Ageless Jermain Defoe defying Sunderland’s horror show

This season has been an unmitigated disaster for Sunderland. By any measure, even the most optimistic one, it has been a terrible campaign.

Jermain Defoe

Sunderland's Jermain Defoe Source: Press Association

The club’s only chance of surviving the axe now rests on a complicated mathematical formula being worked on by PhD students at the local university.

Five games left, 12 points from safety, albeit with a game in hand on all other relegation rivals. Stranger things, as they say.

But if we’re honest, using the word ‘rivals’ is generous. Sunderland will go down and the only miracle that might occur is that the Black Cats will yank themselves off the bottom of the Premier League table.

Quite extraordinarily, they have the dubious distinction of finishing last in the Premier League twice already – first in 2002-03, then again in 2005-06. They were two of the worst ever teams to set foot in the top flight, racking up just 15 points and 19 points respectively.

That tally has already been eclipsed this season but the 21 points earned by David Moyes’s men in 33 games is a damning indictment.

But if there is one silver lining, it is this man: Jermain Defoe.

Be sure to get a look at him in tonight’s match against Bournemouth (LIVE on SBS, 11:30pm AEDT), for who knows what his future holds.

Whether it's the booze-free lifestyle or vegan diet that makes the difference, Defoe is playing with the same energy and vigour as someone half his age.

At 34-years-old, he should be winding down his career. And the real miracle is that he actually did exactly that in 2014, leaving his beloved Tottenham to sign with MLS expansion club Toronto FC.

Quitting the Premier League can’t have been an easy decision, but Defoe had fallen down the pecking order in 2013-14, scoring just one league goal and being restricted largely to cup and continental matches.

Leaving for the riches of North America seemed like a sensible option for the last leg of a fading career. He signed a four-year deal capped at $156,000 per week: a very happy finale indeed.

But 11 goals in 19 MLS games seemed to spark something within. It was as though he remembered how to do all the things he used to do. Creating chances for others whilst proving deadly every time he was around goal.

However, injuries – and therefore criticism – mounted late in the campaign. Oddly enough, it was led by Toronto FC’s own president, Tim Leiweke – who made an unfavourable comparison about Defoe’s dedication when compared to David Beckham. It stung Defoe.

“I’ve heard managers say I’m the most committed player they’ve ever had. I can say this because it’s the truth. I don’t drink. I take care of my body,” he told the Guardian soon after Leiweke’s taunt.

“That’s why, at 32, I’m sharper than ever. My record here, even restricted by injury, is good. I always want to play well and score goals. I had that same attitude on the playground. I always want that buzz of winning and scoring. Nothing gets close to it.”

It would have been easy to stick around in Toronto and soak up the high life of an international city, where he could ease his way through the remaining years of his huge contract.

Instead, he went looking for the "buzz". And Sunderland (where glamour simply doesn’t exist) were having problems of their own with American striker Jozy Altidore, a player with a fantastic scoring record everywhere except England. They swapped clubs.

Few expected much from Defoe, given he’d already fallen in prominence at Spurs. A year in the US on an ageing body can’t have helped much, or so it seemed.

How wrong the doubters were.

Joining in January 2015, Defoe would add four goals before the end of that season before exploding to life in the 2015-16 campaign, finishing with 15 goals.

But they were more than goals. These strikes were about survival. Sunderland took 12 points in their final six games, securing safety that seemed impossible in March. Unthinkably, they finished two points clear of relegated arch-enemies Newcastle. Defoe was hailed as a town hero.

While Defoe’s form has continued (quite magnificently) this season, his teammates have not picked up the slack. He’s already eclipsed last season’s goal tally, earning himself an England recall. He might even be a chance to go to Russia next year.

Most of the talk this season has been about how well Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been going for his age, and rightly so. But Defoe, in a far weaker team, has been superb pound-for-pound.

Indeed, while Sunderland might be going down, one can hope their evergreen striker isn’t lost to the Premiership just yet.

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5 min read
Published 29 April 2017 at 8:35am
By Sebastian Hassett