Premier League stalwart Jermain Defoe has had an illustrious career and shows no signs of slowing down. Over the years, he has seen his reputation sullied in the tabloids, with the reputation of ‘love rat’ following him doggedly. He sits down with The Offside Rule Exclusives to set the record straight and give fans an insight into the real Defoe, writes Natasha Bougourd.
The striker admits he was naïve earlier in his career. “I remember going places and coming out of restaurants when there’s paparazzi and I was like, ‘that’s a little bit strange, how would they even know I’m here?’”
He eventually learned to stay out of the limelight, commenting: “years later you get to understand and you’re told that these sort of girls are the ones who were phoning up the paparazzi saying ‘I’m on a date with Jermain.’”
So where did the love rat reputation emerge? Defoe is candid about how it all started. “At the time I was single and just dating people. I wasn’t doing anything different to anyone else, but nobody knows about it because they’re not in the public eye.”
For many, the most defining incident was the media accusation he was cheating on pop star Alexandra Burke. Defoe is adamant he was stitched up, stating: “we were just friends. One day I went for like a lunch with her, it was local to my house [and] I never ever saw press round there.
“I remember coming out of the pub and there was a guy with a camera. I sort of read the script and thought, ‘ah, is that what it’s all about?’ I think from then, it got my back up a little bit.”
Defoe is relaxed talking about this, having matured since settling down with his girlfriend of three years, Rachel. However, he wanted to set the record straight, because his football was top priority. “For me the important thing was my football. Being in the back pages of the papers and not the front.”
It is this attitude that has taken him so far in his career. He confesses he is “obsessed” with football and dreads retirement. “I get up now and I’m still buzzing for training at the age of 35, it’s a little bit strange to be honest”, he laughs.
The player before us is different to the young Tottenham and West Ham striker who was previously tabloid fodder. But the world saw a softer side to him when he took Bradley Lowery under his wing during his time at Sunderland.
“There was that instant connection. It’s just the way he looked at me. It was so powerful.”
Defoe and Lowery were inseparable until the youngster sadly passed away after a long battle with neuroblastoma.
“I was so used to walking out [on matchdays] with Bradley, and all of a sudden I’m not, so it was always on my mind.”
“I’m one of those people where, when I’m on the pitch I’m happy. That’s my happy place. [football] is something I’ve always wanted to do from day one. But I felt heavy, I didn’t feel light like I usually do. I wasn’t happy because of all the stuff that went on. Of course, I was grieving.”
It’s refreshing to see Defoe in a better place now. He is still close to Bradley’s family and, by his own admission, is happier: “I probably enjoy my football again.”
The Cherries’ forward still has fire in his belly, as evidenced when asked about the 2014 World Cup. “I’m not saying I should have gone and started, but I could’ve contributed in a big way,” he states matter-of-factly.
His frustration at this decision is tangible, and he’s most irked at Roy Hodgson’s reason for not choosing him: because he went to Toronto FC.
“I went to Toronto in March, but up until that point I was flying for Tottenham, scoring on a regular basis.
“I was disappointed because I felt I should have gone, I had something to offer the squad.”
The big question is: what’s next for the 35-year-old when he eventually retires? As you would expect, he is keen to stay in the world of football. “I’ll stay in the game and give something back to the younger players. “
He wants to give back in other ways. “I want to do loads of charity work,” he explains. He sees himself carrying on the legacy of the Jermain Defoe Foundation, as well as helping sick children like Bradley Lowery.
“Going forward it is something I want to do. Probably one of the most important things, to be honest.”
Defoe certainly won’t be short of projects when he hangs up his boots.
Follow Natasha Bougourd on Twitter @natashanufc
Launched in 2017, The Offside Rule Exclusives is our Webby-nominated monthly podcast hosted by Lynsey Hooper, Kait Borsay, and Hayley McQueen. It features in-depth interviews with some of the biggest names in football like Phil Neville, Jermain Defoe, and Casey Stoney.