'When I scored, I really could have just dropped to the ground and cried. It's something I've pictured in my head so many times...'

The Spurs striker who worshipped the predatory instincts of Ian Wright is seizing his chance to make a name for himself. Jason Burt meets the new England sensation Jermain Defoe
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The Independent Football

Jermain Defoe is explaining the craft of being a goalscorer. "When a winger has the ball, he will look up before he crosses," Defoe says. "And the moment his head goes down again is the moment to go. Dart across your marker and go for that near post."

Jermain Defoe is explaining the craft of being a goalscorer. "When a winger has the ball, he will look up before he crosses," Defoe says. "And the moment his head goes down again is the moment to go. Dart across your marker and go for that near post."

There's a smile. He's leaning forward now, he's almost tipping out of his seat. England's newest striker looks like he wants to make one of those runs.

Appropriately, it's a trick that was taught to him by Ian Wright. Defoe was known as "Wrighty" when he was growing up on the Woodcocks Estate in Beckton, East London, a nickname he adored. Posters of Arsenal's record goalscorer adorned his walls. "A legend," says Defoe. "I loved him. I used to say to all my friends that I'd just love to meet him. All his experience, all those goals."

A few years later Defoe, who was raised an Arsenal fan, did meet his hero. He was 17, his career undefined, when he joined West Ham United in 1999. Wright had moved there the season before. He was almost 36. Defoe was racked with nerves. "Training with him, for me, was unbelievable," says Defoe.

Wright took him under his wing. He recognised the potential. "We used to stay behind after training doing a lot of finishing," Defoe says fondly of those afternoons at Chadwell Heath, West Ham's training ground. Just him and his idol. A young man learning the tricks of the trade. Like looking for the winger's eyes to drop, or not making a run too early. "As I was running into the box he would hold me, literally hold me back by the shirt and then, when it was time, he would say, 'Right, go now.'"

Timing. It's what Jermain Defoe, 22 next month, is all about. Seizing that moment. He may have been held back again when he was so narrowly excluded from the England squad for Euro 2004, but his run remained impeccable. He did everything he could to force his way to Portugal with his 79-minute cameo against Sweden in March.

"But I was told [by the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson] that he would be taking just four strikers," Defoe says. "If it was five, I would have been in." His emotions were complicated by the fact that his only chance of inclusion would have come if his friend Darius Vassell had failed to recover from injury.

"It was hard to get so close," says Defoe, who holidayed in the Caribbean instead, visiting his grandparents and eagerly watching every game on television. It sharpened his appetite.

"A lot of the boys said, 'Don't worry, you'll get your chance'," Defoe recalls of his summer disappointment. He did. It came last week in Poland.

And Defoe took it.

It was a beautiful goal. At once elegant and brutal. Razor-sharp. Cool and yet, for Defoe, deeply emotional. "When I scored," he says, his voice lowering, "I really could have just dropped to the ground and cried." It meant that much to him and to his family, his mother Sandra and stepfather Andre, who had flown over. It was a moment that framed his dreams. "I've pictured that so many times in my head. When I first got the call-up, even before we first met, the moments before the game. I was just picturing myself scoring for England. The same just before the game. So when it happened, it really was just unbelievable."

He had learned of his selection a few hours earlier. "I found out the day of the game, after lunch," he says. "Tord Grip said that he [Eriksson] wanted to have a word with me, and as soon as he said that I thought, 'I must be starting'."

Was he given specific instructions?

"No, he trusts all the players. When we got into the changing-rooms he just told me to go out and express myself."

It was his moment, but Defoe kept his composure. "It was a big game, and I knew everyone was watching. It was my big chance and I had to take it. I knew what I had to do. There were no nerves."

Defoe has a reputation for taking his chances. David Pleat, the man who took him from West Ham to Tottenham Hotspur, calls him "Cool Hand Luke", and it's easy to see why. His Spurs career has started with a flurry of goals, at West Ham it was 41 goals in 104 games and his debut for the England Under-21s saw him score within four seconds of coming on.

Now England, after the wreckage of a disappointing result in Austria, needed him to score. It came after 37 minutes, a trademark Defoe goal, collecting a clever David Beckham pass, spinning past a defender and sending the ball into the far corner. "When I get the ball in the box, the first thing I think is: 'Right, can I turn?' If I can, I do. If I do, I shoot. If not, I lay it back."

When he returned to Spurs for training the next day, even the players were asking him why he turned. "Sometimes in games you get the chance and you just don't think about it. You just do it."

Just do it. It's his credo.

It was an unforgettable moment for Defoe, one he had first pictured in his bedroom in Beckton a few years ago, his eyes flicking between the posters of Wright and, at night, out of his window to the square below where his friends were hanging out. Maybe he also pictured it when he saw Wright score his first goal for England, back in 1993, also in a World Cup qualifier, also against Poland.

"I always wanted to be out in the square," Defoe remembers. But he didn't go. At first it was his mum stopping him. "She would say, especially when I had training the next day, 'You shouldn't be out late, you should rest'. But the natural thing when you are young is that you don't want to hear that. You think: 'How's it going to affect me?' But you get used to it."

Soon he was telling himself to stay in. "I used to say 'No, I want to make it. I want to be a professional footballer'. He knew, even then, at an uncommonly young age, what it took.

Defoe admits that his friends, maybe, didn't understand. "But now they do," he says. He has remained in contact. And, in the last few days, they have been keen to know about that night in Chorzow. "They say: 'What was it like?' But it's hard to explain ... I can't find the words. At first it didn't feel real. It was only when I ran over to the fans that it did.

