The memory is still vivid, the emotions still raw, as Jermain Defoe relives the final 45 minutes of England's abortive European Championship qualification campaign. "When he [coach Steve McClaren] said I was going on [at half-time] I just thought that this was my opportunity and I could do something special. He just said to me and Becks, 'Just try and make a difference'. I got the penalty, and as soon as the ref pointed to the spot I thought, 'We'll go through here'.
"There was a buzz among the fans, and you felt everyone was lifted. Frank scored, and then straight after, Crouchy scored. It felt unbelievable. I was thinking this could be a great night. When they [Croatia] scored, all you can do is think, 'Maybe it's not meant to be'. At the end, I said to myself, 'Could I have done more?'" He shrugs. "It was a desperate situation, and everyone plays differently when they're desperate. You force things, and you can't relax. In the dressing room afterwards it was horrible."
If the Tottenham striker still needed help to place a spectacularly bad night in proportion it is here nine days later, at Raynham Primary School in Edmonton, only a mile or so from White Hart Lane, where a sportsmanship programme has been developed to help improve poor attitudes to learning and behaviour. After England's humiliation, a humbling experience follows after training on Friday. Defoe makes a joke about being little, and it's true he does not exactlydwarf the boys and girls as he joins in playground football.
It is just one of the initiatives of the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, an independent charity launched in January with 4.5 million of funding from the club to oversee their work in the community. Spurs may have had their critics, particularly over the handling of Martin Jol's departure, but there can be no doubting they are aware of their respons-ibilities to the local community, which includes some of thecountry's most deprived areas.
If these youngsters required another lesson, that of handling adversity, it would be fair to say Defoe provides the ideal role model. The 25-year-old East Londoner has had an oscillating career, one of burgeoning promise as a youngster at West Ham, early England selection, but also bitter frustration as his appear-ances have been limited by club and, hence, by country. But things are looking more propitious, with a new manager, Juande Ramos, installed, and a chairman, Daniel Levy, apparently determined to keep Defoe at the club. "The chairman said to me, 'If you sign a new contract [his expires in 2009], it would lift all the players, the whole club', and I'd like to get it sorted. I've never said that I don't want to sign.
"It would be easy for me,when I do play, to just sulk and not be bothered. But that's not me. When I do play, I give it everything I've got."
He is circumspect about directly comparing the new manager with the old. "I'm not going to turn round and say he's better than Jol," says Defoe. "But he's changed a lot of things. Since he's been here, everyone knows what they're doing. It shows in the way we attack, and defensively as well. We do a lot of set plays in training, attacking and defending. The whole organisation is different. He has done really well." Levy has said that Jol lost the dressing room, but Defoe's only comment is: "He did well for the club. Hopefully,the new manager will bring us on to the next level."
And hopefully, for Defoe, yield the club appearances which will place him under the gaze of the new England coach, whoever he may be. Defoe just missed out on the 2004 European Championship and, somewhat per-versely, found himself surplus to requirements at the 2006 World Cup and was sent home by Sven Goran Eriksson.
"When I was out there, I felt so sharp. Experienced players, people like Sol, Stevie G, Becks, they all said, 'J, you need to be here. The way you look in training, you should be at this tournament, because you could do something special'. I'm not a manager, but forwards score goals. If it was me, I'd have taken about six, to be honest. There's going to be fatigue, injuries. He didn't take many forwards and look what happened."
Back to the present, and Defoe has some pupils to inspire. Joe Lyons, the THF's schools programme co-ordinator, explains that the principal aim of the sportsmanship programme is to target the "two or three from each year whose behaviour is not acceptable. We work on aspects of sportsmanship and respect and the reward at the end is a game of football".
For the other pupils, there is a "good behaviour" target. If the children reach their target they are rewarded with a "golden-time" session with the THF coach. Raynham School's deputy head, Nikki Moossun, says: "This motivates children in a way we can't; using football to make a difference to children's learning. It's the brand, the kudos of Spurs as a club, that's as important as the players. In terms of attitude, the children's confidence and development have come on in leaps and bounds."
Just one thought. Are footballers the best people to commend sportsmanship? Defoe laughs. "I'm different, because I don't swear or kick people." Not opposition players, but there are one or two of his own club and international coaches who must have sorely tempted him...Reuse content