Jermain Defoe talks about scoring more goals than Thierry Henry and going vegan
BOURNEMOUTH, England -- At 36 and with almost two decades of professional football behind him, there is something refreshingly childlike about Jermain Defoe. Elite sport is a tough business and Defoe, slightly built and standing at just 5-foot-6, has endured almost two decades of being on the wrong end of bruising challenges by imposing, physical defenders. Yet it hasn't done anything to quell his enthusiasm for the game. Indeed, you'd expect the exact opposite:
A cynical and hard-bitten veteran of six clubs without a major trophy to show for his time, sour on life and sport as he approaches the twilight of his career. Instead, with Defoe you get a player whose passion for football is infectious. He is chatty and inquisitive about the game, but what stands out most is his love for football and his ability to recall almost every moment, every teammate, in photographic detail.
The sun is shining on Bournemouth's Vitality Stadium as Defoe walks ESPN through his career. The former England forward is approaching the laudable milestone of reaching 500 Premier League appearances -- an exclusive club with only 12 members -- when the discussion turns to his goal tally of 162 and the iconic names that lie ahead of him. Forget the stock response of many players who might say "it's not about records until you retire," Defoe suddenly reacts like a schoolboy.
"[Alan] Shearer's got 260 hasn't he?" Defoe says, correctly. "[Wayne] Rooney's got two... something . Andy Cole's got 186. You've got [Frank] Lampard 177. Thierry [Henry] 175. Robbie [Fowler] 163. JD [Defoe] 162. [Sergio] Aguero will be up there -- he's got 149 now. I saw the list the other day, even when I see my name there it's strange."
Although he is one goal off on correctly recalling the totals of both Cole (187) and Aguero (148), Defoe knows pretty much precisely where he stands in the Premier League's goal scoring Hall of Fame after a career spanning five Premier League clubs dating back to 2000.
A teenage prodigy snapped up by West Ham from Charlton in 1999 -- the Hammers had to pay Charlton £1.4m in compensation, a huge figure at the time -- Defoe underlined his incredible potential by scoring in 10 successive league games the following year while on loan at Bournemouth, then in the third tier of English football, to equal a post-war domestic record. Since then, he has scored at every level, for every club and taken his ability onto the international stage with England.
At times, rumours of interest from Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea surfaced, but Defoe has never quite sealed the box office move his goals arguably deserved.
It has been a six club career, dating back to a goalscoring debut as a 17-year-old at West Ham. Aside from a loan at Bournemouth in League One as a teenager and a year in the MLS with Toronto, Defoe has spent his whole career in the Premier League with West Ham, Spurs (twice), Portsmouth, Sunderland and Bournemouth (twice), and there have been goals all the way.
The 2018-19 season has started slowly for Defoe at Bournemouth (no goals in four appearances this term) but he remains determined to eclipse a couple of those Premier League legends.
"I would've beaten Thierry, yeah, if I didn't have a year with Toronto," he said. "That just sounds crazy because someone like Thierry Henry, who for me was one of the best players to play in the Premier League -- if I do end up scoring more Premier League goals than Thierry Henry, I think it's going to be really strange.
"People ask me how long I can and want to go on, but when you know you are 12 goals behind Thierry Henry, it means you will carry on as long as you can to go past him. But yeah, it is special to be amongst those names for sure."
Hitting another 12 Premier League goals will be a tall order for Defoe given he doesn't regularly start games anymore. He'll have to make the most of his limited opportunities in games ... and in front of goal. Along the way, he is within sight of an equally impressive mark: Defoe is six games shy of 500 Premier League appearances.
Gareth Barry, with 653, tops the list ahead of names such as Ryan Giggs, Lampard, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand. The likes of Paul Scholes (499), John Terry (492), Wayne Rooney (491) and Shearer (441) all fell short, but Defoe is hopeful of hitting 500 before Christmas.
"It's giving away my age, but obviously it's special," he said. "When you are at West Ham in the youth team, you are dreaming about playing in the Premier League, so to reach 500 games is a massive achievement for any player. And there are some real legends on that list. Giggs, Gerrard, Lamps, Rio."
When Defoe first burst onto the scene, it was a Premier League dominated by United and Arsenal. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry were the goal kings: Arsenal's Henry topping the scoring charts four years out of five, with United's Van Nistelrooy denying in a five-year sweep in 2002-03. At the time, Defoe was the rising star, scoring regularly for West Ham and then Spurs, but United and Arsenal were on a different planet to the rest.
So is who the best player he played against?
"Thierry [Henry] was one of the best players I've played against," he says, "But in terms of football, the best, like genius, was probably Paul Scholes. When I was at Tottenham and Portsmouth, when we played with two forwards, I always thought that if you play with two forwards against Man United it's difficult because Scholes could dictate a game.
