Jermain Defoe, and the most unlikely renaissance

Date published: Friday 30th June 2017 3:10

Time can be a cruel mistress. It is a relentless, unforgiving measure, one which can make the beautiful look ugly, the cherished become forgotten, and the sensible appear foolish.

Consider that when reading the headline from a London Evening Standard article in January 2014. ‘Jermain Defoe is sadly wasting his talent by effectively retiring from top-level football,’ it reads, still intact, still preserved by the ravages of time.

Three-and-a-half years on, and Defoe has signed a deal almost as long to join Bournemouth, while his recent return to the England fold was another chapter in an endearing career resurrection.

Of course, the Evening Standard column was hardly the outlier in terms of opinions at the time. When Defoe secured his move to Toronto FC in early 2014, the common consensus was that he was bringing his Premier League career to an end. Many depart the bright lights of the top flight in their 30s; few ever make a meaningful return.

Defoe scored 11 times in 19 appearances in MLS – not many players can claim to guarantee goals as honestly as the 35-year-old can – yet he was hardly a much-loved figure in Canada. “It was hurtful,” he told The Guardian of criticism he had faced during his 12 months abroad. “When I saw the comments I was hurt. It’s so far from the truth. Football and commitment? Come on, man, that’s built into me.”

In the same interview, the striker is described as ‘tugging at his diamond-studded earlobe, and shrugging at a surreal existence’. For years, from West Ham to Bournemouth, Tottenham to Portsmouth and back again, this was the picture many painted of Defoe: the typical modern-day footballer; a preening, self-absorbed individual obsessed with money and publicity.

The case of evidence was simple. He had refused to sign a new contract for West Ham, with disciplinary issues marring his final few months with his first senior club in 2004. One day after the Hammers were relegated to Division One, he submitted a transfer request.

By 2013, he would admit his “massive mistake”. He had been poorly advised by his agent. “I didn’t really want to do it,” he said. “The person who represented me at the time said, ‘You need to hand in a transfer request and get in early because all the lads are going to leave’. But it is Defoe who continues to carry the burden of a Judas for many West Ham fans.

Combine that with a storied (and irrelevant) relationship history, the aforementioned ear stud, and an advert for a personal assistant in 2015 which included, among other job requirements: ‘Creating a global brand for the Jermain Defoe name’ and ‘Producing Jermain Defoe iPhone apps’, and you have the perfect recipe for, again, the typical modern-day footballer.

It could not be further from the truth. Defoe’s return to Bournemouth, where he scored 19 goals in one wonderful season on loan in 2000, brings an underrated career full circle, but this is also a U-turn for the striker as an individual.

“I feel blessed to have played for such a great football club with some of the best fans I have ever come across,” he said, departing Sunderland after two-and-a-half years. “The highlight of my time has to be walking out with Bradley against Everton and that volley against Newcastle – a goal people still come up and talk to me about!!”

Defoe’s goals have endeared him to each of his clubs – Toronto aside – but it is his relationship with young Bradley Lowery which has painted a more accurate picture to the neutral, and even the rival: one of a compassionate, caring and wholly misunderstood individual.

The 35-year-old has been able to rely on goals to restore his reputation as a footballer, but his reputation as a man has taken an even more remarkable journey. The return to Bournemouth is just the cherry on top.


Matt Stead


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