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The big interview: Jermain Defoe – “I regret the way I left West Ham – I did something wrong, hold my hands up and take responsibility"

Jermain Defoe

FourFourTwo has never been so cold. It’s Games of Thrones cold, with each breath vaporizing in the air. We’re up north, but we’re not trudging around Westeros – we’re inside Sunderland’s indoor training facility.

Just as we start to wish that there was a fur-covered Jon Snow to huddle up to, the next best thing bounces in through the door: Jermain Defoe. We tell him an academy goalkeeper is coming to face some of his shots for the photoshoot. “He’s in trouble,” he chirps.

The England international spends the next 10 minutes hitting every corner of the net, but when we tell him it’s time to finish and answer your questions, his precision deserts him. “I can’t end on a miss,” he says after rattling the post. He smacks the next ball into the top corner. “OK, I’m ready...”

Goals are your currency these days, Jermain, but can you remember how much pocket money you used to get?
Ryan Mclure, via Facebook

I used to get £10 for the week. I spent £5.50 on my bus fare and the rest of it went on chips and sweets – that’s why I’ve needed to have five root canals!

CLUBS AND COUNTRY

1999-2004 West Ham

2000-01 Bournemouth (loan)

2004-08 Tottenham

2008-09 Portsmouth

2009-14 Tottenham

2014 Toronto FC

2015- Sunderland

2004- England

Is it true you were a bit of a dancer in your school days? Do you fancy going on Strictly Come Dancing in the future?
Adam Fields, via Twitter

I competed in street dance competitions with my mate Darren Hart. I remember being really nervous for one as we had to perform in front of all the girls, too. We ended up winning and I’ve still got the medals at my mum’s. I’d never go into the jungle and do I’m a Celebrity... but I’d love to do Strictly Come Dancing.

I’ve read that you were a Gooner as a kid. Please tell me that’s not true...
Alfie Chewl, Brentwood

Absolutely not! My local team was West Ham and I used to go and watch them play when I was younger. The Arsenal connection came from me saying that I loved watching Ian Wright, but I was not an Arsenal fan. I just loved Wrighty.

You’re a natural goalscorer. Did you love scoring when you were a kid?
Alan Noonan, via Facebook

I’ve been obsessed with scoring goals from a very young age – from the time I could walk, really. I always had a ball in the house – my nan would go mad because I used to smash everything. I would put chairs together, throw the ball against the wall and then volley it in between. I did that for hours, but no one ever told me to do it – I just did it.

Do you think leaving Charlton Athletic when you were only 16 set you up for a career of controversial transfers?
Lee Elliott, London

West Ham approached me and it made sense to go and sign for them. I’m an east London boy, I had friends at the club and it was much closer to home. I wanted to be at a club where young players were given the chance to play. It was controversial as West Ham had made an illegal approach and had to pay £1.6m. In my first match for the Hammers’ youth team, there were paparazzi by the pitch. I was thinking, ‘Who are they taking pictures of?’ All that stuff helped me in the long-term.

I watched you playing on loan for Bournemouth during your record goalscoring run. How did a player so young get so confident and clinical?
Wade Crawford, via Facebook

I was too confident. I was playing for West Ham’s under-19s and we used to win every match, and I’d usually score. Before games, the boys would always ask me, “JD, you going to score today?” and I would always reply, “Of course I will score.”

My self-belief came from playing with some good players. Harry Redknapp made me train with the first team so I was playing against people like Rio Ferdinand, which gave me a lot of confidence. When I went out on loan to Bournemouth, I felt ready to step up.

When you first joined up with West Ham, what was it like seeing other English talent such as Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole breaking through? Did that help you think you could make it?
Brad Peterson, via Facebook

On Thursdays we used to go to college, but I got kicked out as I didn’t want to be there – I wanted to train

I thought, ‘I want a piece of this.’ Rio, Frank Lampard, Trevor Sinclair and John Moncur always used to mess about with the ball before the manager came out for training. I used to stand there and wait for Harry to say to me, “Train with us today.” He probably thought, ‘I like this kid, he’s confident.’

I was only 17 but I wanted to be with the first team. On Thursdays we used to go to college, but I got kicked out as I didn’t want to be there – I wanted to train. When the rest of the youth team was at college, I was out training with the first team.

There were some big characters in the West Ham side you broke into, like Trevor Sinclair, Paolo Di Canio and Don Hutchison. Did they look after you? Was there an initiation?
Devonte Blackellar, via Twitter

I loved Di Canio. Paolo was a legend with me. He’s someone that I always looked up to – even during our days off he would always be in training on his own. When I scored my first ever Premier League goal against Ipswich, he came off and then gave me the armband. It was just unbelievable. They didn’t make us do an initiation, though they were hard in training.

If you ever gave the ball away, Trevor Sinclair would go mad. As a young lad you would be scared, but it then forced you to raise your game. After training, he would come and put his arm around you and say, “Listen, I am just trying to help you out.”

