An Ode to Jermain Defoe, English Soccer's Great Survivor
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An Ode to Jermain Defoe, English Soccer's Great Survivor

Three years ago Jermain Defoe appeared obsolete and had departed English football for Major League Soccer. Few could have predicted his prolific late-career resurrection, nor the vital role he would play at struggling Sunderland.
February 10, 2017, 3:17pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jermain Defoe's place at the top end of this season's scoring charts (he's currently joint third) is that he should, to put it bluntly, be obsolete. In fact, a decade ago, he pretty much was – and it was Darren Bent who'd signed his death certificate.

Odd as it may seem now, Tottenham's signing of Bent in the summer of 2007 appeared worryingly ominous for Defoe. There was the obvious threat to his place in the starting 11, but it also seemed broadly symbolic of the way his breed of penalty-box striker was falling out of favour. While once 4-4-2 was the norm (Defoe having spent the best part of half a decade battling Robbie Keane for the 'little man' spot up front, a contest the Irishman won on points), the mid-noughties had seen the lone-forward system spread around the Premier League like wildfire, the trend set by a twinkle-eyed scamp named Jose Mourinho. It looked like Defoe's style of impish centre-forward play was in the process of being supplanted by a wholly modern breed of striker: a muscle-bound track and field athlete who, as well as offering the odd goal, would sprint, harangue and bully their way through every 90 minutes.

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Within the space of a couple of years, England's leading clubs had dispensed with the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Michael Owen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in favour of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba, and Bent's move to White Hart Lane looked like another instance of the same process. Sure enough, Defoe only started three more league games for Spurs before being offloaded to Portsmouth, a less glamorous side in the Premier League's lower reaches, midway through the following season.

This photo came with a pre-written caption – "Jermain Defoe looks unhappy as another chance goes begging" – which sums it up pretty well // PA Images

He made the return journey, of course, a year later, by then a firm member of the ensemble that Harry Redknapp ferried from the south cost to north London. But the second of his two five-year stints at White Hart Lane rather reflected the first: yet again, Defoe never quite established himself as the club's go-to goalscorer. Only once was he picked to start more than 20 league games (it happened just twice in his first spell), and just as Keane's precedence in the two-up-top setup had confined him to the periphery the first time round, so this time he found the striking slots fewer in number, and often occupied by more modern, more mobile prototypes: Clint Dempsey, Emmanuel Adebayor, Roberto Soldado and latterly Gareth Bale.

Where before he was simply out of favour, now he was becoming something far more ominous: out of fashion. His move to MLS side Toronto FC in January 2014 looked for all the world to mark the conclusion of a prolific yet strangely unfulfilled Premier League career for a striker who, hindsight suggested, had simply had the bad luck of being born 10 years too late. Looking back, Defoe's coming of age, in the first half of the noughties, coincided almost exactly with the point at which his model of striker became a thing of the past, the precise time that his pocket-sized forebears – the likes of Andy Cole, Kevin Phillips and Andy Johnson – were being replaced in the top-scorers' charts by towering übermenschen like Drogba, Ronaldo, Adebayor – and Darren Bent.

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All the more odd, then, that a full 10 years after Bent superseded Defoe in the Spurs ranks, the former can be found toiling away semi-fruitlessly in England's second tier while Defoe, a year his senior, is in the most emphatically prolific form of his life, his unremitting flow of goals having single-handedly kept Sunderland's head above water for two years and counting.

Perhaps the Bent/Defoe contrast means little beyond the diverging career paths of two individuals. Yet it does seem a significant point of comparison for Defoe, in that it demonstrates how he has proven himself on his own terms. Defoe's vindication over the past two years has not been the result of any grand reinvention. He hasn't gone back to the drawing board and attempted to imitate his successors, but simply stuck to what he was always best at: belting the ball – cleanly, simply and with resolutely no frills – past the opposition goalkeeper. Like Schwarzenegger's clanking T-800 pummelling his liquid-metal counterpart into submission, Defoe has held his own by staying true to his ways.

Bent celebrates, while Defoe very certainly doesn't // PA Images

There have been minor tweaks and improvement to his game – he's more comfortable with his back to goal these days, runs the channels more readily, and is more of a leader – but his central MO of pared-back predatory finishing has remained unchanged; his trademark manoeuvre is still the 'shift it, blam it' ploy, often executed in a crowded penalty area. Whereas some ageing strikers (think Alan Shearer or Wayne Rooney) become unrecognisable from their younger selves, the Defoe of today is little more than a upgraded and improved version of the kid who was rattling them in for Bournemouth – in each of his first 10 outings as a professional, remarkably enough – nigh on two decades ago.

His late-career productivity is especially impressive given how most strikers of his build and tend to age about as well as Mickey Rourke. Cast an eye over the goal records of Owen, Fowler, Yorke, Cole, Bellamy – they all drop off a cliff at around 30, if not sooner. It's perhaps no coincidence that Defoe's status as an outlier here bears comparison to that of his childhood idol Ian Wright, another penalty-box finisher whose thirties heralded a silver streak, and who has remained something of a mentor to Defoe ever since taking the 16-year-old under his wing at West Ham.

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Defoe may not be the Premier League's best player, but it's clear that he's the most valuable. No side's fortunes hinge on one man as much as Sunderland's do on Defoe. He has scored or assisted a staggering two-thirds of their goals this season and, with Ellis Short looking to sell up and next season's top-tier windfall vital in attracting a buyer, no club has as much to lose.

Relegation should look a far more ominous prospect to Sunderland than to their fellow scrappers, and yet, thanks to Defoe's guarantee of goals, survival should look a far more realistic one, too. They currently sit rock bottom of the league, so escape would require a refusal to perish allied with a late upsurge. There's no one better placed to lead the way in that regard than Defoe, English football's great survivor.

@A_Hess