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Jermain Defoe: the rise of a Premier League legend

At the turn of the century, a young English striker made his debut for West Ham producing the winner in their League Cup fixture verses Walsall. His name was Jermain Defoe, and it was a sign of things to come.

He cut a diminutive figure at 5’7”, yet technique and assassin-like quality in the box attracted the eye of Bournemouth and he was sent out on loan. After an incredibly promising spell for the Cherries, Defoe generated great praise from then Hammers manager Harry Redknapp stating “He’s a kid with a bright future”. Redknapp clearly thought highly of the Londoner and formed a career long bond as the two became regular accomplices.    

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Merely a year later, Defoe had burst into the Hammers first team and finished the season as West Hams top scorer with 14 strikes in all competitions. That included grabbing the winner at Old Trafford – all this by the age of 20. Greatness loomed, however his goals the following campaign proved helpless in preventing West Ham from relegation.

Handing in a transfer request less than 24 hours after the drop did little to endear himself to fans, despite a swift apology the damage was done. In January of the following season he was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for £7 million, Bobby Zamora went the other way as a makeweight.

It was at White Hart Lane Defoe really began to attract attention, hitting the ground running in typical fashion with a goal against Portsmouth in a 4-3 win on his debut. His relentless poaching quickly made him a fan favourite, so much so the season ticket holders voted him Player of the Year for 2004.

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Nevertheless, impressive performances were not enough to maintain a first team position, as he was regularly rotated with Robbie Keane during the Martin Jol era – the Dutchman rarely started them as a pair. The following season’s addition of European competition via the UEFA Cup solved this problem due to more frequent games.

Spurs produced a run to the quarter finals losing to eventual champions Sevilla. The acquisition of Darren Bent prior to the 2007/08 campaign lead to intense speculation about Defoe’s future and the following January he departed to reunite with former manager Redknapp at Portsmouth.

It worked to great effect, five goals in his first five Portsmouth games aided in ensuring Pompey’s Premier League survival that season. The highlight of which was undoubtedly an equaliser against Chelsea on his debut.

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Unfortunately Defoe missed Tottenham’s League Cup triumph that campaign due to signing for Portsmouth and was also unavailable for his new side’s historic FA Cup win later that year, having previously played in the competition for Spurs.

Shortly after delivering Portsmouth’s first piece of major silverware in 58 years, Redknapp left for Tottenham and in January Defoe followed suit, proving to be the most successful spell of his career. Regardless of the multiple personal achievements, a major trophy has remained out of reach for Defoe and he would likely have been gutted about missing another final in 2009. The North London side eventually lost to Manchester United, while the Englishman remained sidelined through injury. Watching the goalless draw must have proved frustrating, as he wasn’t able to bolster his squad’s attacking options or take a potentially vital spot kick.

In November 2009, Tottenham dismantled Wigan Athletic 9-1 with Defoe responsible for five of the goals, including a seven minute hat-trick. Only four other players have managed the five goal feat in a single Premier League game. Although, Defoe is rarely spoken of in the same breath as Alan Shearer, Sergio Aguero, Andy Cole or Dimitar Berbatov. Regardless of his prolific nature the former Tottenham man is often wrongfully disregarded when comparing the leagues greatest strikers, his ruthless consistency reminiscent of a certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy. 

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After an ill-fated move to the MLS, the Englishman hastily returned to the Premier League with Sunderland and continually proved the difference between them and relegation – carrying the side through multiple campaigns. Often appearing desperate for a move away from the Stadium of Light, he was deemed too valuable to relinquish, David Moyes labelled him “priceless”. Eventually, relegation caught up with the Black Cats after serially flirting with the prospect and Defoe was allowed to leave on a free transfer.

This summer marked Defoe’s return to Bournemouth, his career coming full circle 17 years later. While he may not appear as prolific, it’s evident he still has a hunger to succeed.

Throughout an 18 year career he’s hit double figures in 11 separate seasons, which is a simply remarkable feat at this standard. The question remains, why did a move to a Champions League regular consistently elude him? He currently as the Premier League’s seventh all-time top scorer on 162 – just one shy of Robbie Fowler. The players surrounding him on that list all challenged for major honours, victorious in countless competitions. It begs another question, just how many more goals could Defoe have buried if provided with similar service?

Retirement isn’t out of the question at the end of the season, as injury has stalled this campaign. Although, he still appears highly motivated, another 16 goals between now and retirement would leave him as the Premier Leagues fourth most prolific striker. Even so, it’s about time fans started giving Defoe the respect he deserves for his phenomenal accomplishments. 

Written by Harvey Sayer.

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