It is early days in the 2019/20 English Premier League season but already the league table is starting to take a familiar shape.
Big Sam and Little Jermaine. A mismatched pair, in stature at least, but a twosome that this week etched their silhouettes into the good graces of Sunderland fans everywhere.
How long it takes for their outlines to wear away is another matter, but for now, they deserve only praise.
Defoe arrived in January last year, and avoided relegation under Dick Advocaat by the skin of his teeth, along with the rest of the Sunderland squad. When Allardyce inherited this chapped, leaking mess in October 2015, after Advocaat had endured all he could, Sunderland were 19th, with three points from their opening eight games.
There was nothing to indicate that these two figures, as outstanding as their Premier League records as a player and a manager are, would do much to stop Sunderland from finally succumbing. Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, and Advocaat had all been driven out by the stench, unable to freshen the air, in spite of a run of unlikely finishes just outside the bottom three.
Surely this season, with the promoted teams looking relatively competitive, would be the one that could muster the requisite will, grit its teeth, and hold Sunderland’s head beneath the surface until the bubbles stopped.
But no, not with Allardyce steel in their spines and Defoe’s goals to bolster their tally. Would it surprise you to learn that this season, at age 33, Defoe achieved his second-highest Premier League goals total? Only the 18 goals he scored for Tottenham in the 2009-10 season will better the total of 15 he is likely to settle on when this season concludes, barring a four-goal finale at Watford this weekend. Defoe is a simple, direct player, with only a few explicit virtues, but when he is accommodated and given the specific service he needs, he can score, and score, and score.
It is utterly safe to say that without the Englishman, Sunderland would certainly have gone down. He has three times as many goals as the next highest-scoring Sunderland player, Fabio Borini, and more than that, his goals have come at crucial moments; equalising goals against Swansea, Liverpool and Stoke. Winning goals, in narrow victories, over Crystal Palace and, stunningly last week, Chelsea.
We have to remember that Defoe was, in effect, swapped for black hole of Premier League competence that is Jozy Altidore. This has to go down as one of the league’s best ever pieces of business, a trade that in hindsight looks more lopsided than a professional arm wrestler. So impressive has Defoe’s late-career Renaissance been, even quiet calls, with forefingers raised tremulously into the air, have been made for an England place, something that has gained, if only fractionally, added credence since Danny Welbeck was ruled out of the running for Euro 2016.
As much, if not more, applause must also be directed toward Big Sam. As he punched the air following the 3-0 defeat of Everton that confirmed Sunderland’s survival, gut proudly protruding, he must have truly relished the moment. Not only did his stellar record of achieving safety in the Premier League remain intact, he also sent down his team’s hated local rivals Newcastle, a club with whom he has his own caustic history, and whose cultured, trophy-laden manager Rafa Benitez couldn’t quite do what he managed to.
Sunderland’s recent record under Allardyce is stark, cold and present in its clarity; since he signed Jan Kirchkoff, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Koné – don’t, under any circumstances, attempt to create a catchy acronym out of the surnames of this trio – and ushered in the new year, Sunderland have lost four times, in 18 games.
They conceded more than one goal on only five occasions in 2016. They played key relegation rivals Aston Villa, Swansea, Bournemouth, Norwich, Newcastle and Crystal Palace over that period, and were unbeaten against all of them.
But, even more impressively, Allardyce managed to reassemble this rag-tag jumble of disparate parts. His team has been far and away the most deserving of survival, out of all the scramblers at the bottom of the league. Relegation avoidance has been something of a Sunderland specialty over the last few seasons, but in years past they have scraped clear on an air pocket of blind luck, as if some benevolent football goddess has seen them, seen their utterly pitiful wallowing, and purpose-built them a benevolent miracle. Not so this season, and they will head into 2016-17 with genuine expectations of a mid-table finish, relative riches compared to the dregs of the last few years.
Newcastle spent 37 million pounds in January, and only one of their three signings, Andros Townsend, has given them any tangible thrust. Sunderland’s trio cost them 16 million pounds less, and they have all played major parts in this successful salvage mission.
It has been a perilous path that Allardyce and his side have had to negotiate, littered with calamitous traps, requiring perfectly-timed leaps and perfectly-placed steps, and they have survived it, with relative ease, in the end. This may all be presumptive, a little too premature, to be lauding a team that has consistently fallen back in chaos the season following a relegation escape, but it does feel different this time. And that difference has been made, primarily, by two men, a big one and a little one.