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Weighing up the next big decisions for Sunderland and Jermain Defoe - and why short-term return could make sense

There was some major expectation management but crucially, the door was very much left ajar.

By Phil Smith
Monday, 17th January 2022, 4:53 pm

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Jermain Defoe' s departure from Rangers had left Wearside wondering - could he really be tempted 'home'?

Lee Johnson does not discuss players from other clubs but given that Defoe was now a free agent, he felt a little more at ease outlining where the Black Cats stood on what would be a fairly sensational January swoop.

Johnson made clear the potential challenges surrounding any deal, saying that there would be a 'million and one things that would have to click into place' for it to happen.

Jermain Defoe is a free agent after leaving Rangers

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But he also made reference to a number of the reasons why a short-term deal for the 39-year-old striker might just make sense.

He said the club were aware of his potential availability, and also 'the professional standards he’s adhered to over the course of his career, they are elite and top level.'

While there might ordinarily be some concern over the match fitness of a player with only two appearances to his name this season, the conditioning with which Defoe is renowned means and which has allowed him to enjoy an excellent second half to his career means there would be some level of confidence that it would not take him long to get up to speed.

'In terms of how I feel mentally and physically, I feel great," Defoe told Sky Sports on Friday evening.

"Obviously, I haven’t played much this year, so I still feel like there is legs in me. I can still do something."

Johnson also said: " Of course the rapport with the area always comes into account, and that respect for an individual for a great human being who has had a fantastic career.”

As one of the most popular Sunderland players of the 21st century so far, it is lost on no one the way that Defoe's return would energise a fanbase, potentially lighting a fire under a campaign that has promised much but still hangs very much in the balance when it comes to automatic promotion aspirations.

The question then put to Johnson was how the arrival of a 39-year-old would fit into the club's philosophy of bringing down the average age of the squad and growing assets within that who could set the club on the path to sustainability in the long term.

Johnson replied that he could discuss in reference to Defoe specifically, but did outline the general thinking of the club: "Any signing has to be right for the football club, simple as that.

"You look at what they can bring on the pitch and off it, mainly on it of course."

The idea for Sunderland is absolutely to sign players who can grow their value at the club, and to promote academy talent wherever possible.

But for a club of this size there has to be a balance with ensuring there is enough experience to consistently produce results on a Saturday and a Tuesday.

That is particularly acute in League One. Sunderland are not sustainable at this level, and promotion is a must.

It's why last January the additions of Ross Stewart and Carl Winchester, who were both seen as long-term projects for the club, were supplemented by the loan addition of Jordan Jones, who was seen as ready to potentially make an explosive impact in the short term.

This January, Sunderland have committed a six-figure sum to sign Trai Hume, a 19-year-old full back who is yet to make a debut but who the club feel has a bright long-term future.

There is a need to balance that with players who can improve the team now, particularly given the handful of medium-term injuries that Johnson has had to battle.

Putting the potential arrival of Defoe to Johnson's test of on and off-pitch impact underlines why it may be a move with merits well beyond mere nostalgia.

His arrival would not at this stage be blocking the pathway of a talented youngster right on the cusp of a senior breakthrough.

The January window is challenging at the best of times, never mind when clubs are reluctant to sanction loans for young players given the ongoing concerns over COVID-19.

Sunderland, though, need depth.

Nathan Broadhead is still two months away from a return, and the Black Cats cannot afford to rely on Ross Stewart alone.

Stewart's prodigious work rate and ability to occupy opposition defenders means it is also easy to see how the two could combine, just as the Scot did with Broadhead for an exciting but ultimately short-lived period before the youngster's second hamstring injury.

If Sunderland feel Defoe is physically ready to make a rapid impact, then he could potentially bolster the ranks as Broadhead nears a return.

His long-term future at Everton is uncertain, and one that Sunderland would be eager to monitor well beyond this season.

One of the key questions, of course, is whether Defoe himself will decide that a return to the Black Cats is the best option.

He will almost certainly have Championship offers if does opt to play on, as he has indicated he will do. And for all the potential to write a stunning second act to underline his legendary status at Sunderland will appeal, he may also feel it is a risk to threaten that with a disappointing end to the season when he could make a major impact elsewhere.

The road to this potential reunion remains a long one, and that was the point that Johnson was eager to make.

But the interest from both sides should not be dismissed as mere nostalgia.

Sometimes, the right short-term signing can be crucial in allowing you to progress your long-term goals. It's a prospect worthy of serious consideration.

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