both told they could leave the club on free transfers at the end of last season and have been handed 37 and 18 respectively.
McCarthy has spent the last few months busily trying to plan for the new season knowing that he is unlikely to have many of his most experienced and best players on board because of the club’s crippling financial problems.
However, the failure to offload the big earners is severely limiting his efforts to assemble a squad for the Division One campaign.