During 2002/03 a lot of people kept saying that West Ham were too good to go down – was there any complacency among the squad?
Kelly Shephard, Romford

The squad that year was unbelievable, but we left it too late. The first half of the season just wasn’t good enough – we didn’t perform and never recovered. We had a young, talented side with the likes of myself, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole and the team spirit was good, so it was sad knowing that people would be moving on once we went down.

Getting relegated was horrible, but you have to learn from all of these experiences and, as we found out, it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t perform well then you will end up getting relegated.

Do you regret the manner in which you left West Ham? Do you think you were ill-advised handing in a transfer request so soon after the relegation?
Ian James, via Facebook

I would never hand in a transfer request and I would never advise a young lad to do it either

Yes, absolutely. I did something wrong, I hold my hands up about it and take responsibility. I was a young lad back then and didn’t really understand what was going on. When we got relegated, my agent, who was also inexperienced at the time, said, “You need to hand in a transfer request as everybody else is going to leave.” I was young and naive, and all I was really thinking about was wanting to play football.

Would I do the same thing now? No way. I would never hand in a transfer request and I would never advise a young lad to do it, either.

You were linked to Manchester United as well as Arsenal but you ended up joining Tottenham in February 2004 – a team that was struggling at the time. How come?
Ethan Phillips, Manchester

Louis Saha had gone to United already and he was on fire. The Arsenal link was exciting because Ian Wright was my hero as a kid. However, Spurs was perfect for me because of their history of strikers – Gary Lineker, Jimmy Greaves, Jurgen Klinsmann, Teddy Sheringham – so I wanted to get on that list, too.

Can you explain what went on before that infamous ‘Lasagne-gate’ match against West Ham on the final day of the 2005/06 season? Were you one of the Tottenham players who got ill? Just how bad did it get? And should the match have been postponed?
Charlie Sampson, via Twitter

I woke up on the morning of the game and then the doctor called me to ask, 'Are you OK?'

Yes, it should have been. I woke up on the morning of the game and then the doctor called me to ask, “Are you OK?” I told him I was, and he informed me that a few of the boys were feeling ill.

I thought he must mean it was one or two. Even if you get a couple of players sick that’s some serious bad luck. But it was five or six players and they couldn’t even walk about. I thought, ‘Something has definitely gone on here – one of the West Ham lads has done something to the food.’ If we had put a full-strength team out that day, then we would have done it [win to finish 4th above Arsenal and qualify for the Champions League].

In a 2006 game against West Ham, it looked like you had a little nibble at Javier Mascherano. What was that all about, and do you think you were a bit fortunate to get away with it?
Paolo Ischio, via Facebook

Every time I got the ball, Mascherano smashed me. Eventually I said to him, “Don’t do that again,” but he still kept doing it. I was so fired up, and the West Ham fans had been giving me loads of stick, that I reacted. As soon as I got up, I thought, ‘I’m going to get sent off here.’

Martin Jol was the Spurs boss at the time and he didn’t used to mess about, so I was worried he would go mad at me, but I only got booked. My heart was racing. I thought, ‘Thank God for that.’ I still watch it back now. The headline in one of the newspapers the next day was ‘Bite Hart Lane’ [Laughs].

Why do you think that Sven-Goran Eriksson didn’t take you to either Euro 2004 or the World Cup in 2006? You were a much better option than a 16-year-old Theo Walcott, weren’t you?
Scott Goodchild, via Facebook

I could not understand why he decided to make that decision. Even to this day I still think it was a massive mistake

It’s crazy. I was being rotated at Tottenham at the time, but with the goals I'd scored in the Premier League – as well as for England – I couldn't understand why he decided to make that decision. Even to this day I still think it was a massive mistake.

I am not saying I should have gone to the tournament and started all of the games. However, if I was a manager and I had natural scorers at my disposal, whether they were in form or not, I’d still take them.

How frustrating was it to play for both Portsmouth and Spurs in the 2007/08 season, but not be able to appear in either of their cup finals?
Ian Cunningham, via Twitter

I was flying at Spurs, scoring lots of goals, but then I broke my foot and couldn’t get back in the team. It was frustrating, so I decided to go and join Portsmouth in the January and missed out on the League Cup final [in which Spurs beat Chelsea 2-1], but I enjoyed seeing the boys lifting the trophy. Then at Portsmouth I was cup-tied for their FA Cup matches [having already played for Spurs in the third and fourth rounds], but I still got to lift up the trophy afterwards.

Did you have any idea how bad the financial state of the club was at Pompey? Were there any signs that things were not quite right?
Martin Warnock, Portsmouth

Honestly, I didn’t have a clue. I was just trying to focus on scoring goals as that’s what people always expect from me. Harry Redknapp was leaving to go and manage Tottenham and as soon as I’d heard that news, I thought that I would be signing for Spurs as well. But I really enjoyed my time playing for Portsmouth. For a pretty small stadium, the atmosphere at Fratton Park was unbelievable for every game.

