Following Jermain Defoe’s decision to retire there has been a certain amount of negative reaction from some fans to the player.
Personally, it is not a sentiment that I can share.
I understand that some may feel that he should have stayed until the end of the season.
But in the player's own words, he just didn’t feel that he was doing the job that he came for. That he was a yard or two off the pace that he should be, and at age 39 he would not be able to justify his place or his wage.
When he first signed for Sunderland back in the January transfer window of 2015, I don’t think anyone would have predicted the impact he would have on the club or the fans.
Going back to before any talks had begun between Toronto FC and Sunderland, there had not been a lot of reported interest from any Premier League sides in bringing him back to the UK.
At the point, and despite a goal-laden career at the top level for West Ham, Portsmouth, Tottenham and England, he was 32 and had been playing across the pond for a year. Feeling that he still had something to offer at Premier League level, his name had been mooted about but with no apparent takers.
That is until the offer came of a with a swap deal for Jozey Altidore, and with our recruitment team saying ‘Thank you very much!’, Defoe found himself on Wearside.
He had been linked with Sunderland previously, before joining Portsmouth in 2008 but the word that came for Sunderland or any other club trying to bring him north was that Defoe was a London boy, and didn’t want to play for any Northern club.
So, when he did arrive on Wearside at the age of 32, with no other club seemingly wanting to gamble on a player who had been out of the Premier League for a year, being honest I was wary of his motive. That he had only come for the loot and one last payday.
Astonishing to think that now, when you regard the man that left just two and a half years later.
His first half-season at Sunderland was largely unspectacular, apart from a sensational winner against Newcastle at the Stadium of Light. The next season he got off to a much more productive start, but the arrival of Sam Allardyce in October 2015 marked the beginning of a real upturn in form for Defoe and eventually Sunderland. This is the time that he really began to make his mark as a player in Sunderland’s modern history. Vital goals securing a win against Aston Villa, a hattrick at Swansea and the winner against Chelsea at the Stadium of Light that had the foundations rattle as the fans celebrated.
It was on a matchday that Defoe met mascot Bradley Lowery and the pair struck up a friendship that touched the hearts of fans of Sunderland, fans of other clubs and non-fans. Defoe and Vito Mannone visited Bradley in hospital, where the picture was taken that became famous.
Two things struck me when I first saw it. The first was that Defoe had got on the bed to cuddle young Bradley, and the other was that he had stayed there so long the kid had fallen asleep.
Later that year Defoe took Bradley to Wembley to lead out the England team with him. We all remember the scene in the tunnel as the players waited to walk out with their own mascots when Bradley turned around for a hug. It was a friendship that transcended football, and Defoe was viewed with admiration by all those who witnessed it.
On the pitch, the next season was a disaster for Sunderland, but the goals kept coming for Defoe. Come January, his name was repeatedly thrown up in the transfer rumours. Rent-a-gob pundit Chris Sutton even declared ‘Jermain Defoe WANTS to play for West Ham.’
This, right in the middle of a desperate relegation battle. An assessment with so much intelligence and foresight that when the player was released on a free transfer at the end of the season he signed for Bournemouth.
Through it, Jermain maintained a dignified silence and just got on with playing. Even taking the Captain's armband in some games.
Off the pitch, Bradley's condition worsened until he passed away at the season end. Defoe walked in his funeral procession, wearing a football shirt as per the wishes of the family.
When he returned to sign for Sunderland in January, the hope was that Defoe could provide the extra firepower to send Sunderland to promotion.
It hasn’t worked out that way and being fair, it was asking a lot of a 39-year-old who hadn’t played much football this season. He wanted games to get back up to match sharpness, but only had a couple of them.
In his own words, he felt that he was a yard or two short and that he wasn’t doing enough to justify his place or wage. He was being honest with himself when he took the decision to hang up his boots. Remember the kind of teammates that he had in his first spell at the club, where more than one or two of them blatantly were happy to pick up a hefty wage for doing nothing on the pitch or, in the end even refusing to play for the club.
It hasn’t worked out as everyone hoped. We shouldn’t let his decision to retire tarnish our memory of him. He is a footballer who transcended the game in the North-East and as he hangs up his boots, the message should be ‘Don’t worry, you have done enough’.