When I stepped into BMO Field’s media room a year ago, the man at the centre of the podium was Dwayne De Rosario, the best player in club history returning home. On any other day this story would have been front page and centre, but even at his own press conference he was an afterthought. All discussion within the room focused on the real news of the day: the fact that Toronto FC had reportedly acquired Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.
"I think with the moves that have been made and with me coming back, I think everyone senses a very positive energy here," De Rosario said on the day. Whether intentionally or not the simple mention of "moves" caused a murmur in the room, everyone’s minds on the upcoming "bloody big deal" press conference.
To be fair, the "Bloody Big Deal" was never really a cryptic statement, and perhaps that added to its success. Everyone knew it referred to Defoe, and therefore the anticipation around the city was apparent. For once, in a saturated Toronto sports market "Toronto FC" was on everyone’s tongue.
I didn’t have a chance to attend Defoe’s press conference at Real Sports Bar & Grill, but in attendance or not, the contrast between Defoe and De Rosario’s press conference was massive: bigger venue, bigger crowd, a bus with "bloody big deal" written on it parked outside and fans invited to cheer his every word. De Rosario sat amongst the crowd, looking as star struck as anyone.
"It’s a dream come true," Defoe said. Considering what would transpired in the following year that statement seems laughable, but on that day it was exactly what most around the club were feeling.
The date of that now infamous press conference in notable: January 13, 2014, otherwise known as exactly a year yesterday, the day it was confirmed he had been sold to Sunderland. Defoe lasted a calendar year to the day with Toronto FC, but in that time rarely missed a day in the headlines.
61 days after the press conference, on March 15, Defoe was in Seattle starting his MLS Career in style with two goals in a 2-1 victory in Seattle. After the match, I foolishly wrote that "a bloody big deal is an understatement." Just like everyone else I was caught up in the drama of it all.
The theatrics continued in the next game, Defoe’s first at BMO Field against DC United. Sitting in the press box, the importance of the occasion was obvious: there was a writer from the Daily Mail, USA Today and Steve Simmons even made an appearance.
Defoe continued to stick to the script as he scored the game’s only goal in what was otherwise a forgettable affair on a frigid March day. The goal, however, shook the city. Even in the press box above, where cheering is looked down upon, the goal was applauded with force.
After the match, the Toronto FC dressing room was far more lively than usual for a club two matches into a season. There were smiles and handshakes and blaring rap music as Bradley walked around showing everyone the scar from a nasty cut he had picked up. Moments later, Defoe was enveloped in a dense crowd of bodies and microphones. I stood awkwardly on the outside of the scrum, not quick enough and as a result now not close enough to the main attraction.
"It’s a day I’ll never forget," said Defoe in one of the bits of scrappy audio I picked up. "I was so much looking forward to the game at home, to see the fans. You just hope you give something back."
For a while after that, his expressed hope of giving back to Toronto supporter was accomplished, and then some. After an injury that saw him miss all of April, Defoe proceeded to score 8 goals in his next 10 MLS matches, adding another in the Voyageurs Cup.
Midway through that "golden age", however, on May 12, the beginning of Defoe’s incredibly longwinded fallout took place. Most point to the firing of Ryan Nelsen as the sprouting point of Defoe’s unhappiness. That may be true, but the seed was planted far earlier, on the day when he failed to make Roy Hodgson’s England side for Brazil 2014. The rumours of him leaving Toronto began shortly after.
For a player with his pride, it would seem only logical to blame this on the fact that he was playing in MLS and not in his native England. His next league game against the New York Red Bulls was one of his best in a Toronto kit. However, it was clear after the match how much the England ordeal had hurt him.
"It’s only normal when you get disappointment to try to prove people wrong," he said of his performance against New York. For a while this would light a fire under him, as he would proceed to play his best soccer with the club during Brazil 2014.
The World Cup was also one of the only times I ever had a personal conversation with Defoe. We chatted about the tournament and James Rodriguez: it wasn’t anything memorable, but it was genuine. It was one of the lone moments I talked to Defoe the man, and not the superstar soccer player. By the time the microphones had come out he had reverted back to the latter.