"So you have to be disciplined and think, 'we're not going to get much of the ball today, but one of the forwards has got to drop in on Scholes and just try and stop him getting a rhythm and stop him getting the ball.' If he gets the ball, you've got no chance.
"I remember him doing it at Old Trafford and, literally, you couldn't get anywhere near him. His passing was just unbelievable. I was like, 'this guy is just on another level, he's seeing things; he's two steps ahead of everyone on the football pitch.' The goals that he scored too, but just all-round, his play was genius."
Rooney, whose emergence as a teenager at Euro 2004 would ultimately see him claim the main striker role for England for a decade, was another player who Defoe saw up close and he admits that the former United captain was unmatched as a strike-partner.
"When I first saw him, I was like, how is this boy 18?" Defoe said. "He was built like a man. Big legs, strong, quick, goal scorer, football brain, technically unbelievable, aggressive. He just had everything, nothing fazed him.
"And he was so unselfish. I remember we played against Bulgaria at Wembley. I scored a hat trick and I remember sitting there after the game and I was like 'pfft, I don't feel like I done anything special in the game, didn't get the ball and beat someone.' I scored a hat trick, all left foot, and I think the second and third goal, Rooney set me up. But the passes were so calculated, it was so easy for me to finish first time. I just knew, if I'm playing with him, all I have to do is make sure my movement is good and I'll have chances to score goals."
Rooney's ability brought the best out of Defoe, who will go down as a great goal scorer rather than a scorer of great goals. He is the old-school predator: minimal back-lift, but maximum precision.
Defoe's best goal, he insists, was the left-foot volley from 20 yards for Sunderland against neighbours Newcastle in April 2015, which secured a 1-0 derby win. "I cried on the pitch when that goal went in," he said. "I had to cover my face when I walked down the tunnel because of it. Sunderland was special for me. Football means so much to the fans up there and that game, I just knew I had to make a difference. As soon as the ball left my foot, I knew it was in, but I think the tears were because of the relief of scoring such an important goal for the club."
Although Defoe has lit up the Premier League with goals at all of his clubs, his two spells at Tottenham stand out as the defining periods of his career. The first, after making a controversial move from West Ham when he submitted a transfer request within 24 hours of their relegation in 2004, was rooted in Defoe's determination to "get myself amongst those sort of names that had played -- [Jurgen] Klinsmanns, Gary Linekers, Jimmy Greaves, all these great players and strikers that had scored goals there."
A disagreement with Spanish coach Juande Ramos led Defoe to move to Portsmouth in 2008, but he was back at White Hart Lane a year later, once again working for Harry Redknapp, [his manager at West Ham and Portsmouth] after chairman Daniel Levy sought out the views of the club's senior players.
"Harry left Portsmouth and went to Tottenham and then Daniel Levy had a meeting with Ledley King, Jermaine Jenas, Jonathan Woodgate," Defoe recalls. "The chairman just basically said to the boys, 'what's the problem?' Tottenham were in the bottom three at the time. And the lads said 'you've just sold 60 goals. You've sold Jermain, Robbie Keane is gone, and someone else. They are goal scorers, and it's hard to replace that.' So the chairman said, 'alright, we'll get him back.' It was perfect. Harry called me again and it was just like going home."
As the Premier League has evolved, Defoe has also changed with the times. He puts his longevity down to a professional, clean-living approach, but even that needs to be updated to ensure he can continue to perform in his mid-30s. He tried veganism over a year ago, but abandoned that strict, plant-based diet due to his love of fish. Yet he insists it is crucial for modern players to be dedicated on and off the pitch.
"I tried veganism," he said. "I am more pescatarian now because I eat fish, but it's not easy to be vegan completely. There are alternatives, but I just love fish. I don't eat red meat or chicken, but it [nutrition] is important because the demands of the Premier League now are so high, if your diet is not good, you can't train at the level we train at every day or get through games.
"I do it to try to prolong my career, to just give you that extra edge, but the diet is not just about football for me. It's long-term. It's clean living.
"But you have to do everything right nowadays. Even when you go out, with social media and the phones and everything, players have to know what's right and what's wrong. We're role models."
Roll model on and off the pitch nicely sums up the demands placed on Defoe by Eddie Howe, the Bournemouth manager. He is the senior pro rather than the wannabe youngster: playing in short, sharp bursts at the same time as helping with the development of his younger teammates.
Defoe remains determined to make his mark.
"I just love playing and scoring goals," he said. "I love it here at Bournemouth, love being in the Premier League and I want to carry on as long as possible."