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Jermain Defoe exclusive interview: The hunger that drove him, the impact of Bradley Lowery, and being a manager

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports ahead of a new documentary about his life, Jermain Defoe discusses the hunger that drove him on, his relationship with his father, how Bradley Lowery changed him, and why he wants to be a manager...

The film “Defoe” is a feature length biography charting the life and professional career of Jermain Defoe
Image: The film “Defoe” is a feature length biography charting the life and professional career of Jermain Defoe

“Football was always an escape. When I was playing, I never thought about anything else regardless of what I was going through off the pitch. Then the final whistle goes and all the problems of life comes on top of you.

"I was like that from the age of eight."

Jermain Defoe is discussing his life story, the subject of a new documentary, Defoe, to be released in cinemas for one night only at the end of this month.

It is an unusual mix, blending familiar tropes of sporting success with the tragedy that provided the backdrop to some of his best moments.

Defoe is a fan of sporting documentaries, highlighting the recent examples of Ricky Hatton and Ronnie O'Sullivan. But why put his name to one himself?

"I think it is important not only for me but for others to do it because I think you see the person behind the footballer," he says.

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"It would be nice for people to reflect. See what I have achieved but at the same understand what has gone on away from football.

"There are all these things that people do not know. I do not want people to feel sorry for me, I want them to understand that tough times never last. I just thought it was the right time for people to really understand who I am."

Who he really is might surprise.

There are the contradictions. Some, such as the swimming pool he is constructing at his home despite the fact that he does not swim, are trivial. Others are profound. Defoe describes himself as guarded, single-minded, a man with a laser-like focus on football. And yet, few at his level of fame have connected with a young fan as he did with Bradley Lowery.

Speaking to Sky Sports in a small room at a private members' club in Soho, this quaint Dickensian retreat amid the hustle and bustle of London life outside feels like the perfect place to explore those contradictions. The discussion is always honest, occasionally enlightening, and briefly intensely emotional when talking about his late father.

But let us start at the beginning.

Because Defoe has been under pressure right from the start. "In a crazy way, I think I enjoyed it." At Senrab, the renowned boys' team in London that produced so many future England internationals, you had to win.

By 16, West Ham had paid Charlton £1.6m for him. This is 25 years ago. "I had not kicked a ball. If we signed a young lad at Tottenham's academy now, without wanting to put too much pressure on, I would naturally be thinking that you have to justify this fee."

Defoe did that, scoring 162 Premier League goals, ninth on the all-time list, and playing 57 times for England. Perhaps the secret was that he never stopped feeling as if he had a point to prove. "I always felt like I had to be better than the person next to me," he says.

"When I speak to my friends now, they always joke about it. They say, 'your mindset was completely different to the rest of us'. They would laugh, 'you never came out. You did not drink. You always stayed behind after training.' But that is just how I was.

"I went to Rangers at the back end of my career where people could maybe understand that I was not the same player as five years before but I always felt like I had something to prove. That is not just games. That is every training session. That is every gym session."

He recalls Tony Carr, West Ham's academy boss, trying to drag him off the pitch. "I think that came from my background, really. I knew that my family had done so much for me. I just felt like I had to give them something back. I was going to do whatever it takes."

Specifically, he is thinking of his mother. In the documentary, the only time that he becomes visibly tearful is when recalling her job cleaning toilets to help support his own dream. "There were probably jobs that she never told me about," he says now.

"She had me at 18 so it was difficult for her. My mum worked around the clock just to provide but growing up in the East End all I saw around me were people working hard. My nan worked in Tate & Lyle, the sugar factory. My grandad worked in a meat factory."

He describes the events of his grandad's death through his own eyes. "I got a knock on my door at four in the morning. I went to hospital at five. Got back home at nine. Went to White Hart Lane and played the game. I had to keep going. That was my mentality."

The film “Defoe” is a feature length biography charting the life and professional career of Jermain Defoe
Image: Defoe says that he always felt he had a point to prove throughout his long career

Loss, sadly, has been a theme in his life. Brother Gavin was killed following an assault in 2009. In 2012, he lost his father to cancer. Again, keeping going was the mantra. There were regular trips to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London throughout Euro 2012.

Only now, one senses, at 41, is Defoe coming up for air.

"There were things that went on throughout my career," he says.

"I probably have this thing where I can blank things out. When I look back now, I don't know how I managed to play or focus and still remain positive. But at the same time you need to be resilient. I felt like I did not have time to be too emotional and sit in a corner and cry."

His relationship with his father was complicated.

Curiously, Defoe has not yet seen the documentary, preferring to save it for the premiere at the end of the month. But there is a poignant scene in which an acquaintance of his father relays a tale of how he would speak with such pride about his son's achievements.

"Perhaps he did not tell him that," she says. "But he told everyone else."

When this quote is put to Defoe, he takes some time to compose himself.

"I am getting emotional," he says.

"I always knew that he was proud, to be fair. People separate, it happens. It was just me and my mum for a long period of time. I would always see my dad at family parties and stuff but he had his own struggles. He had his own things that he had to deal with.

"Maybe at the time I did not understand it. I knew in his eyes when he spoke to me that he was proud. I knew that he wanted to be there but he had his own struggles and it was difficult. It was always good but it was in passing if that makes sense.

"We never really had the chance to sit down for hours and speak about what went on. I did not have the time to sit down and speak with my dad on a deeper level. [But] I knew."

The documentary discusses the period when Defoe believes he was going to be a father only to have a paternity test and discover that the baby was not his. It puts a different slant on his decision to move to Toronto, his mother saying that he just needed to get away.

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Defoe discusses his relationship with his father and the impact of meeting Bradley Lowery

That Bradley entered his world soon after does not feel like a coincidence. Terminally ill with neuroblastoma, the boy wanted his hero in his life. Maybe his hero needed him too. "It is strange saying it but I just felt like I was prepared for that moment," says Defoe.

"But at the same time, how can you prepare for that level of love?"

He adds: "I am 41 now so I have had experiences where it was difficult to trust people. It does make you paranoid. With Bradley, it was just completely different. From the moment that he jumped on my lap and started speaking, you could just see. It was so genuine."

The film “Defoe” is a feature length biography charting the life and professional career of Jermain Defoe, pictured here with Bradley Lowery
Image: "It does change you as a person," says Defoe of his relationship with Bradley Lowery

Bradley died in the summer of 2017, aged six.

"He just wanted to be around me and see me every day. It puts things into perspective. I am only human. I moan about things. But there are families in situations that are really tough. It does change you as a person. But I have so many good memories of Bradley."

In 2024, Defoe is into his second season coaching within the Tottenham academy. He recalls a conversation with Joe Cole, his old pal from the centre of excellence at Lilleshall. "He told me that I had to become a manager because I was always good with people."

It is working out for the young talent at Tottenham. Keep an eye on 16-year-old Mikey Moore. But it is working out for Defoe too. Still in football. And still with a point to prove? "Always. Even now when I join in the sessions. I always feel like that," he explains.

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Defoe explains his love for football, as well as his ambitions to begin his managerial career

"I still get the same feeling. Not the same as playing. But I do think it is the nearest thing to playing. Being in that coaches office, planning sessions, being around the academy players. I would like to think that in five years I will be a manager. And I will be a good one."

Jermain Defoe's football journey continues. With a twist.

"When I was younger, it was just about goals. When you become older, you realise that football can give you so much more. The impact that you can have on someone's life and they can have on your life. There is so much more. It is not just about kicking a ball."

Defoe will be available in UK cinemas for one night only on February 29th. Tickets are available at

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