Jermain Defoe’s hat-trick against Swansea - and his generally excellent form thus far this season - has led the football world to muse as to whether Defoe might be getting a late and unexpected call up to Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad. Unfortunately, there is just one thing that stands in the way of Defoe. He’s a Sunderland player.
I suppose one can become paranoid about the negative attitudes that people have towards the North East. It is often the feeling in this wonderful, passionate, unique part of the world, that the rest of the country simply don’t understand us. After all, we’re so very far away from the bright lights of London town.
While one may expect the universal language and passion of the beautiful game to transcend such boundaries and grievances, it is a view not without merit that the English national team has failed to appreciate Sunderland and their players over the last fifteen years.
English striking talent was looking very healthy even a year ago - the form of Wayne Rooney and Ricky Lambert, the injury problems of Daniel Sturridge, Jay Rodriguez, Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck and Danny Ings, and the Championship level that Charlie Austin was playing until his move to Southampton a few weeks ago, presents a real opportunity for Defoe to stake his claim to go to Euro 2016.
Defoe offers something different to most of the aforementioned players; lethal finishing demonstrated over a distinguished Premier League career. The cynic in me believes that should Carroll or Welbeck overcome their injuries to string together a run of at least five or ten games at the end of the season, Hodgson will select one of them.
This cynicism comes from two instances of England displaying shocking indifference to the form of Sunderland’s strikers a decade apart - Kevin Phillips and Darren Bent.
Having just been promoted with a record 105 points, Sunderland rode a wave of optimism into the 1999/00 Premiership season, though no one could have predicted the eventual seventh placed finish. Even more remarkably, Kevin Phillips earned himself Premiership player of the season and Premiership and European Golden Boot awards, the latter of which he is still the only Englishman to have won. Having swept all before him in the league and being selected for the England squad, he was left to rot on the substitutes bench for the entirety of Euro 2000 - Michael Owen, who had been plagued by injuries and scored eleven league goals in 99/00, was preferred.
Phillips had Shearer and Owen in front of him - England’s golden couple who then England manager Kevin Keegan was never likely to drop. Shearer, though a Newcastle player, had established himself in the England team before his move to Newcastle in 1996, becoming captain that year. His situation is not comparable to that of Bent or Phillips, who were trying to break in and establish themselves in the squad. While Phillips’ inability to even play a minute for England at Euro 2000 is a scandal, Darren Bent’s omission from the squad of World Cup 2010 demonstrates the justification for the belief that to be an England regular, you have to have firmly established yourself in the England team before coming to Sunderland.
In 2009/10, Darren Bent scored an impressive 24 league goals for Sunderland as we secured a 13th place finish in the Premier League. Bent was unstoppable this season, scoring half of Sunderland’s league goals and being largely responsible for our relatively comfortable league position. However, manager Fabio Capello omitted Bent from the England squad for World Cup 2010, in favour of 33 year old Emile Heskey, who that year had scored 3 league goals in 31 appearances for Aston Villa.
The following season, Bent continued scoring, but rumours of unrest and interest from Aston Villa led to a transfer request from Bent in January 2011, and Sunderland accepting an offer worth up to £24 million. Bent, not long after completing the transfer stated that, "Fabio (Capello) said that it has helped my England chances by going to Aston Villa".
Capello stood by his statement, insisting that the improvement in Bent’s England opportunities was due to the difference in the two clubs style of play, stating that Sunderland went straight for the goal and Bent was only in the box, whereas at Villa he had to "play for the team". For England, Capello stated, it was important to have players who played for the team.
This is of course nonsense. Bent was constantly harrying defenders, but he was, first and foremost a goalscorer, and a good one at that. Bent was scoring half the team’s goals and being the focal point for the attack, in what was an average team with far worse creativity than available at Aston Villa. It is not an exaggeration to say that Bent made sure we were not in a relegation scrap at the end of the season. If that’s not ‘working for the team’, I don’t know what is.
Furthermore, Villa at this stage were finishing top six and had a wealth of attacking players in form to provide chances for their strikers. It was far more impressive to be scoring 24 league goals for Sunderland in 2010, than Aston Villa. These comments from Capello came barely a month after Bent's move, further demonstrating the lunacy that within this time, Bent had become a different player, now worthy of Capello's affirmation.
Capello only came to the Stadium of Light once during Bent's spell on Wearside, a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in August 2009 when Bent had just signed. By January 2011, Bent had gone and Capello had not been back. Capello came to several Sunderland away games, but we played different tactics away and relied significantly on our home form to see us clear of any danger, including good wins over Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham, in which Bent scored at least once in each.
I find the excuse of not travelling to the North East due to it being a long way fatuous for a man paid millions a year, who really works once every few months and could fly here in an hour, expenses paid no doubt. Also, he took on the role of Russia manager after his departure from England, a role which included travelling over 400 miles just between the most popular cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, not to mention the 500 miles to Kazan or the 1000 miles to Anzhi.
The most upsetting thing about this whole episode, is that the FA did not pressure Capello into an apology, or state plainly its commitment to a policy where all clubs players are considered fairly. It cannot be the case that an England manager, who is a representative of the FA and the England national team, can dismiss a Premier League clubs players performances as insufficient, until they play for a different Premier League club more to their liking. This is tantamount to an England manager encouraging players to submit transfer requests and unsettling players, costing clubs their prized assets. It is an impossibility to police the prejudices and motives of individuals, of course, as each England manager will have his own subjective biases towards a player or club. But I think it is obvious to conclude that Capello had little time or respect for Sunderland.
Where this comes from I do not know. Perhaps we are simply not fashionable. Psychologically, perhaps our geographical position makes us seem too much hassle to travel to. Excuses and prejudices aside, it is a far more impressive feat to score 24 goals for Sunderland, than it is in the same number of games and starts for Chelsea, Arsenal or Aston Villa of 2010, who had the creativity of Maloney, Young and Petrov in their prime. The scrap at the wrong end of the table is just as impressive a character test as a tussle at the top.
I’ve seen little to suggest that things have changed under Hodgson, with players still picked on team and reputation rather than form. Defoe is perhaps the first Sunderland player since Bent to be in with a chance of going to a major tournament with England, so if he keeps up his goalscoring form and stays injury free, we will see whether Hodgson respects the club and player by coming to see him play at the Stadium of Light, and selecting him ahead of big name players in worse form or who are injury plagued, who happen to play for supposedly 'bigger clubs' further south.
Might Defoe be the third Sunderland striker effectively overlooked by England after an excellent season? I would not be the least bit surprised. If he is hoping to break into the England team for the Euros, might I suggest a move?
Aston Villa, perhaps?