Phil Smith’s England analysis: Sunderland talisman Jermain Defoe finally getting the recognition he deserves

Jermain Defoe shows his delight at scoring England's opening goal against Lithuania. Picture by Frank Reid
Jermain Defoe shows his delight at scoring England's opening goal against Lithuania. Picture by Frank Reid
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It is tempting to wonder what was going through Jermain Defoe’s mind.

He had strolled out on the Wembley turf alongside a handful of his England team-mates – earphones in, part taking in his surrounding, part getting in the right frame of mind for the game ahead.

Perhaps, too, taking a moment to reflect on the enormity of being back here, four years after his last international appearance.

By now the cat was out of the bag, he would be leading the line for England at the age of 34.

At that point, Wembley was eerily quiet, bathed in sunshine, little sign of an international game on the horizon. By the time Defoe departed the pitch, 59 minutes into what was a routine victory, the best part of 80,000 were on their feet, saluting a consummate professional and truly, a superb goalscorer.

He is now just one England goal behind Kevin Keegan, four behind Sir Geoff Hurst.

It was the fairytale ending to what has been a scarcely credible story arc.

Defoe left English football in 2014, feeling that his career at Tottenham was stagnating. His choice of Toronto as a new desination raised eyebrows and looked to have brought down the curtain on his England career.

Defoe left the Premier League having proven himself to be a fine poacher, but he had been unable to really convince that he could lead the line for a top club, or his country.

Too many doubts about all round contribution and stature.

His arrival at Sunderland felt like a roll of the dice on both parts. Would Defoe still be able to cut it? Did he have the hunger, the stomach for a relegation fight?

His Sunderland career took a while to truly catch fire, even if his quality was obvious from the off.

Gus Poyet lauded his arrival but was out of a job soon after. Dick Advocaat was never convinced, preferring to put aerial prowess above movement and goal scoring instinct up front.

At times, Defoe played as an auxilliary second left-back.

That all changed with a volley in the derby, tears on the touchline. Sunderland took Jermain Defoe to its heart and he basked in the adoration, revelling in the glory of this most unexpected Indian summer.

The rest of the country, however, was slower to catch on.

His feats were occasionally lauded, but the idea of an international recall seemed fanciful, so too the idea that he could still cut it at a top-half Premier League side.

Now, no one doubts it anymore.

Gareth Southgate said he’d have put his house of Defoe marking his international recall with a goal against Lithuania and there was a definite sense of inevitability, particularly when the team sheets landed, the striker playing ahead of a dynamic trio: Lallana, Dele, Sterling. The chances seemed set to flow.

As it happened, Defoe had to use all of his maturity, patience and experience to make his mark.

A younger player, a less self-assured player, may have been thrown by not getting a notable touch in the opening 20 minutes. They would have been unable to resist the temptation to drop deeper, feel ball on foot, shoot from range.

Defoe merely waited, stalking his prey, hanging on the shoulder of the defence.

His first chance drew a fine save, the second was unstoppable.

It was not a barnstorming display, but the beauty of this late-age Defoe is that he knows he doesn’t have to deliver them.

He concentrates on what he is good at in the box, allied to a remarkable improvement in his hold-up play.

There are no doubts now that he can lead the line on his own, for his country, for any club.

It has taken too long for him to get that recognition but he has it now.

Just reward, for the way he has thrown himself into his Sunderland career without cynicism, with quiet determination and sheer persistence.

He continues to make Sunderland immensely proud to call him their own.