'Prison changes people. It was the turning point'

Jermaine Pennant has taken a tortuous road to Wembley, but now he has the chance to reach a Cup final with Stoke
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Jermaine Pennant aims to dribble, dart and dink his way into the FA Cup final in Stanley Matthews' old position on Stoke City's right wing at Wembley tomorrow.

Yet there have been times when it seemed one of the greatest days in the sporting calendar was intent on giving him the body-swerve.

Pennant, whose sunny disposition now that he is the father of an eight-month-old boy belies a reputation for being troubled and troublesome, may have been tempted to ask manager Tony Pulis to wrap him in cotton wool as Stoke's semi-final with Bolton Wanderers crew closer.

In both 2001 and 2002, when the teenage prodigy had appeared in Arsenal's senior team, he was left out of the final squad. A year later he scored a hat-trick a week before the big day but was cup-tied after a loan spell at Watford. When the Gunners reached a fourth final in five years Pennant was on loan to Birmingham City. The next year he joined Liverpool just after they won the Cup. And a long-term loan to Portsmouth came in between their finals of 2008 and 2010.

A classic No 7, even if he wears Stoke's No 16 shirt, the 28-year-old identifies his time as inmate MX7232 in Buckinghamshire's Woodhill Prison in 2005 as "the turning point". It led him to the stage where he has "a level of stability" and believes he is playing his best football. It is all a distant cry from when he wrapped a friend's Mercedes around a lamppost while drunk, uninsured and disqualified. Even after serving 31 days he played in the Premier League wearing a security tag.

"I wouldn't wish it on anyone," he says of his incarceration, "but that's what happens if you make mistakes and get punished. I didn't get any gyp when I was inside; I got my papers delivered and just got on with it. I was never a big-time guy anyway. But I think anyone who goes in there will change. It changed me and made me never want to go in there again. It was only for a short sentence but it's not enjoyable, especially for your loved ones. They're hurting as well."

Pennant says it almost feels it was a different person who succumbed to "temptations" and drove (literally with the Merc) to distraction those who cared for him. "It just seems like a younger person, who wasn't getting guidance in the right way and having to do that himself.

"When you're young you have a lot on your shoulders. Without the right advice you can go the wrong way. That's what happened. If you spoke to someone 10 years ago and talked to them now, they probably wouldn't be the same. It's all about growing up, learning from your mistakes and being around the right people."

Fatherhood has helped him fulfil the potential that persuaded Arsène Wenger to pay Notts County £2m for Pennant at 15. "The football's going well and my family are all healthy and happy. That's all you want in life. I've got a little boy, Trey, who's a handful. You can't put him down because he just darts around. He's just starting to crawl." Another winger in the making? "I think so, the way he's moving. After training, if I've had a bad day, he'll put a smile on my face. It's nice to go back to."

With hindsight, Woodhill was the start of his road to Wembley, where his only previous appearance, for England Under-16s, was against Carlos Tevez and Argentina. With time to think, he resolved not to waste the "second chance" Birmingham manager Steve Bruce offered. A move to Liverpool led him to the Champions League final (won by Milan) and a stint with Zaragoza.

"It started off well in Spain. The football was good – slower, less physical than here, but more technical – and the weather was lovely. But the manager who signed me got sacked, which is never a good sign. After training I was going back to Spanish TV, which I didn't understand, so I'd play on my Xbox for eight hours. It was a bit lonely. You don't realise how important family are until you're away from them."

A £1.7m move to the Potteries in December put the loneliness behind him and he became a long-distance runner. For at Stoke, crosses are only one facet of a wide-man's brief. Pulis describes the wingers, whom he expects to track back constantly, as the hardest workers in his team.

"That's true," laughs Pennant. "The other day Tony mentioned the stats from the Chelsea game. Me and Matt Etherington covered more distance than anyone on the pitch. I've got no problem with work-rate because I enjoy working hard. Mind you I haven't done a pre-season here yet. You never know, my hamstring might start playing up in July!"

The FA Cup final has also given Stoke a wide berth, eluding them throughout their 148-year history, but it would be the perfect showcase to remind Fabio Capello of his skills. Pennant suspects his past still counts against him. "You can't rub it off or do anything about it. You've got to live with it. It was my fault so I have to take the consequences. But people can say what they like and judge me however they want. At the end of the day my family and my team come first."