Tim Sherwood column: For Jermain Defoe goals are everything - that's just what Sunderland need

EXCLUSIVE: You only needed to look at him when he came off not having scored. It bothered him

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It struck me last February that Jermain Defoe had left the Premier League too early, and his return to Sunderland comes as no surprise given the quantity of goals he has scored over his career. Gus Poyet needs goals to make sure Sunderland stay in the division, so he has turned to a man with 124 of them in his Premier League career so far.

On more than one occasion when I was at Tottenham Hotspur over the years I heard the criticism, “Jermain does nothing on the pitch besides score goals”. It is one of the most ridiculous statements I have heard in football but there really were people who believed that it was not enough for him to justify his place at the club.

By the time I was in charge at Spurs, Jermain was struggling with injuries and his place in the team was taken by Emmanuel Adebayor, who was on a great run of form. But when Jermain was fit he would always be on the bench and he scored in his penultimate game, against Crystal Palace, his last goal at White Hart Lane. The players carried him off shoulder-high after he played his last match for the club against Everton in February.

If he plays today at Spurs, I am sure the reception for him will be excellent, although every home fan will be worried that Jermain will do what they have seen him do so many times before: score a goal from nothing.


His strengths were those of an old-fashioned poacher. We used to have so many of them in the game – Ian Wright, Andy Cole, Gary Lineker, Ian Rush, Clive Allen – although these days you see fewer of them. For Jermain, the goals were everything. I am sure that he would always say in public that he did not mind who scored as long as the team won but you needed only to look at his demeanour when he came off the pitch not having got one himself. It bothered him.

Jermain has the basics of a great striker: strength, pace and two good feet. One of his chief skills was being able to work an opportunity on the edge of the area. He had sharp feet which would allow him to steal a yard on a defender and get a shot away with minimal back-lift. It was all done in the blink of an eye and his best goals were in the net before the goalkeeper had time to react. He has been doing it for a long time, too: he was just 18 when he began that great goalscoring run on loan at Bournemouth.

Defoe poses in his new Sunderland shirt

Jermain pursues goalscoring opportunities right to the end. He is never satisfied with what he has got; he always wants more. I recall a 9-1 win for Spurs over Wigan Athletic in 2009 when Harry Redknapp was in charge. Jermain scored five of them, all in the second half, the last of his goals in the 87th minute.

He was never a moment’s trouble around the training ground and you could see in the sessions that he had that hunger to score goals. He would train hard and was a great finisher in the small-sided games we played. It was no accident that he was primed and ready to go come matchday.

Jermain’s record for Toronto FC in Canada looked pretty good, which suggests he has lost none of his sharpness. I would also say that going to a club in the north for the first time in his career means that he is out of his usual London comfort zone. It would suggest that he has a real eagerness to play. There are not many strikers of his age getting three-year deals either, a sign of his quality.

He replaces Jozy Altidore, a striker for whom it has not worked out in the Premier League. He has scored just once in the league for Sunderland, although previously his record was excellent for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands. It just goes to show that making a judgement on how players from that league will perform in England is very difficult. For every Ruud van Nistelrooy or Luis Suarez, you can get the likes of Ricky van Wolfswinkel or Altidore who just struggle to adapt. It is not just the Eredivisie, either.

Defoe has joined Sunderland on a three-and-a-half year deal

I have scouted a lot of players in the Netherlands, and other European nations, and the style is so different to the Premier League that it is hard to satisfy yourself that the individual you are watching will be able to do it in England. With Sunderland’s survival in the Premier League by no means a given, it is telling that Gus has turned to a striker whom he has worked with before and whom he knows can score goals in the Premier League. In his situation, the fewer risks he takes, the better.

Clubs soon learn after letting a star’s contract run down

Once a player reaches the last six months of his contract, like Danny Ings or Winston Reid, you can be certain that they will not be re-signing with their club. They reach that stage for a variety of reasons but you tend to find that once a club loses one valuable player that way, it does not happen again. I was in the Tottenham dressing room when Sol Campbell left for Arsenal in 2001, probably the most infamous free agent move of them all.

Sol had not been offered the deal he wanted early enough in his contract negotiations and gradually time ran out for Spurs without them taking the initiative. By the time they made an offer, his mind was made up to go. It caused outrage among the Tottenham fans but in the dressing room it was different. Footballers are pragmatic. Team-mates are there one day and gone the next. The club will get rid of you if they need to, and the rule of thumb is to make sure you look after yourself. The only loyal people in the game are the fans.

By and large, footballers care most about whether they are in the team or not. They don’t try to influence the things they cannot control. Sol didn’t exactly advertise the fact he was going to join Arsenal, so we never discussed it with him. Funnily enough, as the controversy outside raged about Sol and what he had done, I am not sure the players ever really discussed it. Spurs never forgot the lesson, though,  and they certainly never made the same mistake with a player’s contract again.