x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Prison break later, a once prodigal Pennant stokes up the fire

The Stoke City winger's storied past may be hindering his England prospects but he says he has learnt from his misadventures.

Stoke City's Jermaine Pennant has had a few misadventures and has paid the price.
Stoke City's Jermaine Pennant has had a few misadventures and has paid the price.

Jermaine Pennant was in full flow. Talking, that is, rather than racing past full-backs, whipping in crosses.

A bright autumn sunshine streamed in from an open window as the player went through, as he put it, "how I'd advertise myself".

This was his sales-pitch: "What have I got that's different?" he asked, rhetorically.

"Well, I think the only person among the England right-wingers who's better than me at crossing is David Beckham. So that's what I'd advertise, my delivery of the ball at pace.

"I think I can beat players with pace, can offer creativity, skill on the ball and the quality of crosses. And there's the dead balls, too. So if I'm doing well, performing at the best I can, I don't see why there's not an England possibility."

At the time, some 18 months ago, Pennant's arguments for inclusion in the senior England squad seemed optimistic, but he had just headed off on one unlikely adventure; he could be forgiven for wishfully thinking that another - a World Cup place even - might be achievable.

When he was offering his manifesto for promotion from former Under 21 international to a full cap, Pennant was in Spain, where he had joined Real Zaragoza. Two months into that season, he had made a good impression.

Fast forward to now, and Pennant's circumstances have changed dramatically, and for the better. Instead of the sierra of Aragon, his home is Stoke City.

Instead of an end of season tussle with the possibility of relegation from the top flight of the Primera Liga, he is on his way to Wembley Stadium and an FA Cup final.

And the number of people who think Fabio Capello, the England manager, should be paying attention to what the 28 year old might offer as an international footballer has swelled: they comprise a lot more than just Pennant himself, and his close entourage.

Stoke City are his ninth club as a professional. There have been many adventures, and some misadventures, since Arsenal paid what was then an eye-catching £2 million (Dh12m) - this was still the 1990s - for a 16 year old who had emerged from a difficult family background as a prodigy at Notts County.

He broke Arsenal's club record, when, 46 days before his 17th birthday, he became their youngest first-team footballer.

But by that time Arsenal themselves were breaking records, for successive games without defeat, with the 2003/04 "Invincibles", Pennant was on the fringes. He had been ticked off more than once for lateness by Arsene Wenger, the manager, and loaned out to Watford and Leeds United.

He redeemed his reputation as a wispy, effective winger at Birmingham City, who turned a loan arrangement into a permanent deal. He then joined Liverpool for nearly £7m. He was only 23 and his first season there ended with a Champions League final appearance, in Athens, against AC Milan. Liverpool lost by a single goal but consensus had Pennant as the best individual of the defeated team.

Then his career trailed off again. Rafa Benitez, the then Liverpool manager, cooled towards Pennant and the last six months of his three-year contract were spent not at Anfield but on loan at Portsmouth. "I've been at practically every club in the Premier League," he likes to joke.

More seriously, he concedes, his has been a career of "ups and downs": he was sent home from an England U21 expedition - he won 24 caps at that level - for breaking a curfew and, more seriously, was convicted of a drink driving offence in 2005, for which he served a short prison sentence.

The reckless behaviour, Pennant said, was "100 per cent connected to frustrations in my football. If my mind was in the right place I wouldn't have needed to put myself in those situations, I'd have looked after myself more responsibly, I'd have been thinking 'I've got a big game next week, I've got training'.

"But I let myself go a little bit. I've learnt from it. I've got some regrets, yes, and wonder if I hadn't done certain things, would I be here or there now?"

Certainly, he would rather be in the English midlands than a Real Zaragoza, who changed head coach within four months of Pennant's arrival. He started fewer games in Spain after that and his hopes that Capello would come and watch him dazzle at the Bernabeu or Camp Nou rapidly faded.

By the end of his adventure abroad, he had been on the bench more often that he had started in the Primera Liga, and provided only one assist for a goal all season.

For Stoke, he has directly set up eight Premier League goals and scored another three: that means he has been involved in almost 25 per cent of their league goals.

They are a team suited to good wing play, with personnel to meet crosses, high and low. Pennant's boasts about the precision of his delivery of a ball look more and more justified.

His hopes of a call-up for England, he suspects, are still distant. He sometimes wonders if his chequered disciplinary history has a bearing on that. He has also wondered out loud, strategically, if the fact he had an Irish grandparent might encourage the Republic of Ireland to call him up. He would be eligible, under Fifa rules, to represent the country.

"There's a queue for the right-sided role for England," Pennant acknowledged under the Spanish sun. Besides listing Beckham, Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott as Capello's preferred candidates, he named Shaun Wright-Phillips, who will probably find himself restricted to the substitutes' bench for Manchester City, Stoke's FA Cup final opponents on Saturday.

You suspect Pennant would like the chance to compare himself with Wright-Phillips - who is a year older and has 36 England caps - and ask again who offers more menace on the wing, and who should rank higher in the English pecking order.

 

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