What do you think it is about Harry Redknapp that’s made you sign for him so many times over the years?
RafM, via Twitter

Forget about the medical, just come here and score some goals

He used to phone me up. “JD,” he’d say. “Yes Harry?” I’d reply. “I want you to come here and score some goals.” “OK, sure.” “Forget about the medical, just come here and score some goals.” He never complicated anything. “Just put in the effort,” he would say to me. “You’re doing something you love, that you get paid for – just do what you do.”

Did your old Tottenham team-mate Erik Edman say anything to you after you scored five goals past his Wigan team in Spurs’ 9-1 victory in 2009
Rashid Mid, via Facebook

No, but Titus Bramble had a word. I was on Facebook after the game and then he popped up. I thought, ‘Here we go.’ “JD, you’ve killed me,” he said. “I was meant to stay down in London after the game and go out tonight, but the manager’s got us training tomorrow.” I simply laughed and said, “Sorry T.”

How mad were all of the celebrations when Spurs sealed qualification for the Champions League at Man City? Was that your best night with Spurs?
Joe Whitehouse, via Twitter

Yes, but it wasn’t for David Bentley. He poured water all over Harry’s head and hardly played another game for Spurs. Harry laughed it off, but doing that to the manager during a live interview… I thought, ‘I don’t know about that...’

It was really funny, though. That night was unbelievable. We finally achieved something we'd worked so hard for.

How different was Harry Redknapp compared with Andre Villas-Boas? Was it a bit of a culture shock for some of the players? Why didn’t it work out for Andre at Tottenham?
Katie Simpson, via Twitter

AVB was a clever, enthusiastic coach, and away from all of that he was also a really nice guy. You could talk to him about anything

AVB was a ledge. He really impressed me. His training was always different: he would have four pitches set up, all with a different purpose, each of them designed to prepare you for the next match. He was a clever, enthusiastic coach, and away from all of that he was also a really nice guy. You could talk to him about anything. We were flying under him in the second year, but then we got beat heavily by Man City and Liverpool and it was difficult.

Being a young coach, he didn't have the experience of dealing with players when things were going badly and it affected him. He desperately wanted to do well and wanted the players to love him. It was sad the way it ended.

Is it really true that Drake phoned you up to persuade you to sign for Toronto? What did he say to you?
Mohamed Abdalkrem, via Facebook

I was in a restaurant and a strange number called my phone. I picked up and the person said, “Hi, is this Jermain?” I said, “Yeah, who’s this?” “Drake.” “Yeah good one. Who is it really?” “It’s Drake!” “This is Drake?!” “Yeah.” “OK, when are you in London?” I asked him this as we had a mutual friend who had told me when Drake was coming to London. He said, “I’m coming to London on Thursday and meeting Ata,” who was our mutual friend. Then I said, “Wow, OK, cool,” and we had a chat.

He told me, “You need to come to Toronto. You’ll love it.” We spoke about music and he offered to take me out when I went over there.

Your time with Toronto has perhaps been overshadowed slightly by your tumultuous exit from the club. What is your lasting memory about your experience in Toronto and Canada?
Michael Przybylowski, via Facebook

I loved it, I met some really nice people. It was a good deal for Tottenham at the time, as I was 31 and playing in MLS was something that I’d always thought about. Toronto made a big effort to get me and I’ve still got friends over there. I enjoyed it, but I missed the Premier League and so that’s why I decided to come back.

Some of the fans used to give me stick on social media, saying I wasn’t committed, but I carried on playing for four more months despite a torn adductor and a hernia, although I didn’t know that at the time. I reacted to one fan on Twitter – I sent him a list of the top goalscorers in Premier League history, with me on 150 goals. I never did hear back from him about that...

How does the Tyne-Wear derby compare to the north London one? You’ve scored some pretty good goals in both of those matches.
Israel Gomes, London

The Tyne-Wear derby is much bigger than football. During the lead-up to the game, people would come up to me while I was doing my shopping

The North London derby is good as it is two massive teams battling it out for the local bragging rights, but the Tyne-Wear derby is much bigger than football. During the lead-up to the game, people would come up to me while I was doing my shopping in the supermarket and say, “You have got to beat them. Whatever you do, win, please.”

When Gus Poyet signed me, he said some fans had told him, “We’d rather get relegated than lose to Newcastle. Beat Newcastle. That’s all we want.” I thought, ‘Wow. That’s how important it is to all of the fans up here.’ The atmosphere is electric – it’s crazy. In the warm-up I said to Lee Cattermole, “I just want to score. I need to score.” I did – we won 1-0.

Quite a few geniuses on social media said that you would be a bad buy for Sunderland. Any messages for them?
Carlos Rodriguez, via Twitter

No words. Just look at the statistics. I don’t take too much notice of social media. A lot of the stuff on there is usually nice. You might get the odd Newcastle fan writing something silly, but who cares? It doesn’t bother me.

Jermain Defoe wears the adidas X16 Blue Blast built for maximum speed and acceleration www.adidas.co.uk/football

This feature originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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