When Tottenham footballer Jermain Defoe's brother died after a street attack, he and his club set up a project for vulnerable teenagers. But how do children who have spent years in care relate to a sporting millionaire?
The Observer, Sunday 8 April 2012
Jermain Defoe addresses teenagers from the E18hteen project at Spurs Lodge, Chigwell, Essex last month. Photograph: Alex Sturrock for the Observer
In a game of word association, "Premier League footballer" would be unlikely to produce the response "role model". Although football clubs sometimes remind their stars, usually after some infraction in a nightclub, that their behaviour should set an example, if there's a moment that captures the popular image of elite players it was when Ashley Cole threw a tantrum at being offered wages of only £55,000 per week by Arsenal.
The public consensus on professional footballers sees them as overpaid, irresponsible, spoilt and fundamentally detached from reality. But while there is no shortage of candidates to fit that description, that's not how a group of underprivileged north London teenagers thinks of Jermain Defoe, the Tottenham Hotspur striker.
Defoe acts as a kind of life coach in a project set up by the football club that's entitled E18hteen. The name refers to Defoe's squad number but also to the age of many of the participants. E18hteen aims to train and find employment for 160 young people who are, or have recently been, in care.
The teenagers are drawn from four boroughs – Barnet, Enfield, Haringey and Waltham Forest – close to Tottenham's ground. Tottenham, of course, was the epicentre of last summer's riots and looting. While E18hteen doesn't speculate about the underlying causes of the disturbances, there is an understanding that the club needs to reach out to some of the more deprived neighbourhoods that surround the stadium.
At Tottenham's training ground last month, about a dozen teenagers from the project watched stars such as Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric play a game of one-touch football. Afterwards, they met up with Defoe, who sat with the group talking, issuing advice and answering questions on everything from how to set personal goals to what it's like to miss an open goal.
A diminutive but muscular figure, Defoe was in relaxed mood, joking and exchanging banter with the group. He spoke about his football highs and how he relies on his family when he gets down after the team loses.
"Like that Arsenal match," one of the three girls in attendance interrupted, referring to the recent 5-2 loss Spurs suffered at that hands of their arch rivals. "Sorry," she added, "I had to say it. I'm an Arsenal fan."
There was an instant of taut expectancy, as the room waited to see how Defoe would react to the reminder of a humiliating afternoon. After a theatrical pause, the striker flashed the girl a knowing smile and asked: "So what are you doing in that tracksuit?", pointing to the Tottenham outfit that she, like the rest of the group, was wearing. When the laughter subsided, he continued with his point.
"You feel down but you've got to be disciplined. I don't go out drinking and stuff like that. My friends say 'Just have one drink, JD.' I say 'What's the point?' I'll go to a club and have a Red Bull, get my buzz. And the next day I feel cool. It's discipline, not just with drinking but a lot of things in life. You've just got to look at the bigger picture."
The picture got a lot bigger for Defoe three years ago when his half-brother, Jade "Gavin" Defoe, was killed in a street fight. He says that he had been growing increasingly concerned about the plight of young people in the capital, but the death of his half-brother made him stop and ask what he could do.
"There were quite a few moments that made me think I need to put something back in the community," he tells me later. "Watching the news and seeing all the gun crime in London. Young kids were dying, getting stabbed outside schools. Then what happened to my brother Gavin was a big thing for me. And one of my cousins was actually in care but is now in prison. I thought I'd love to do something to try and help the kids and try and stop this from happening."
He approached the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, the club's community charity, and said that he wanted to get involved in helping young people in need. The result was E18hteen, which has now been operating for seven months. The scheme focuses on teenagers in or from care because, statistically, they face the biggest challenges in society: 53% leave school without any qualifications; 29% are designated Neet – not in education, employment or training; 23% of the prison population has been in care. And 20% of women leaving care between the ages of 16 and 19 become mothers within 12 months.
The idea is E18hteen identifies individual talents and then seeks to realise their potential. That's easier said than done, but the scheme also tries to ensure that participants are armed with a qualification in something like crowd stewarding that can deliver employment. Each member of the scheme is allocated a personal mentor, who checks progress, maintains contact and is there to help in moments of difficulty or crisis. And once a month a small group of them meet up with Defoe.
