When Jermain Defoe arrives for breakfast, he has only one thing on his mind. "Seen my mum?" asks the Tottenham Hotspur and England forward. It is 8.30am in St Lucia, the island of his grandparents' birth, and the 30-year-old who enjoys one of the most close-knit mother-son relationships in football would usually have spoken to Sandra St Helen at least once by now. As the family eventually gather, tables are scraped together and a medley of English breakfasts and St Lucian salt fish and plantains piled on to plates.
This is the island of Defoe's childhood. Beaches, rainforest and dramatic volcanoes providing the backdrop to summer holidays spent here, playing football, honing his goal-scoring technique in minute goalmouths – a local tradition. Defoe is east London, born and bred, but his family's relationship with St Lucia has always brought him back here.
As he sits down to be interviewed, the informality of the family melts away any sense of a media opportunity. The dictaphone is soon surrounded by iced vanilla milkshakes, and a 30-minute interview turns into a roaming two-hour chat. Joining him is his mother, sister, Chonte, stepfather, Andre, and publicist, Claire Britcher. A sweet breeze blows in from the sea, respite from the blazing heat. Sandra wipes her brow, and the family take it in turns to listen, interrupt and occasionally poke fun.
In their midst, Defoe sheds the aura of a Premier League star. He pushes his three-year-old nephew, Chase, around in a buggy, and travels the winding roads of the island crammed into the back of a modest family car visiting schools, a children's home and relatives in the tiny village of Desruisseaux.
Defoe has been coming here every year since he was a baby, he even speaks the local French-based creole with family - and fellow players. "Oh yeah, a few of the French boys [William] Gallas, and [Pascal] Chimbonda. Thierry Henry as well. Guadeloupe and Haiti speak the same patois so I used to chat to them all the time. William speaks it good, we used to chat a lot around the training ground."
As a child on holiday Defoe would wake early each morning, pack a football into his rucksack and head out fishing, climbing coconut trees, and exploring. "I used to go through the forest, not on the road, but through the forest like the locals, down to the river at the back of my nan's old house." Back home in England, St Lucian traditions continued, intertwined with east London life. "At nanny's, in Canning Town, they just used to leave the door open," he says, speaking fondly of his grandmother who has since passed away. "Every five minutes someone would knock the door, come in, sit down. Everyone used to play dominoes in the passage way, or we'd all sit in the kitchen." Sandra nods. "Out of the blue everyone would go, "Oh nanny, make some bakes [traditional St Lucian bread]" It's not a two minute thing, it's kneading and all that. But no matter what time it was my mum would cook. Now I have that role."
Every Sunday, even after an away game, Defoe travels to his mother's house for a lively St Lucian meal, with up to 20 family members. Rice and peas, macaroni cheese, homemade coleslaw and curried goat, so legendary have the dinners become that TV producers have even approached the family about making a reality show.
Defoe's relationship with his mother was central to the concept. The pair seem inseparable, speaking on the phone throughout the day. "I've got to monitor the time, sometimes I'm a little bit out," says Sandra. "If I call 8.30am I'm in trouble. "Mum do you know what the time is?" "Oh sorry did I wake you?" I'll say, "Andre I think I woke Jermain up …" and he'll say, "Well why are you ringing then Sandra? Check the time!"" Defoe rolls his eyes and groans, but he never forgoes his mother's morning phonecall. "Sometimes, if I'm rushing in the morning and I get to the training ground without speaking to her, I'll quickly get my phone out of my locker and I'll phone her."
Unsurprisingly their close relationship has not always been well received by those seeking to make money around them. In the industry Sandra is known as a woman you don't mess with, the matriarch who ruthlessly hires and fires high-profile football agents.
According to newspaper reports she also sorts out his love life and even edits his tweets. "No chance," says Defoe of that last one, while Sandra chuckles. "Some people might know me as the 'busybody mother', that kind of thing," she says. "I am very much involved in managing his career. Everybody else around him speaks to me, more or less, first."
Sandra cites the example of a similar relationship between Joe Cole and his father, George. The two families struck up a friendship while both sons were at West Ham, with George mentoring Sandra through the early ups and downs of a young Defoe's career. "It should always be that way," says Defoe of the footballers whose families guard their affairs – the Coles, the Lampards, the Ferdinands.
"If things aren't going right with whoever's looking after my son, I'm careful," says Sandra. "I want the right things for him, and it's got to be right, business is business. For me, coming from where we was, so far back, all the struggles to where we are now, you've got to be that way. You're supposed to be providing a service, someone's got to be keeping an eye on things so that Jermain can just go on the pitch and play football.
