Defoe comes of age
Jermain Defoe sashayed out of Lilleshall with 15 years and infinite confidence. He had not just been a pupil in the Centre of Excellence's class of '99; he had been its star graduate. The bantam, pacy forward seemingly had the world at his feet.
This presentiment was enhanced when, only months later, he left Charlton Athletic to join West Ham United, a club renowned for cultivating prodigious gems. Harry Redknapp felt he had inherited a crown jewel.
The then-Hammers manager tipped Defoe to make the England No9 jersey his own and become of the finest strikers in the sport. However, at 26, the Beckton native began the 2009/10 campaign having failed to realise either of these targets.
Sure, he had amassed 35 international caps, but his genius had merely flickered for the Three Lions, whose squad he had been in and out of since a 2004 debut. Yes, his prolificacy for West Ham, Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth would have satiated a majority of attackers, but it failed to vindicate the immense potential he had flaunted as a teenager.
Defoe had, nevertheless, looked sharp since rejoining Spurs from Pompey for an estimated £15.75m - and enjoying another reunion with Redknapp, his mentor at Upton Park and Fratton Park - in January. He was determined to make the ensuing campaign his annus mirabilis.
After an encouraging pre-season with Tottenham, his first competitive examination came in the Netherlands. There, England trailed the Oranje 2-0 when coach Fabio Capello summoned him from the bench at half-time. Defoe's response was emphatic. His two strikes epitomised the diversity of his game and earned England an improbable 2-2 draw.
His first followed a seemingly innocuous ball over the top from Frank Lampard. Defoe collected it, 35 yards from goal, accelerated away from his pursuers, held off a challenge and produced a cute, cushioned finish that went in off the post. The substitute's equaliser was an archetypical poacher's effort; an outstretched leg diverting a low cross home from inside the six-yard box.
"That was definitely my best game in an England shirt," he reflected afterwards. "It's always nice to get on and play for your country, it's a great honour, and to score two is great as well. I was buzzing, as you could imagine. I managed to just stay onside for my first goal, get on the right side of the defender, and it was great to see the ball go in. I took a gamble with my run for the second and it paid off, so it was also great to see that one go in too."
"It's up to the manager what happens, I just want to keep this form going. The season hasn't started yet. I need to get back to my club, work hard and do well before I can think any further ahead. But in terms of fitness and strength, I don't think I've ever felt this good. Maybe it's because I'm getting older and maturing as a player, I feel much stronger. I just want to keep that going and help the team get off to a positive start against Liverpool."
Defoe did exactly that on Sunday. And although his function in the 2-1 win over the Reds at White Hart Lane - he earned the free-kick from which Sebastien Bassong headed the winner - was tributary, he played the leading role in their resounding 5-1 defeat of Hull City three days later.
Defoe's hat-trick at the KC Stadium again underlined what an encompassing goal threat he has become. The first came from his weaker left boot, a firm arrow into the bottom corner. He employed canny, elusive movement to find space for the second, and sheer force to slam it home. Then, following an intricate give-and-go with Aaron Lennon, he struck the third into the roof of the net from the edge of the penalty area.
"Defoe looked almost unplayable, his form is absolutely electric," enthused Redknapp, who believes his No18 can finish as the Premier League's leading marksman this term. "He's bang in form, absolutely electric and as strong as I've ever seen him - and remember, I've known him since he was 14.
"He was at Portsmouth at the start of last season but he looks stronger in the way he holds up the ball and holds players off. He's done a lot of work with the fitness coaches in the summer and it's made him even more explosive, he has a lot more power and upper body strength. He looks so sharp and he's in unbelievable form at the moment - if he continues to play like that, he'll have no problems."
Capello spent Wednesday evening at Turf Moor, where he witnessed Michael Owen disappoint in Manchester United's 1-0 loss to Burnley. Video footage of Defoe's heroics must have, therefore, come as a soothing nightcap to the Italian.
"I think Defoe is one of the best English strikers there is," Capello said recently. "He can shoot with the left and right foot, and he's always in good positions in front of goal. He's technically good, very fast and his movement without the ball is fantastic."
Defoe's quest to engrave his name in Capello's starting line-up - and keep Tottenham top of the Premier League - will continue at West Ham on Sunday. And while he is still fond of the club at which he rose to prominence, business is business - something JD has been obdurately taking care of lately.