Phil Smith: Jermain Defoe’s Sunderland career came to a disappointing end but he’ll be remembered as a great

Jermain Defoe in training with England.
Jermain Defoe in training with England.
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It was impossible not feel a pang of regret as Jermain Defoe took to the airwaves on Tuesday.

The dimunitive striker was describing in great detail England players’ experience in a Royal Marine boot camp.

Sunderland V Swansea City Premiere League, 13th May 207. Picture by FRANK REID

Sunderland V Swansea City Premiere League, 13th May 207. Picture by FRANK REID

Defoe has always been the rarest of footballers, who took on being interviewed as he did his day job, with genuine enthusiasm, even if being Sunderland’s poster boy must have drained at times.

To interview Defoe always required very little work, such was his passion for the game and the art of scoring goals. After a superb brace against Crystal Palace in February, the 34-year-old was as eager to talk about Lamine Kone, who scored a fine volleyed finish as he fell to the ground, as he was his own prowess.

Such was his energy and presence that it was only natural he would become the star turn at Sunderland, a player who spoke and saw others hang on his every word.

That pleasure now belongs to Bournemouth, for that typically engaging interview Defoe gave to BBC Radio 5 Live also saw him confirm his move to the South Coast. That had for a month or two been the worst kept secret in football.

The regret is that Defoe’s brilliance could never be anything other than a life-jacket for a woeful Sunderland side, his contributions ultimately doing little more than delaying the inevitable for a club that had lost its way.

Regardless, he will be remembered as a Sunderland icon. No matter what it all came to, he will be to a generation of Sunderland fans their Carter, their Phillips, their Shackleton, their Hurley. For the older generations, respect was earned in his willingness to embrace the region and make his mark on it.

That his Black Cats career ended with something of a whimper is, in the immediate aftermath of his departure. a crying shame.

When Defoe finally earned his England recall and marked it with a goal, it felt an apt reward for both the player and the club who had taken a punt on each other in January 2015. At the time neither were held in particularly high regard in the Premier League.

Jermain Defoe and Bradley Lowery

Jermain Defoe and Bradley Lowery

After that trademark finish against Lithuania in March, Defoe scored only once in red and white, a last-minute goal against Hull when his side’s fate had already been sealed.

He missed the final game against Chelsea through injury, the manager’s insinuation that some of his players could have done more to feature still hanging in the air.

It looked in March like he would leave on the back of his best ever season and perhaps after helping securing one last great escape. What happened next was a severe anti-climax, Defoe waving his goodbyes alongside Vito Mannone with the Stadium of Light virtually empty.

It was, for both parties, no way to say goodbye.

Time will ease the pain of relegation, nevertheless, and he will be remembered not for the failings of the team around him but his regularly majesterial finishing.

For one of the finest derby goals ever seen, and the tears that followed. For that scarcely believable speed with which he shifted the ball from one foot to the other, time and time again, always then able to find the perfect finish.

His record in the grand scheme of things was not that memorable, two and a half years, 37 goals. Like all the greats, however, his contribution was far greater than anything the numbers can tell you.

Defoe showed a generation that anything is possible in a red and white shirt, even if so many around him underlined the limitations.

He leaves Sunderland a better footballer and by his own admission, a better man thanks to the influence of his best friend Bradley Lowery.

That is a rare thing indeed, something to be celebrated and treasured, in spite of any regrets.