Even the most ardent of Sunderland supporters would admit that they have been circling the drain in the Premier League for far too long.
They have finished 17th, 14th, 16th and 17th in the last four seasons, with their ambitions in the top flight seemingly limited to surviving for one more year.
These are not the surroundings in which you’d expect to find one of the league’s very best strikers. Places at the top squads are usually reserved for prime striking talent but Jermain Defoe adds star quality to this otherwise workmanlike Sunderland squad.
Last weekend, in a 3-0 home win against Hull City, Defoe scored his seventh goal of the season in his 12th match. He is the top scoring Englishman in the division and behind only mega signings Diego Costa and Sergio Aguero in the rankings. It goes without saying that those two play for better clubs – with better players – and so it’s a testament to Defoe’s enduring qualities that he belongs in their company.
The tidy left-footed shot against Hull brought up Defoe’s 150th Premier League goal. He has scored in each of the last 16 Premier League seasons. He is seventh on the all-time scoring list alongside Michael Owen, with only bona fide Premier League royalty like Robbie Fowler, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, Andrew Cole, Wayne Rooney and Alan Shearer ahead of him. He is the top scoring English player of the season so far and only Harry Kane among his fellow countrymen has scored more goals in 2016 as a whole. No one player has done more to help Sunderland stay alive since he joined in the winter of 2015.
By leaving for Toronto FC in 2014, it appeared that Defoe was ready to call time on his career at the top level. That move probably cost him his place in the England squad for the 2014 World Cup and he gave up on MLS barely a year after joining. Sunderland was not the most glamorous of locations to head back to but Defoe’s professionalism, dedication and talent have shone through.
His four goals in his first half-season were worth 10 points to the Black Cats – including three points against Newcastle in the Tyne-Wear derby in which Defoe scored a tear-inducing winning goal.
Last season his 15 league goals were worth 20 points to a team that finished two points outside the relegation zone. He scored a last-minute equaliser against Liverpool at Anfield and a late winner against Chelsea. Those two goals alone probably kept Sunderland up all told. There was also a memorable hat-trick against Swansea into the bargain.
This season his seven goals have already earned seven points for David Moyes’ side and in total he’s banged in 26 league goals in only 62 games since joining.
That is a formidable record for a striker who is now 34. There is no stopping him. Yet there is no great clamour for his signature – bigger clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United would certainly benefit from his skills – nor is there a great campaign for him to return to the England squad. He missed out on World Cup duty in 2006 and 2014 and should have many more than the 55 caps he has earned. Nonetheless, Defoe rolls on supremely.
Sunderland have recently picked up a bit of form and no longer look a sure bet for dead last place as they did a few short weeks ago. Defoe’s goals – and willingness to perform – are infectious and are helping spread a little belief in Moyes’ charges. They will still be fighting for their Premier League lives come the end of the season but if Defoe continues his current form then they’ll be just fine.