Jermain Defoe will forever carry the “special feeling” of his close bond with Bradley Lowery as the veteran England forward prepares to make his Premier League debut for Bournemouth.
Bradley, the football mascot whose beaming smile touched thousands of people around the world, died last month aged six following his battle with a rare cancer.
Defoe had struck up a close bond with Bradley during his time playing at Sunderland, having since left on a free transfer in the summer following relegation from the Premier League.
The 34-year-old was among the mourners at Bradley’s funeral held in his home village of Blackhall, County Durham, where thousands of people wearing football shirts had lined the streets, and remains in contact with the family.
Defoe recalled some of his memories of time spent with Bradley, who had the rare childhood cancer neuroblastoma, in an emotional interview with BBC’s Football Focus ahead of the start of the new campaign, which sees Bournemouth travel to West Brom.
“That story of Brad’s is just special, my best friend, it was genuine. He loved his football, he loved me, I loved him. There was nothing I could give him, apart from being a friend,” Defoe said in a clip from the interview on the BBC Sport website.
“I was on Facetime last night with his Mum, Dad and brother, it was quite funny. Obviously it is still difficult for them, but it is nice to still be in touch.
“Even towards the end when he was really struggling and couldn’t really move, I would walk into room, he was in bed and he’d just jump up and his mum was like ‘he’s not moved all day’. For me it was a special feeling.”
The bond between Defoe and Bradley saw them lead out the England team at Wembley for a World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in March.
“That was the best, even being down the tunnel. He was looking for me, like he does, then he came and gave me a cuddle and Joe Hart said to me ‘J, you walk the team out’. For Harty to do that, that was special,” Defoe recalled.
“Then we walked out, and just standing there, singing the national anthem with Brad, on Mother’s Day, and being back involved in the England squad, actually playing at Wembley and scoring, for me that was on of the best moments of my career.”
Defoe is expected to lead the Cherries attack on Saturday, having rejoined a club he once played for on loan during the 2000/2001 campaign when still very much a raw talent.
As well as bringing in the veteran England frontman, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe as also been able to acquire the services of goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and defender Nathan Ake, in a £20million deal, from Chelsea as the south-coast club step up their ambitions to become established among the Premier League elite.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work to plan, but this summer we have been fortunate to get the guys in early and work with them from the start of pre-season,” Howe said at a press conference on Friday.
“We are really pleased with how they have come in and we are looking forward to the start of the season.
“We are a smaller, tighter squad then we were at this stage last season, but I think the quality is higher and that could be a key difference.”
Howe added: “I believe that this team can do special things, but we will have to wait and see how things go.”