Jermaine Pennant: football’s greatest shame

Ben Mountain

Jermaine Pennant was once a promising starlet with a glistening career paved ahead of him. This week, however, he has sadly taken the humiliating decision to sign for League One strugglers, Bury. The man has experienced quite the fall from grace. But it’s a lot more shocking than you’d imagine.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Real Zaragoza are clubs associated with glitzy, glamorous and often world-class footballers. On the other hand, Notts County, FC Pune City and Tampines Rovers are clubs associate with fading half-talents, looking to avoid the P45 and keep their names in the local news. Jermaine Pennant, amazingly, has played for each of these clubs. In between, he enjoyed spells at a probably more appropriate level: Watford, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic, to name a few. Having lived the high life with the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ as well as names such as Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres, Pennant has now sadly plummeted to living the street life with Antony Kay and Craig Jones in the various Spoons’ of Bury town.

But just how did this contrast in careers come about? How did the former Leeds United winger weave these seemingly impossibly different lives into one rich tapestry of highs and lows? Well, with 14 separate clubs, several drink-drive bans and one awkward ankle tag; that’s how. Take note.

Let’s start from the beginning. Unfortunately, this means in Nottingham – sorry, we couldn’t secure the castles and beaches for this story’s setting. But, there are no Robin Hood tales of heroism in this one, despite the location. No, tragically Pennant’s early life was one lived far away from the protective glow of the silver screen. Having lost his mother to cancer aged just three, Pennant had to help his semi-professional footballer father in raising his three younger siblings who were surrounded by a neighbourhood of drugs and crime. Football, he said, saved him from a life of crime. It no doubt also helped to save his two sisters and brother from the same fate.

Pennant was set for stardom after a record-breaking £2 million move as a 15-year-old trainee to Arsenal. He made his debut against Middlesborough aged just 16 and scored a hat-trick on his full league debut against Southampton, four years later. Sadly, the pacy teen was seldom played by Arsene Wenger during the 49-game unbeaten run that Arsenal rely upon for their history. Sorry that’s wrong; magnificently achieved. That’s it. Having seen only five starts in seven years; Pennant became ill-disciplined. Turning up late to training and general teenagerishness were not approved by his strict French gaffer and he found himself being shipped off on four loan spells to Watford, twice, Leeds and then Birmingham City where he signed for £3million.


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At least, we hope, he has a sense of humour…

During this spell at Birmingham came the winger’s most publicly criticised point. He was arrested for drink driving aged just 22 and served 30 days in prison that culminated in the embarrassing affair of wearing an ankle tag in a game against Tottenham Hotspur.

Having impressed at Birmingham, ankle tag et al, the big boys once again came knocking. Pennant signed for Liverpool in 2006. During this period, the Reds made it to the 2007 Champions League Final – which they really are starting to rely upon for their history – and JP was instrumental in their progression in Europe that season. As Liverpool climbed to the top of the league, with ol’ Jezza excelling on the flanks, many were calling for an England cap. Having already made 24 appearances for the Under-21 side, this seemed the next obvious step. But, no, the Wally With the Brolly himself had other ideas. On two occasions, Steve McClaren overlooked Pennant for the national side, instead opting for Alan Smith and Joey Barton. What a visionary.

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Anyway, from this point on, the Liverpool maestro’s career began to tail off. He was sent-off for punching Niko Kranjčar during an England Under-21’s game and was sent home for breaking curfews by his coach, David Platt. From here, he was loaned out to Portsmouth before a place in the sun came calling. Real Zaragoza offered everything that Pennant needed. A laid-back lifestyle, playing good quality, first-team football away from the glare of the British media seemed ideal. However, turning up late to training three times in two weeks and some poor displays on the pitch ensured that this Spanish flirtation was not to last. So, from the sunny climbs of Northern Spain to the ever-cold Tuesday nights of Stoke. That move sadly seems to sum up the once heralded man’s career.

Having been offered yet another lifeline with the Potters, albeit for £275,000 less than when he was a 15-year-old apprentice, Pennant seemed to feel more at home under Tony Pulis.

“I think everyone knows how I feel about being at this football club. The supporters, players and management have been absolutely fantastic to me over these past four months and I desperately wanted to stay here because I love it so much. I know I have only been here a few months, but it really does feel like I have been here for years. The atmosphere around the place is brilliant, so I am looking forward to the fact that I am here at Stoke now for the long term and back in the best league in the world.”

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Happier days ahead, then. But, no, inevitably he fell back to his usual ways. Breaking club curfews, pleading guilty again to drink driving as well as driving with no insurance saw Pennant back in the front pages and being slammed as ‘football’s bad boy’ by some papers. However, it’s not until you consider that his father was arrested for dealings in crack cocaine and heroine in 2008 and the fact that he was revealed to be illiterate in one court case due to his shaky upbringing in Nottingham whereby his siblings were his priority, that you begin to consider what could have been if Pennant had been able to enjoy a more stable life.

This was epitomised by the conclusion to his Stoke career. Having made gestures such as changing his shirt number from seven to 16 in order to accommodate for the fans who’d pre-bought his jersey and then agreeing to an emergency loan in order to help the struggling Wolverhamton Wanderers; only to be jeered by fans throughout his poor ten starts. Bizarrely, the club chose to sign Michael Kightly at this time and employ him as the preferred winger. Upon his return to Stoke, Pennant found himself regularly left out of the first team and he agreed in desperation to a one-season contract offer under Mark Hughes. It was terminated five months later.

So, throw in a couple of games in Asia and a bizarre loan spell at Wigan Athletic and we’re back to now.

From the £2million whizz-kid who was ignored by Arsene Wenger before almost tasting European glory at Liverpool to, you guessed it, Bury. The last stage of such a disappointing career. And an aptly miserable one at that. Who knows, perhaps the ‘future David Beckham’ (not our words) would have been making headlines for more of the right reasons had his life not been so turbulent and the clinical nature of the footballing industry not been so harsh? Perhaps we would have been writing our farewell to Jermaine Pennant’s career with nostalgic smiles of success and glory rather than poor punctuality and Bury. It’s a pity, but for every somehow successful Phil Jones out there; they’ll always be a Jermaine Pennant. The star that never was.

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