'I wish I'd come to Rangers three years ago' - Jermain Defoe loving life at 'special' club

Jermain Defoe can remember it like yesterday. Standing over the ball 12 yards out at White Hart Lane, a position he had been in numerous times before.

Jermain Defoe is enjoying life at Rangers but admits he wishes he'd moved north sooner
Jermain Defoe is enjoying life at Rangers but admits he wishes he'd moved north sooner

And yet this master marksman recalls feeling nervous, unusually so. He knew that successfully converting the penalty against Moldovan side Sheriff Tiraspol in November 2013 would put Spurs on the way to qualifying for the knock-out stage of the Champions League.

But there was some personal glory at stake too – beating Spurs great Martin Chivers’ European goalscoring record, one that had stood for over 40 years. Defoe scored to break the record, though Harry Kane has since overtaken the tally.

“I’m usually quite relaxed but on that night I was nervous,” recalled Defoe yesterday. “Martin and I had scored 22 goals and I was so desperate to do it. I didn’t know about the record and then everyone began talking about it. It was a good night and my whole family were there too.”

European football has involved both highs and lows for Defoe. Three years earlier, when feeling at the top of his game following the 2010 World Cup finals, he injured ankle ligaments which meant he was sidelined when Spurs again qualified for the Champions League group stage. He missed the clashes with Internazionale and so was absent when Gareth Bale scored a memorable hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat in the San Siro.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

“European games are different, under the lights, the atmosphere is always good, playing against the top teams,” said Defoe. “They are special nights and the ones you’ll remember when you stop playing.”

While this is true, it’s not every club where the second leg of a Europa League first round qualifying tie, one in which the hosts already hold a commanding 4-0 lead, still feels like an occasion.

It’s unlikely Defoe will be breaking any European goal records with Rangers. Now 36 and in the last season of an 18-month loan deal, he desperately wishes he had arrived at Ibrox earlier in his career. It’s easy to understand what he means.

He is relishing playing matches in front of a vast, passionate crowd. Even last week’s second leg against St Joseph’s was attended by over 45,000 home fans. Defoe was sent on with just over twenty minutes to go and struck twice to help make it 10-0 on aggregate. He is now looking to add to his European tally at Rangers against old foes Progres Niederkorn at Ibrox this evening.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

“I wish I had come here three years ago,” said Defoe. “It’s a special place, to be honest. I know players say that but I’m not saying that because I have to say it. Even with the new signings, I speak with them every day and ask them if they are enjoying it. All the new signings can’t believe it: it’s like ‘wow, it’s a special place to play football'.

“Even the game the other night, the tie all but done, and it was unbelievable to draw that level of support. You’ve got to enjoy every day, embrace it. I enjoy training every day, every game. It’s a special football club.”

If he had arrived at Ibrox earlier, he might have been able to help avert a defeat roundly viewed as Scotland’s greatest humiliation in European competition. Defoe was at Bournemouth when Rangers succumbed 2-0 in Luxembourg to Progres two years ago having won only 1-0 at Ibrox, while Gerrard was the Under-18s coach at Liverpool.

Indeed, Gerrard is clear about one thing: he would likely still be at Anfield had the defeat to the Luxembourg part-timers not set in motion Pedro Caixinha’s long goodbye. “I arrived here probably because of that second leg night,” he said yesterday.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

“I know it took until October for Caixinha to eventually leave, but Graeme Murty got the caretaker role on the back of that and then I obviously got the role. But it all goes back to those two fixtures. It goes to show the importance of tomorrow night’s game – and St Joseph’s before.”

Storms might be sweeping across the country as a consequence of the muggy weather but Gerrard is determined to avoid lightning striking twice. It’s almost inconceivable that Progres could overcome Rangers over two legs once again but while the Ibrox side are much improved since then, their opponents, too, have gained further valuable European experience in the interim and defeated Cork City to reach this stage.

“It doesn’t matter who you are playing, you have to try and get through,” said Gerrard, who confirmed new signing Filip Helander, the Swedish centre-half, is in the squad for both legs, and will be seen at some stage. “I think they (Progres) are going to come with confidence and belief because of their experience a couple of years ago.

“They will wonder why they cannot do it twice,” he added. “But we have to suck out every bit of belief and confidence and swagger they might come into Ibrox with tomorrow. The players won’t need a reminder of the attitude and mentality they need to get this job done. And we want it done as soon as possible. I want a very aggressive team performance.”