Charlotte, a lively 18-year-old who is training to be a football coach, has had three meetings with Defoe and has also twice been invited along to Spurs matches. "I don't see him as a footballer any more," she says. "You can just talk to him. He always asks what's going on with you, what's happening. At one game he introduced us to his family. I thought that was really important. He's not just someone who's branded himself to the project. He's also been quite a big part of it. "
Charlotte spent a significant section of her childhood in foster care. "I've been with families ever since I was in care," she says, "and I've never really liked it, because if it hasn't worked with your own family, I don't really see why I should be with another family. Watching everyone play happy families, like at Christmas and birthdays, and you see all the extended family come. Don't get me wrong, it's amazing, but you'd sit there afterwards and think, 'This is perfect, but it's not mine.'"
Now she is living independently in a council-supported flat and she says that E18hteen has transformed her life. "If you saw me this time last year, I was just in my bedroom sleeping. Get up, have a shower and then get back into bed and watch CSI with a Lucozade."
Defoe says he's noticed a dramatic change in her outlook. "Obviously she speaks well and is quite confident," he says, "but I think when I first got involved she was a lot quieter. Now she's more relaxed, smiling a lot more, which is really nice, because she's happy with how her life is going. You know, young kids get lost and I can imagine that must be frustrating. But now she's got structure in her life and that's important."
It's clear that Defoe enjoys an easy rapport with the teenagers. He shares much of the same slang and can speak about urban music with no little authority. But the point of connection that all of the project members emphasise is Defoe's experience of loss.
"Because Jermain had lost his brother," says Jack, a 19-year-old who dreams of becoming a marine biologist, "I knew he wasn't doing it for the PR thing. He's been through what a lot of us have been through. I went into care when I was 10 years old. I lost my dad when I was 13. I lost my little sister when I was 10. There's been a lot of death in the family. When I went into care, I made a relationship with a foster carer and then she died."
But if the teenagers can identify with Defoe's grief, how can they can relate to a multimillion-pound celebrity lifestyle? Aside from the material wealth, Defoe has dated a string of models and reality TV stars and, at the time of the meeting, there was press speculation linking him with the singer Alexandra Burke. What kind of realistic inspiration is that for a child struggling to find a place in society?
"Everyone wants to be where he is, having that lifestyle," acknowledges Charlotte. "But it's not the lifestyle, it's that he's done what he wanted to do. You could be the dustbin man if that's your dream. Having your brother get killed, that would knock me down. I had a foster brother who committed suicide. That's hard. It's an inspiration that Jermain carried on. He's mourning, but in a way that's helping others."
Although his wealth is inevitably insulating, Defoe maintains a strong connection to his roots in east London. When asked by one of the group what he would say to a young person whose future was uncertain about getting drunk with his friends, Defoe refers to his family. "My two brothers Shane and Junior, they live in Leytonstone. Shane will say 'I'm getting frustrated' and I'll say 'Shane, talk to me, because at the end of the day, what are you going to do, go out with your friends and do something silly and end up sitting in a prison cell?' I understand it's difficult but you've got to think about yourself, you know, and not just follow the crowd."
He can understand the lure of the gang, he tells me, but it was something he had to resist when he was growing up in Canning Town.
"It was easy to get wrapped up in some of the negative stuff, but obviously I chose not to. I didn't want to get in trouble and end up in prison where I can't play football. It was as simple as that. Obviously when my friends were doing stuff – I saw a lot of things going on – but when they were doing it I kept my distance. In the meantime, they were my friends and I just said I won't get involved. Over a period of time you sort of distance yourself because you have to, otherwise you're going to end up in trouble. It was difficult, because at that age it's difficult to turn round to your friends and say you know what, you shouldn't be doing this or that. If you're being realistic, they're not really going to listen. It was a case where I just had to take a step back and I managed to do that."
One of problems that many children in care report is the issue of trust. Because responsible adults – carers, foster parents, social workers – are always coming and going, those from care backgrounds often find it hard to establish trusting relationships. Footballers, too, are an itinerant presence, frequently jumping from one club to another. The danger, therefore, is that Defoe, who has expressed his frustration at being frequently left out of the Spurs starting 11, might leave Tottenham at the end of the season.
