Gav: SuperKev, All The Way!
Whilst I will concede that Jermain Defoe is absolutely pivotal to Sunderland and our survival as a Premier League club, Kevin Phillips - and his performances in the 99/00 Premier League campaign - will always hold a special place in my heart, and I feel that when looking back in years to come we'll perhaps remember SuperKev more fondly than any other Sunderland striker of the last three or four decades.
Defoe, as clinical as he may be, would need an astounding effort to find the sort of form which saw Phillips win the European Golden Boot in 2000 - and SuperKev to this day remains to be the only Englishman to ever win that accolade, sitting alongside the likes of Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Marco Van Basten, Luis Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez as a winner of the prestigious award.
It should never be understated just how unbelievable it was for a promoted side to have a striker come into the Premier League and, in his first season as a top flight footballer, score THIRTY goals.
And please don't think that I'm undermining the contributions of Jermain Defoe since he arrived at Sunderland - I just think that Kevin Phillips, in that first season, was an elite-level footballer, and it is a fact that his goals directly led to our highest ever Premier League finish of seventh.
If you take Phillips out of the team from that season, the other striking options alongside Niall Quinn were Danny Dichio, Michael Reddy and Milton Nunez. Whilst Dichio was a dependable forward he simply wouldn't have been capable of filling the void left behind by Phillips, whilst the less said about Reddy and Nunez the better.
So, consider what Sunderland might have been like that season without a man who scored on THIRTY (I keep repeating that number but it's remarkable, really) occasions. That 2-1 win over Newcastle in the rain? Probably wouldn't have happened. The 4-1 decimation of Chelsea, which included Sunderland's greatest ever Premier League goal when Phillips hammered in a half volley from 25 yards? You simply wouldn't have those sweet memories.
Kevin Phillips will go down as the most dominant goalscorer to come up from the second tier in the history of the Premier League, and that is why I make the case for him in this argument.
Simon: Defoe, Of Course!
Jermain Defoe is shooting at a 33% accuracy; with 64% of those 11 accurate shots resulting in 7 goals; those 7 goals are currently 54% of our team’s seasonal total, too; carrying the dead weight of a poor midfield support, and a defence that leaks the very goal deficit Defoe himself plays to subside.
It's a no-brainer, people.
Okay. Yes. The Kevin Phillips of 1999–2000 was more prolific a goal-scorer (so far) than the Jermain Defoe of 2016–2017 by a 13-minute marginal goal rate. But that is the beginning and the end of any argument in Phillips’ favour, because as far as importance goes, Defoe is far-and-away more critical to Sunderland today than Phillips ever was to Sunderland seventeen years ago.
Here’s a reason: achievement breeds over-romanticism, and that is exactly what we do when we think of Kevin Phillips and Sunderland in 1999. Sure, Phillips’ 30 goals helped elevate the club to its highest ever Premier League finish – but what else did he do, really?
Phillips rarely contributed with assists. Defoe, on the other hand, just registered his second of the season last week, and fourth for the club in total. So not only is the thirty-four year old our current top scorer, he is also joint-highest for assists; and that also means Defoe has been directly involved in 9 of the 12 goals scored by the team this season. He is like the literal embodiment of our goal difference.
Think of it this way. Say, back in 1999–2000, Kevin Phillips doesn’t score. What would have happened? It’d have been an awkward season, maybe, but Peter Reid’s team back in the day were far more capable of picking up points without Phillips’ goal contribution than anything we’ve seen in recent seasons. To be exact, Sunderland earned 17 points in that 1999–2000 campaign from matches where Phillips didn’t score.
You should already know how awful our current squad looks in comparison. Nonetheless, let’s do it anyway. Take away all of Jermain Defoe’s goals and assists this season, and add up the points Sunderland have won without his contribution. It’s damning. It’s horrific. It’s 4. Four! Even worse, you’d have to go back to January 2014 to match the 17 points earned by this club without Defoe’s involvement. There’s your difference, right there!
Not convinced Defoe is more important to Sunderland? Fine, let’s terrify you some more. Consider this bloody dreadful theory: imagine Jermain Defoe went his entire tenure at Sunderland without scoring or assisting at all (so as if Jozy Altidore stuck around), and this is how things would have looked: Sunderland would be only-just relegated in May 2015, finishing 19th with 33 points; and if by some minor miracle we stayed up, we’d instead be emphatically relegated in May 2016, finishing 19th on 24 points!
Even now, without Defoe’s involvement, we’d be sitting rock bottom in the Premier League on half of the points we currently have.
So yes, while Kevin Phillips was important to the success we had nearly two decades ago, you could also contextualise that as Phillips being the icing on a well-oiled cake (that doesn’t have to make sense, you get the idea). Truth is, Phillips was at a peak age in a far superior team to what we see today, and a team capable of still achieving when the striker had a bad game.
Jermain Defoe, however, is more than important to Sunderland – he is the lifeline of our stay in the Premier League. He is not crucial to our success, he is crucial to our survival, and without him – as we can see, at least theoretically – we’d be relegated twice over already.
When Gus Poyet and Lee Congerton recruited the striker to Sunderland two years ago, it was on the hope that he could replicate his better form. Instead, Jermain Defoe – at thirty-four years old – is producing the best form of his career; and has taken this opportunity to prove that he is one of the country’s greatest ever goal scorers.
The reason why this makes Defoe more important to Sunderland than Phillips, in his heyday, is quite simple: Kevin Phillips was the end product of a successful team, but Jermain Defoe is the source of our current team’s survival. And if Sunderland does indeed escape relegation again, you can be sure that – for the third season in a row – Jermain Defoe will be the reason.