That day, July 23, also marked a special day for Defoe: a mid-season friendly against his former club, Tottenham Hotspur. It was a day all about him and it also meant the return of media attention for a brief moment. However, there was clearly something different, something rotten below the surface.
It is no surprise, then, that Defoe never scored for Toronto again after that friendly, not that he scored in that game either. Maybe it truly reminded him how much he missed England, or just fell in line with the horrible injury woes he had from that point on. He only appeared in five more matches. Every injury sparked a return to his native England.
As a result, he wasn’t around for the climax of the team’s implosion which culminated in the firing of Ryan Nelsen, one of the key men credited with bringing Defoe to Toronto. It has been no secret that Defoe and Nelsen had a good relationship, and his firing may have been the last straw for the Englishman within the club.
Whether or not this has any correlation, the date of Nelsen’s firing was curious: the last day of the summer transfer window. They may well have delayed the firing of Nelsen in order to retain Defoe, and not have him force at late window transfer that really would have hurt the club. All throughout this time, transfer rumours persisted.
From afar, as he was still in England recovering from injury, Defoe lobbed shots at Toronto management via the British press. This was the point when not only had the player lost interest in the club, but the feeling became mutual. MLSE President Tim Leiweke said he didn’t think Defoe was coming back.
"If you don’t want to be here, get the hell out of our way," said a frustrated Leiweke, disheartened by the failure his crown jewel had become.
Defoe’s last game at BMO Field was on October 8 2014, coincidently the day the club’s playoff chances died in a disheartening 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo. By this point his body language had completely changed, every missed opportunity warranted his hands being raised in the air in frustration. He missed a crucial penalty kick during the match, and his effort was otherwise dismal.
"I believe if that goes in than maybe it would have been a different game," said a Defoe who’s downright annoyed demeanour was in sharp contrast to his first day at BMO. "It was just one of those games."
That was the last I ever heard from Defoe, the last I probably ever will. Even then it wasn’t a question of whether or not he would move away from the club, it was when. Shortly after the season Kurt Larson of the Toronto Sun wrote an article that all but confirmed Toronto management had lost it with the Englishman. Under the cover of anonymity, several "sources" close to TFC took shots at the player, especially involving his controlling mother.
Just a couple of days after this article was released, Toronto FC held their season ending press at their training centre on a hot fall day. It was known in advance that Defoe was not going to be in attendance, but he was still the main topic of interest at the proceedings. Each and every player who was trotted out in front of the media was asked by a persistent reporter at the back of the room how Defoe was as a teammate.
Only Gilberto strayed from the good guy, great teammate narrative, saying that Defoe should answer questions about himself.
To be fair to Defoe, either publicly or privately no player says anything negative about the man. From my limited interaction with him, I can see why. He always appeared professional and courteous, never ducking out of his responsibilities like other Toronto players sometimes have. His interactions with the other players always seemed to be positive, like he didn’t believe himself to be above anyone.
January, the final chapter of the tale, meant nearly daily rumours about Defoe and which Premier League club he would be playing for next season. Towards the end, there were even suggestions that the team might keep him, as he was too expensive for several club’s tastes. In the end it was Sunderland who finally brought him back to the Premier League, but Liverpool, QPR, Leicester and Hull City were all consistently leaked.
Yesterday, when the news of his departure finally broke, I wasn’t surprised as nobody who follows this club with any sort of regularity should be. But it didn’t evoke the sort of good riddance feeling that it seemed to in most others. The first half of the Defoe story is the one that part that I will remember the most, the best time I have had while following this club. That is a sad indictment of Toronto’s history, but also a statement of how much hope Defoe brought when he first arrived.
Defoe wasn’t a poisonous to this club as some seem quick to indicate, but he also taught the club a lesson about which sorts of players and personalities will bring them success in this league. Hopefully Altidore will fair differently. The bloody big deal has lost all of its blood.