Grant Cornwell, who is in charge of the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, is quick to quash the suggestion that Defoe's departure would affect the project.
"No, I don't think so," he says. "E18hteen is Jermain's model. I think he's bought into it for the long term, whether inside or outside Spurs. He's fully committed."
For a variety of reasons, many football clubs are expanding their charity and community work portfolios. Part of the interest is due to genuine altruistic or philanthropic motivation, part of it may be to improve a club's image, and another explanation is that a certain civic investment might be the quid pro quo in a local authority planning agreement.
Every Premier League club has its own foundation that is backed by a central Premier League fund for community projects – some 500 different schemes across the league. They typically (although not always) involve some aspect of sports activity, and are often aimed at the disadvantaged or disabled. As part of their contracts, players are expected to spend three hours a week contributing to the projects.
The Tottenham Foundation works with all age groups from two-year-olds to senior citizens in sheltered accommodation. It employs 35 full-time and 120 part-time staff, half of whom are young people who have graduated from the foundation's own projects. The annual budget amounts to £2m, which sounds like an impressive figure, until you recall that it wouldn't pay for half a year's salary for one of the Premier's League's highest-paid players.
Viewed from that perspective, it's hard to see how football could ever do enough, short of the clubs themselves becoming non-profit community foundations, and that isn't likely to happen in any foreseeable future. So it remains a matter of making a small but critical impact on some of society's least fortunate members. By that reckoning, Defoe and E18hteen, which the Premier League is looking to adapt in other clubs, can be deemed a success.
During the Q and A session at the training ground, Defoe was asked by one of the teenagers what he would like to do to get more involved in the project.
"The thing I'd like to do actually is one-to-one sessions," he replied, then drily added: "Like Jeremy Kyle." When the audience had stopped laughing, he continued. "My mum always does this thing where I go round to her house and she'll look at me and say 'Is everything all right?' And I'll say 'Yeah.' And then she'll send my sister out of the room to make a cup of tea and me and my mum will have a one-on-one. And she'll ask how I'm feeling about football and that. I think that's good, when you can actually sit down and talk. I don't know about anyone else, but if I had problems or issues maybe I wouldn't feel as comfortable talking about them in a group."
It was a thoughtful, and characteristically sensitive, understanding of how people, especially young people, function, and the gathered teenagers nodded their agreement. And then one of the group, an aspiring young DJ called Ishmael – whose CD Defoe had promised to listen to with a view to passing on to his music business friends – asked a final question: "Is it really true that you're going out with Alexandra Burke?"
ON THE BALL Other footballers' philanthropic projects
Chelsea striker Didier Drogba set up a foundation in his name in 2007 which aims to provide health and education support in his native Ivory Coast and elsewhere in Africa. He has poured a lot of money in: a charity ball in 2009 raised £500,000, a similar event took place the following year, and Drogba also donated his earnings from a Pepsi ad campaign – all £3m of it, apparently. "Football has changed over the years," he said in 2010. "My uncle was a footballer. Then, you trained and you went home. Now, you have different opportunities as a player, so you want to make the most of them."
Craig Bellamy has had an up-and-down time on and off the pitch, but he is one of the game's most active charity campaigners. The 32-year-old, currently with Liverpool, set up the Craig Bellamy Foundation in 2007, to run Sierra Leone's first (and currently only) football academy. He reportedly put in £1.2m of his own money. "I had always wanted to get involved in charity work in the UK but going to Sierra Leone made me think, 'We're OK'," said Bellamy in February. "That I've been able to help people in a worse situation gives me more satisfaction than anything football's been able to give me."
Aston Villa midfielder Stephen Ireland has been involved with Francis House Children's Hospice since his first visit in July 2007. To date, he has raised about £140,000 for the hospice, which provides respite for families with children suffering from life-limiting conditions. "Being with these children and seeing how lovely they all are despite their illnesses made me realise just how lucky I am. It felt right to do something to help them. The children there are incredible and the staff are so dedicated."
The Michael Essien Foundation, named for Chelsea's Ghanaian midfielder, is an NGO based in Awutu Breku, set up to improve sanitation, among other longer-term objectives. Hosting a sports day there in 2010, he said: "It is good to be home and be able to give something back to my community." Henry McMorrow