"I just want to score so bad," he says. That desire has always been with him. It defines his happiness. "I remember when I was in the youth team at West Ham, Tony Carr, the manager of the Under-17s, always said to me, 'You look frustrated in games. Don't be. You know you are going to score goals'," Defoe says. And there is that confidence. "Cockiness", Harry Redknapp calls it, even "arrogance" - "but show him a goal and he's away".

Aged eight, Defoe was playing for Newham District Schools Under-11s team. He was three years younger than the rest of the boys. He scored 50 goals that season. "I remember just wanting to win ever since I've played football," he says. "At primary school, Sunday league. If I lost, or didn't score, I wanted to cry."

Even at that age it wasn't just his goals that coaches noticed. It was his movement. His colleague at Spurs, Pedro Mendes, has noted that when he looks up from midfield, he always sees Defoe. He is always available. "When I was younger, I always used to think about movement, I don't know why," says Defoe. "Probably, at that age, it wasn't what I was expected to think about. But for some reason I did."

Defoe is a great student of the game. He has a library of his goals. "I love watching them," he says. "If I'm not playing on a Sunday, I'll watch the 2pm game, the 4pm game, Spanish football, Champions' League. People say: 'Don't you get sick of it?' Never. If I walk in the park and see little kids playing football, I want to join in."

It's not just Ian Wright he admires. "I watch a lot of forwards," says Defoe who, when at West Ham, carried out some scouting and also coached the Under-9s. The movement of Ruud van Nistelrooy, for example, is "great", while he eulogises the Brazilian striker Romario. "When he had chances, there was never much back-lift [in his shots]," says Defoe. "When he used to shoot, it was strange - usually a player has to swing his leg but his [shots] were like little toe-pokes. Robbie Fowler doesn't have much back-lift either and he finds the corners. But Romario was the best at it." Defoe, too, has that ability. It's no surprise to hear that he is a fanatical trainer. "If I miss [in a game], I stay behind. Shooting practice," he says.

After playing for the extraordinary East End boys club Senrab, Defoe went through Lilleshall, the Football Association's defunct national academy. "I remember going for the trials," Defoe says. "At the first one there were 2,000 boys." Finally he made it through to the last 16 and a two-day trial at Lilleshall itself. He played two matches. "I really wanted to go and realised it was such a great opportunity," says Defoe. In the first game he scored five times; in the second, five more. He knew he had done well, but when the letter arrived to tell him his fate he was still too nervous to open it. His mum did instead. "She said 'You're in.'" Once again he had taken his chance.

His first club was Charlton Athletic but he left to join West Ham, signing on his 17th birthday. A popular image is that Defoe left both clubs in the lurch - and he does regret handing in a transfer request at West Ham hours after they were relegated from the Premiership in May last year. It was act of ambition and nothing more. In the event he stayed until January, joining Spurs for £7m just five minutes before the transfer window closed. "It was right to leave," Defoe maintains, "the right decision."

West Ham fans, he says, have been good to him since and he was "gutted" they lost in last season's play-offs. "They [the fans] probably look at it and think 'Well, he's got his chance with England and he's playing in the Premiership where he wants to be," he says.

Pre-season at Spurs was a blur of excitement under the new coach, Jacques Santini. At the end of it Defoe "felt sharp and ready" and was eager to please the man who had coached Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. They have started the season impressively. Santini, defying the doubters, by guiding Spurs to an unbeaten start after five games; Defoe with three goals and a string of eye-catching performances.

Tomorrow they face their toughest test so far, when they visit Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. Defoe is confident that Santini's encouraging beginning can be sustained. "He's got different ideas and you can see that in what he's done already. It's a big year for the club. I think we can finish in the top six. Definitely."

But whatever happens this season, it will take a lot to surpass that night in Poland. The evening before the match, he was playing the football computer game Pro-Evolution in the team hotel. With him were Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips - the stepson, of course, of Ian Wright. "Shaun is the same," says Defoe, when asked to compare him to his hero. "He's a winner as well, he wants to do well, always to win."

But so does Defoe. The computer game wasn't going well. "Shaun was beating me 4-0," he recalls, "and we were due to have a team meeting afterwards and the lads were coming in one by one. Kieron Dyer came in." Defoe laughs. "So I switched the computer off. I just didn't want anyone to see that I wasn't winning."

The latest product from a footballing factory

Jermain Defoe is a product of the Senrab boys club in East London. He is the eighth player from the modest Sunday League club, which does not even have its own ground, to become a full England international. "We were like Real Madrid. We won everything," says Defoe of his time at the club based in Wanstead Flats. "At the time I played, Senrab just seemed to scout round and get the best players." They still do. "The club had a lot of the coaches who were attached to clubs such as Charlton and West Ham, and that helped them," Defoe explains.

Since it was formed 44 years ago, the tight-knit club has indeed been a football factory. It first came to prominence with the emergence of Ray Wilkins in the 1970s, and was known as "Chelsea Juniors" because of its links with the West London club. Wilkins was followed by Paul Miller at Tottenham Hotspur, David Kerslake at Queen's Park Rangers and Vince Hilaire at Crystal Palace.

More recently, the club has boasted even greater success. The 1994-95 Under-15s team are regarded as the best ever. They included John Terry, Ledley King, Jlloyd Samuel, Paul Konchesky and Bobby Zamora. Other players to come through include Muzzy Izzet, Lee Bowyer, Jon Fortune and Darren Purse.

Then there is Defoe, who played up front with Leon Knight, now at Brighton and Hove Albion. The name itself has become a source of intrigue, with its origin lost. It is the name "Barnes" backwards, but no one with that name has any connections with it. One suggestion is that the name came from Barnes Street in Tower Hamlets. Another is that it came from Senrab Street in Stepney.

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