Player of the Season Jermain Defoe has revealed how the influence of ex-Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio has ensured he continues to thrive at the top level aged 33.
Defoe was last night crowned Sunderland Supporters Association’s Player of the Year after the England international pipped Jan Kirchhoff to the accolade, with Duncan Watmore collecting the Young Player of the Year title.
Di Canio was unbelievable, he was proper professional.
The striker’s 16 goal haul in all competitions this season – 13 of which have come in the Premier League – is the best tally from a Sunderland player since Darren Bent in 2009-10 and has been the main factor in keeping the Black Cats’ survival hopes alive.
When Defoe arrived at the Stadium of Light just over a year ago in a swap deal for flop striker Jozy Altidore, there were question marks over whether the former Spurs frontman’s best days were behind him.
However, off-the-field, the teetotal Defoe is one of the most dedicated members of the Sunderland squad, with ice-baths and the right nutrition a part of his daily routine.
That has been the case since coming through the ranks at West Ham, when he followed the example of then star Hammers striker Di Canio.
“Di Canio was unbelievable, he was proper professional,” said Defoe.
“I remember being in the youth team at West Ham and you’d be training and then see Di Canio in on his day off.
“He was the only one who was in and then on a Saturday, he was the best player.
“That always stuck with me. As a young lad, I realised that was no coincidence because this guy did all the right things – gym, nutrition, extra training.
“I’ve always wanted be like that and score goals.
“Nothing changes at the end of the day. Even if you’re playing for a different team in a different formation, you’re still focused on getting that chance and making the most of it.
“Obviously there’s times when you miss a few, but even when that happens, you can’t be afraid to keep getting in the same areas.”
Ex-Sunderland boss Dick Advocaat had reservations over Defoe at the start of the season and whether he fit into his plans, yet he has remained the Black Cats’ main man up front.
Since his arrival from MLS side Toronto in January 2015, Defoe has netted 17 goals in 42 Premier League starts, and remains hopeful of finishing this season with 20 in all competitions.
“When I got the phone call to come here, all I wanted to do was to score goals and be in a successful team, help the club stay in the Premier League,” he added.
“I believed I could still score goals in the Premier League, but after getting the opportunity, I knew I had to do it.
“When you hear things like ‘he’s getting older’ you want to prove people wrong.
“Even though I’m 33, I can still score goals and still look sharp in games. I’m not having to come off with fatigue towards the end.
“I’ve always looked after myself because I love playing football.”