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Johnson & Defoe: A Curious Collaboration?

As speculation about Jermain Defoe’s next move continues, Lee Johnson faces a big call about whether to bring him back to Wearside, and he shouldn’t be vilified for being cautious.

Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Another week, another episode of ‘Why Lee Johnson Should Be Fired As Sunderland Head Coach’.

This time, it starred Johnson, and a former Sunderland striker, who is the subject of interest from various clubs, following his departure from Rangers.

Last week, as speculation about Jermain Defoe’s future reached fever pitch, Johnson was quizzed about the possibility of the former England striker returning to the Stadium of Light. He answered the question perfectly reasonably, not dismissing the idea out of hand, and not openly courting Defoe & expressing his undying love for him.

In many ways, it was classic Johnson: a bit of pseudo-philosophy, a fairly long-winded answer, and nothing concrete. Perhaps frustrating, but that’s simply his style, and he isn’t going to change.

In the aftermath of what was a fairly uneventful press conference, accusations flew, among them that Johnson’s ego was getting in the way, and that he was ‘too fragile’ and ‘too thin-skinned’ to handle a personality like Defoe (presumably, this theory overlooked the fact that Aiden McGeady, deemed a disruptive presence under Phil Parkinson, was successfully brought back into the fold by Johnson).

Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images,

In addition, there was also an attempt at creating a narrative of ‘it’s Johnson or Defoe’, and that the head coach should be sacked if he opted against signing him, as well as the frankly bizarre theory was that Johnson was worried about Defoe potentially eyeing up his job.

Whether this was the manifestation of tension ahead of the Portsmouth game we’ll never know, but suffice it to say, the idea of Defoe taking over as manager is somewhat fanciful. After all, we do have a perfectly capable head coach already in post, whose position should not be under any immediate threat.

Needless to say, this was all slightly surreal, and the volley of personal abuse disgracefully familiar, but sadly indicative of the fact that our manager continues to divide opinion on an almost Jack Ross-like scale.

For those who are convinced that Johnson is a smoke-and-mirrors huckster of a manager, it’s another stick with which to beat him, but this issue now goes beyond one man. This is about a coach’s right to pass on, or to press ahead with signings if he feels that they aren’t right for his club.

Johnson is his own man, with his own views on the game and its players. He clearly favours a certain profile of footballer, and when he spoke at the press conference, he was clearly trying to offer a balanced opinion without giving too much away. It wasn’t alarming & it certainly didn’t deserve such a hostile response.

In football terms, signing Jermain Defoe is a prospect that has both merits and potential stumbling blocks.

Yes, it might add a dash of romance to our campaign (assuming, of course, that he has the affinity for the football club that we like to think he does, which is highly debatable) and if his predatory instincts in front of goal are still sharp, and his fitness satisfactory, he could certainly chip in with some crucial goals as we seek to keep pace with the league’s leaders.

On the other hand, would he fit into the current system without disrupting the balance of the starting XI? Does the fact that he hasn’t played since October throw up a potential red flag? These are all factors that Johnson is doubtless considering, and he is well within his rights to do that.

The fact is that Johnson has led us into the automatic promotion mix with his current system & players he trusts. Dismantling or drastically altering it to accommodate one player might be a risk too far for him, and that is not an unfair point.

It’s easy for the fans to demand a certain player is signed, but why shouldn’t the manager be more measured? Johnson isn’t here on a nostalgia trip or to satisfy supporters’ demands regarding transfers: he’s here to deliver promotion, and should be allowed to use whatever methods he chooses in order to do so.

Another suggestion was that Defoe’s return would ‘give the whole place a lift’, and would add thousands to the matchday attendances, the latter of which is something I simply don’t believe.

In my opinion, it would take a lot more than the return of a single player for the SOL to see crowds of over 40,000 again, and I’m not convinced that morale is so low that only the return of Defoe can lift it. Results, genuine signs of progress, and a realistic crack at promotion are what will keep the turnstiles clicking.

Signing Defoe simply to placate a fan base desperate for a hero would be a mistake, and it seems highly unlikely that any player would be forced onto Johnson by Kristjaan Speakman, either. There is a strong sense that the club’s hierarchy are working well as a team, and why would they want to disrupt that?

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If Johnson feels that he can add value to the squad and would be a positive influence in the dressing room, I am certain he will make every effort to resign Defoe.

On Saturday night, following our victory over Portsmouth and as a riposte to mischief-making by journalists, his reply of ‘Don’t confuse us being thorough with a lack of interest’, was a brilliant response, and one that is almost impossible to refute.

Managers and coaches stand or fall based on their judgements of players, and if Johnson fails to deliver promotion this season, he will more than likely be fired regardless.

This is a big call, but whichever way it ultimately goes, I believe that Johnson has certainly earned the right to do what he feels is necessary to keep this club moving forward, however tough the decisions might be.

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