How Jermain Defoe went from disgruntled winger to Sunderland’s Player of the Year

Jermain Defoe with the match ball after his hat-trick against Swansea City

Jermain Defoe with the match ball after his hat-trick against Swansea City

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With abrupt, sharp answers, Jermain Defoe delivered a brutally clear message about his mood in the fading California sunshine.

Sunderland had just concluded the first of the North American pre-season friendlies which were to leave them brutally under-prepared at the start of the Premier League campaign, and Defoe was raging about spending the game on the left wing during his post-match interview.

Jermain Defoe receives instructions from former manager Dick Advocaat

Jermain Defoe receives instructions from former manager Dick Advocaat

It was all about minutes at that tender stage of pre-season, yet Defoe could already see the writing on the wall in Advocaat’s thinking.

Defoe was willing to play out wide and work doggedly for the side at the end of last season when Sunderland were in desperation mode, but he had made his name as one of this country’s finest finishers by playing as a striker.

He understandably wanted to play there.

Advocaat was adamant that he would persist with his favoured 4-3-3 set-up and at least was honest enough to tell Defoe that he didn’t think he was capable of operating as a lone striker.

It left Defoe facing life out wide or as a super-sub.

The persistent speculation which swirled around Defoe’s Sunderland future at that stage continued for a reason.

While publicly, Advocaat insisted that Defoe was part of his plans, there were an abundance of rumours in football circles that Sunderland would sell if the offer was right, particularly considering that the 33-year-old was the top earner on an already bloated wage bill.

In hindsight, just consider the ramifications if Sunderland had offloaded Defoe last summer. The Black Cats would have gone hand-in-hand with Aston Villa; plunging feebly into the Championship.

That’s why Defoe rightly triumphed at Sunderland Supporters Association’s annual Player of the Year awards last night.

Defoe has perhaps not produced the outstanding individual displays that Sunderland supporters saw from Yann M’Vila during the first half of the season, and Patrick van Aanholt, Jan Kirchhoff and Lamine Kone during the second.

Those four could all make cases to be crowned Sunderland’s top performer, particularly M’Vila who was magnificent before fatigue began to take its toll, albeit the on-loan Ruben Kazan midfielder showed signs of a second wind during the second half against Arsenal on Sunday.

However, Defoe has never been a player who necessarily catches the eye... until he puts the ball in the back of the net.

His hold-up play is actually very under-rated, with the England international using his deceptive upper body strength and experience effectively to banish Advocaat’s doubts over his proficiency as a lone frontman.

He’s got even better since his Sunderland team-mates have learned to minimise the amount of high hoofs forwards.

But Defoe’s legacy will be as one of the Premier League’s most prolific scorers and his 16 goals in all competitions is a superb return for a club that has spent the overwhelming majority of this season in the relegation zone.

Only Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane have scored more top flight goals during 2016 than Defoe, yet unlike that pair, the Sunderland man has had to feed off scraps; using his brain to get an elusive opportunity and knowing that he might not get another one.

As Sam Allardyce has begun to put his stamp on the team during the second half of the season, Defoe has thrived.

It’s been life-saving for Sunderland that he has done.