Always the bridesmaid and never the bride. There’s something particularly apt about Jermain Defoe’s long association with the number 18.
Clearly a box player in the mould of a classic centre forward, on leaving West Ham in 2004, Defoe relinquished the number nine shirt settling for its less prestigious multiple due to Freddie Kanoute’s presence at White Hart Lane. Jermain and the 18 have been inextricably linked ever since.
The little striker came through the famed London football factory Senrab during the mid-90s. But then again who didn’t? John Terry, Sol Campbell, Ledley King, Bobby Zamora, Paul Konchesky, Fitz Hall, Muzzy Izzet, Ade Akinbayi and Adebayo Akinfenwa all cut their footballing dentition at the club whose alumni reads better than most lower league professional outfits.
From there Defoe made his way across east London to Upton Park via a brief spell at Charlton Athletic’s academy. It was ‘Arry who first saw that special something in young Jermain back in 2000/01. Snatching him from the youth team, he threw him in at the deep end in the League Cup tie with Walsall. As would become tradition, Defoe bagged on his debut and that was that. He would go on to become Harry Redknapp’s joint second favourite player of all time alongside Peter Crouch although of course behind Niko Kranjcar.
Nevertheless, Defoe’s real break came at a pre-Demin Bournemouth. The rough and tumble of the third tier of English Football is not known for its compatibility with 5ft 7in 18-year-olds but that didn’t hold him back. Playing alongside current Bournemouth coach Steve Fletcher, he scored 18 goals in 29 league appearances as the Cherries just missed out on the play offs.
That season on the South coast was enough to make the powers that were at West Ham, at this time Glenn Roeder, take notice. In his first full season in the Premier League Defoe finished as West Ham’s top goalscorer with 14 goals in all competitions- a remarkable return considering 22 of his 39 appearances for the Hammers that season came from the bench. However, the two years that followed were not happy times for the East Londoners. Relegation and then failure to bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt saw a triad of talent migrate across London with Joe Cole joining Chelsea and Michael Carrick accompanying Defoe to Spurs.
Barring a short stint at Portsmouth, he would spend the next 10 years at White Hart Lane firing himself to sixth in their all-time scoring charts with 143 goals in 363 appearances. However, despite his goalscoring exploits Defoe can claim the unfortunate title of being the best English player of his generation to win nowt. His mini break at Portsmouth saw him cup tied for the side’s successful FA Cup campaign and the spell away from Spurs simultaneously meant he missed their only silverware of the new millennium as they beat Chelsea in the League Cup final. It’s hard to imagine that even Defoe, a man steeped in humility, didn’t taste something bitter on seeing Woodgate and Kanu score the winners for his respective sides.
Unfortunately, International football was just a as cruel to Jermain. Cursed by the era he was born into, his time with the three lions has been spent playing second fiddle to glitzier names. First Owen, then Rooney and finally Kane, at no point during his career has Defoe been considered England’s main man. Sven overlooked him at Euro 2004 favouring goal fiends Emile Heskey and Darius Vassell and then selected a pre-pubescent Theo Walcott in his place in 2006. An international highlight came in 2010 when Capello finally handed him a call up for the World Cup. Volleying in James Milner’s whipped cross, he scored his only tournament goal for England against Slovenia, sending England through to the knockout stages. The goal would be as good as it got in a calamitous final campaign for England’s golden generation who were duly spanked 4-1 by Germany.
In 2014 with opportunities limited at Spurs, Defoe made the move across the Atlantic. For the first time a big fish in a small pond, he donned the number 18 with his ever present penchant for scoring goals. 11 goals in 19 games proved to any doubters back in Blighty he was far from past it – destination Sunderland.
Defoe arrived on Wearside a veteran amongst a team of mostly incompetent European journeymen. That the Black Cats staved off relegation for the next two seasons can be attributed almost wholly to the striker who even managed to score 15 goals as they were relegated in 2017. In the same year, with wide popular support, Gareth Southgate called Defoe back into the England set up as a token gesture to the forward’s contribution to the English game. For a moment the nation woke up to the talent that had been at their disposal for the best part of two decades. Defoe led the team out against Lithuania and scored wearing the number nine shirt giving the Wembley crowd a glimpse of what might have been had so many coaches not failed to employ his talents to their fullest.
Now 36, and back at Bournemouth, Defoe who made his debut back in 2000, has been the only English striker to perform consistently throughout the first two decades of the 21st Century. Here’s to you number 18, twice the player of those glitzier nines.