On the Wright track in Owen's footsteps

Who's who for 2002: Jermain Defoe: Premier prodigy
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The Independent Football

The problem with Jermain Defoe is that he has no problems. Not content with being the country's most promising centre-forward, he is also a legend at one club, a postwar record goalscorer, on the way to being a Premiership regular for West Ham,and a first-choice striker for the England Under-21s. Oh, and he is still only 19.

Not since the emergence of another famous Lilleshall graduate has there been such excitement surrounding a young striker. It was around this time four years ago that the then little-known Michael Owen was beginning to make a name for himself with Liverpool. By the following summer, the teenager had sufficiently impressed Glenn Hoddle to be selected for England's World Cup squad.

Defoe is predictably keen for history to repeat itself in 2002. "I can still remember watching Michael at France 98," he says. "All the Lilleshall lads at the time were so excited that one of the old boys was doing well. I thought then, and I still do, that if he's done it, then so can I."

If Defoe's club manager has anything to do with it, the boy many are labelling the new Ian Wright will probably fail to make it to next summer's World Cup. Glenn Roeder is the youngster's greatest fan, but feels that he needs to be protected from over-exposure in the early part of his career.

"We are very pleased with Jermain's progress," he says, "but I feel that my policy of dipping him in and out is the right one. Jermain Defoe as a regular starter is about next season. For now, protecting him is key."

Despite the merits of Roeder's concern, the truth is that the player himself holds the key to his World Cup participation. True, Defoe would prefer to start more League matches for West Ham, but the history books will show that Owen was not an automatic Liverpool selection when he broke into the national set-up. Quite simply, if Defoe continues to score goals at the rate he is doing now, his England chance will come.

"I would be very happy to go to the Under-21 European Championship in Switzerland," Defoe says, with just a hint of restraint, before adding: "But, of course, my dream is to push my way into the plans of the senior team. If I keep on working hard, then there's a chance. I have another five months to prove myself and I am going to make sure that I don't waste a second."

Defoe made his West Ham debut against Walsall in the Worthington Cup and yes, you guessed it, he scored. "I was 17 at the time," he recalls, "so that really gave me confidence. After that I went to Bournemouth and everything fell into place from there. I needed to play regular first-team football if I was to progress, and those few months allowed me to do just that."

The Bournemouth affair will always be remembered for one particular sequence – a goalscoring run which began on 28 October 2000 at Stoke and finally ended 10 League matches later against Cambridge, two goals short of Dixie Dean's all-time record of 12 in 12 successive games. Not that Defoe ever set out to better the postwar scoring mark of John Aldridge and Kevin Russell. "It wasn't until the seventh match in which I'd scored that I realised there was a record," he says. "Before then, I was just going about my business. But the fans and the media were suddenly showing an interest and I realised this was big. I must admit I started to feel the pressure."

It took Defoe all of six months to do what all young players dream of and become a legend at a professional club. Now all he needs to do is build the same reputation at Premiership level. The man who was alleged to have poached Defoe from London neighbours Charlton Athletic (a tribunal eventually set a now cheap-looking fee of £800,000) and then gave him his Hammers debut is in no doubt he will make the grade.

"Jermain has got a natural goalscoring instinct and he reminds me of Ian Wright," Harry Redknapp says. "He has got that little bit of arrogance on the pitch, believing he can score every time. If Jermain proves to be anything like Wrighty then he will be incredible."

Defoe is flattered: "Ian is my absolute hero. I have videos at home of him playing, and whenever I have a few spare moments I always watch them. I learn something new every time."

Another manager who clearly believes in the striker's ability is the England Under-21 coach, David Platt. No sooner had he replaced Howard Wilkinson – who had seen Defoe score on his debut, against Mexico in May – than he had made Defoe his preferred choice at No 10.

"I was still in the Second Division at Bournemouth at the time," Defoe says, "so it was quite a big deal. Most of the other guys were playing regularly for Premiership teams and here I was being thrown in at the deep end. It was a bit scary, but exciting too."

Defoe has so impressed since that he now finds himself in the unusual position of being an automatic starter for his country, but not always for his club. "I am not going to say that I don't want to play 90 minutes every week for West Ham," says Defoe, who made a rare start yesterday, "but I understand the manager's decision. I am still young and I am learning the game. When you think of what I have achieved in a short space of time, I have to be pleased with the way things are going."

This time last year, Defoe was sharing his time between the West Ham reserves and the club's Under-19 side. Who knows, by this time next year he might have set the summer's big tournament in Japan and Korea alight in much the same way as Owen did at France 98.

Even the cautious Roeder is starting to buckle. "I don't like building young kids up," he says, "but I must admit that Jermain has the world at his feet." Defoe is not even asking for the world – just a taste of the World Cup.