Sportsnet soccer commentator Craig Forrest played with a number of high-profile players during his career in England, including new Toronto FC forward Jermain Defoe.
A standout goalkeeper for Canada’s national team, Forrest spent five years at West Ham United in the Barclays Premier League and was already at the club in 1999 when the Hammers signed a 16-year-old Defoe—then at Charlton Atheltic’s youth academy—to his first pro contract.
Sportsnet chatted with Forrest to get his take on his former teammate’s impending arrival in Major League Soccer.
There have been designated players who have failed both in MLS and at TFC. Why will Defoe be different?
We’ve seen some guys come to Toronto who haven’t been overly successful, and we’ve seen some DPs flounder in MLS. I think Defoe is going to do really well and score goals.
He’s going to bring a lot of excitement for the crowd. MLSE hit the nail on the head when they said they owe this to the fans to try to make it right, and they certainly have done that with the signings of Defoe and Michael Bradley. TFC management looked for character guys this time out, and both players have great character. There won’t be an issue there, even though both are making bags of money. They’re competitive and will want to do very well.
What does Defoe bring to the table?
He’s 31 but he still has pace. He’s still very quick and he can score goals out of nothing. In the past we’ve seen strikers in this league and others that if they don’t get the service they’re not going to score.
Defoe’s played a lot of games over many, many years in pressure-packed situations. I felt that in my career, after so many years it gets to you. So when you get an opportunity like this, it’s a chance for a change of scenery and a new lifestyle, and it’ll probably give his a career a bit of a kick-start because it’s a new beginning.
You played with him at West Ham United, albeit briefly. What kind of teammate was he?
He was lively and a bit of a character. Even at a very young age he didn’t flinch being around very big personalities and veterans like Paolo Di Canio and Neil Ruddock. Ruddock always used to kick him hard in training. Stuart Pearce and Nigel Winterburn were at West Ham at that time too, but it didn’t faze him at all. He was very comfortable in that environment and settled in very quickly.
Was he a good guy off the pitch?
Yeah. When you deal with guys like Ruddock, you have to have a thick skin. (Laughs) But Jermain fit right in. It was amazing because it was a pretty big step for his at the time to come to West Ham at such a young age. He was under a lot of pressure, and the first-team players always tested him, and he always passed. He settled in and looked the part right away. He wasn’t cocky at all but he was confident. For our standpoint, he was a confident young player who didn’t have any issues with anything or anyone.
He was only 16 when he signed his first pro contract with West Ham. How did manager Harry Redknapp handle him?
I think Harry did a very good job because he kept Jermain on the bench for a long time before he became a regular starter. The club looked after him and helped him along his away. But I knew Jermain was going to go places.
Really? Even at that age?
Yeah. When you see a young player like that, who at the age is so sharp and has plenty of character—his attitude was so good—you could tell he had a bright future ahead of him. You could tell he was always going to be able to score goals because at a young age he had a very quick shot and moved the ball very well. He made clever runs and got behind defenders, and he had a natural awareness of what was going on around him.
I can remember talking to Tony Carr (West Ham’s long-time youth academy director), who had an incredible eye for young talent and still does. I talked to him about Defoe when they picked him up from Charlton and Tony said he was going to do well and when he started knocking in goals, it became a matter of “how long will be able to keep hold of him?”
Any funny stories you remember about Jermain?
He made his West Ham debut in a League Cup match away to Walsall in 2000, and I remember a streaker ran onto the pitch. (Laughs) He was running around like a nutcase, stark naked expect that he was wearing a pair of boots. (Laughs) He was dodging all the security stewards, and I just remember how funny that was. It was quite surreal.
Jermain was also with us when we played away to Reading in the League Cup on 9-11. We were in a hotel when the attacks happened. We were having our pre-game dinner and then—bang, it happened. We were all watching the TV. We ended up playing the game but it was the weirdest situation—everybody knew what happened, there was no atmosphere in the crowd and it was one of the games where we lost but we never really said anything, for obvious reasons.
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