"The majority of players, the families do watch their back and make sure everything's going smoothly. Some may not be as involved, but I am fully hands on. And I'm very proud of that."
She smiles. "It's this thing embedded in you as a parent. You don't look at your children and think, "Oh he's now 30 he doesn't need me anymore." You don't stop, you always continue worrying and watching them. That goes on forever. My Dad, until he passed away two years ago, still talked to me like I was 10. He'd say, [adopting St Lucian accent] "Sandra! Don't make me come and smack you!""
While Sandra raised her son in the strict West Indian tradition – manners, respect, hard work and discipline – the tabloids have often sought to portray a different side to him. Branded a "love rat", he has had a seemingly disproportionate number of negative headlines about him. For Sandra, the articles have been hard to take. "At the beginning, when you first start seeing things in the press, you think, "Oh my god why are they writing this? Why are they so negative? Why are they covering this story about Jermain's relationships?"" Defoe is more philosophical. He talks about girls who sell stories, journalists who invent relationships, and ultimately shrugs.
In the grand scheme of things, he says, it is meaningless.
When you consider his life experience, you can understand why. "I've been through so much," he says, anger and sadness in his voice, "a lot, lot worse than any of that – so if someone has their opinion about me, good or bad, it doesn't bother me because I've suffered proper heartache, and that's no comparison."
In the past few years Defoe has suffered a close succession of bereavements in often tragic circumstances. While his mother sits quietly, the emotion clearly visible on her face, Defoe speaks openly of the pain they have been through. "I think it changed everything," he says, softly. "In 2008 my nan, in 2009 Gavin, my brother [who was attacked on the street in east London], 2011 my granddad, 2012 my dad [Jimmy Defoe, who lost his battle with throat cancer] and my cousin Hannah [tragically electrocuted in a pool on holiday].
"I think it changes you completely, to be honest. It makes you strong, really strong. It's important to have the right people around you. Because when you're on your own – sometimes if I was away with England and in a hotel, on my own in my room, it was hard not to think about it.
"I speak to my friends and the boys at football, and a lot of them say they've never really lost anyone close to them. And they're scared, they're scared of death." He pauses. "I think about [the people I lost] all the time when I'm on the pitch. I think I'm not going to cheat or go through the motions, because at the end of the day, my family are looking down on me and I want them to be proud."
With their memories in mind, an emotional Defoe launched his charity, the Jermain Defoe Foundation, in St Lucia seeking to help vulnerable young people. The island has only seven social workers and one children's home, with many children's facilities having been devastated by Hurricane Tomas in 2010. A fundraiser dinner is planned in September to highlight the issues and Defoe also hopes to establish a football academy.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, football's transfer rumour mill has cranked into action and Defoe's name is already being linked with a move to Stoke City. He laughs. "I get it every year, going to this club or that club." In the past, he admits, he has had opportunities to leave his beloved Tottenham. Why, then (one season at Portsmouth aside) has he stayed in north London for so long? "With the Tottenham thing, people don't understand. I left Tottenham and went to Portsmouth, and the reason why I came back – because I had opportunities to go abroad and I was weighing them up to be honest – but I got a phone call from the club dentist [Peter Rabin]. When he phoned me he was actually at one of the games and he said: 'J, listen to this' and all the fans were singing my name. When I was at Portsmouth! The Tottenham fans! That was it. I thought: 'I've got to go back.'" Tottenham fans also sang his name when the two teams played each other and Defoe scored against his former club. He shakes his head in disbelief.
"Peter's been a dentist there for years, he used to treat Gazza, and he said: 'J, all the time I've been at this club I've never ever experienced anything like it'. People come up to me every day and they say: 'Please don't leave'. It's weird, when you build a relationship with fans. One day, if I did leave that club I know it would be emotional. I love the players there – you always miss the boys and the spirit there's really good – but the relationship I've got with the fans there, it feels unique."
The decision, though, he says, is out of his hands. "A lot of the time you don't really know what's happening. It doesn't matter who you are, football's a business. At some stage you're going to have to leave a football club, that's just normal."
As he finishes his milkshake, several Tottenham fans are milling around the hotel bar hoping for an autograph.
For a player with over 500 club appearances, who last season overtook Teddy Sheringham in Tottenham's list of all-time goalscorers, his exit will no doubt be devastating to the Spurs faithful.
Certainly, the absence of the Defoe family box, where Sandra can be seen animatedly shouting and gesticulating towards the pitch, will make White Hart Lane seem that little bit quieter.