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Jermain Defoe, the relegation get-out & leaving for free; why, who, when - the actual story

Jermain Defoe will almost certainly depart the Stadium of Light should Sunderland be relegated this season. The striker, recalled to the England set-up, has suggested this week that Championship football will be no good for his hopes of a spot at next summer's World Cup. But can he really leave for free, and who negotiated that - and why?

Germany v England - International Friendly Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Man of the Moment

He might not have made the field of play on Wednesday night, but Jermain Defoe is the 'striker of the moment' in English football.

Despite having to settle for a spot as an unused substitute in the first of this international break's double-header, his recall to the England squad has been widely seen as continued proof that Jermain Defoe has still got 'it' - and will likely still have 'it' for at least a couple more years yet.

England Media Access Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

The Sunderland striker's career Indian summer of brilliance - which may conclude with a spot on the plane to Russia next June - is a remarkable testament to the single-minded dedication of a man who was supposed to have entered semi-retirement in the MLS wilderness just three years ago.

Easily Sunderland's best player of recent years, Defoe has been feverishly linked with a move away from the Stadium of Light since late last year - increasingly so as his continued impressive form is played out in a side looking destined for relegation.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Every Premier League club who could use a shot in the goal-scoring arm would want him and the links to West Ham have been supplemented by the likes of Liverpool and Spurs recently.

The fact that Defoe can likely leave Sunderland for free upon relegation is now accepted as fact and this is the case. But the story does need putting into context before cries of 'we've been robbed' are heard across Wearside.

Toronto, the big nightmare & Jozy

After he departed Spurs, Jermain Defoe's Toronto signing was billed by the MLS outfit as a 'bloody big deal' in a blaze of publicity. That deal was worth £6m-upwards with the former England striker netting £90,000 a week. Bonuses and marketing deals would enhance that yet further.

Toronto FC Introduce Jermain Defoe
'It's a bloody big deal'; How Defoe was unveiled at Toronto
Photo by Jag Gundu/Getty Images

Defoe had feared he was being edged out of Tottenham and despite having 18-months left on his contract, no new deal seemed likely so he took a chance, assumed his England career was all but over and headed off for Canada in the summer of 2014.

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton - Premier League
Defoe's final home game for Tottenham before joining Toronto FC
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Within months it was all going wrong and despite decent performances on the field, off it something was amiss and by January 2015 it was inevitable that Defoe would return to the English Premier League. The 'bloody big deal' had turned into a bloody big red face and the Toronto top brass needed something to mask their blushes.

In England, one Jozy Altidore was having a nightmare. Signed by Sunderland eighteen months prior, the United States international had managed one goal in 42-appearances and had been responsible for some truly stunning YouTube streamed cock ups in front of goal.

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League
Jozy Altidore at Sunderland
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Bingo, bish-bash and a puff of smoke and Jozy Altidore was swapped for Jermain Defoe. Everyone was happy.

Signing for Sunderland

The deal made perfect sense for Sunderland. As Altidore made his final appearance at the Stadium of Light - as an unused substitute against Manchester City in early January 2015 - Gus Poyet's side were looking vulnerable just three points above the relegation zone and only two teams in the Premier League had scored fewer goals.

Sunderland v Hull City - Premier League
Altidore during his final appearance on the pitch for Sunderland against Hull City in December 2014
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Altidore was on big money at Sunderland but his record during that eighteen months and his growing comical renown for being unable to hit the barn door with his back end had wiped out his value. His English employers were faced with re-adjusting his worth to roughly a quarter of the £8m-plus they had paid for him.

Defoe had pedigree but there was some risk attached in signing a 32-year-old who had been winding down in America. But for the player himself - who has always been careful to maintain his image - there was also some negotiating to do to join a Premier League club who then, and still, maintain the appearance of one about to drop into the Championship at any given moment.

Sunderland v Toronto FC
Jermain Defoe in a Sunderland shirt playing against Toronto in the end of season friendly match organised as part of the deal which saw him return to England, July 2015
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The striker's representatives would insist - obviously - that his MLS salary was matched but also Defoe's agent played a blinder - with hindsight - in ensuring a clause was inserted meaning his veteran client could depart the Stadium of Light for free, with a polite handshake and best wishes, in the event that his new club were relegated.

There have been suggestions elsewhere in the North East press this week that the 'free-on-relegation' clause was added last summer when Sam Allardyce led the negotiations to extend Defoe's deal at Sunderland. That was never the case. The 'relegation-clause' has always been in Defoe's deal and Big Sam merely oversaw an extension on the contract's existing terms but with a pay rise.

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League
Jermain Defoe and Sam Allardyce last season
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The player's representatives would never have agreed to dropping the relegation clause. And by the summer of 2016, the striker's importance to Sunderland was all-consuming after he had almost single-handedly kept the club in the Premier League.

So now what?

If Sunderland are relegated, Jermain Defoe will be able to join a Premier League club for nothing. It may feel like a lost cash-flow opportunity, especially since valuations of up to £15m were slapped on him mere weeks ago during the January window. In truth, who knows what he is worth - how do you value a 34-year-old who has just earned a recall to the England side and is having one of his most prolific seasons in a goal-filled career?

But there is really no stick to beat Sunderland with here beyond a whack from hindsight and a tinge of regret that the club have continued to under perform relative to the striker that it employs.

At the point that Altidore's stock could fall no lower, Sunderland had three choices. First, they could have stuck with Jozy and faced that increasing risk of relegation; second, they could have sold him but been unable to replace the USMNT striker with anyone of quality due to his diminished resale value; or thirdly, the club could give Defoe the deal he wanted to return to England and give themselves a neat boost in their survival odds whilst jettisoning their disastrous American forward.

The club picked the correct option and there is likely still little regret at having done so. The true tragedy here is that Sunderland have proven to be incapable of building a side who could truly warrant having a player of Jermain Defoe's class within it.

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