Jermaine Pennant: 'I knew when I gotout of jail I would do the best I could'

Jermaine Pennant has been through a lot: imprisonment, a childhood marred by poverty and tragedy, rejection by Arsenal. But now the Liverpool player adopts a positive long-term view
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The Independent Online

Images from Jermaine Pennant's life. Number one:

The young boy, nine years old, kicking a ball, his constant companion, ahead of him on the notorious Meadows Estate in Nottingham. "I go back and some people, my dad's friends, they say, 'We used to see you going to the shops and the thing is we always would just see the ball rolling along down the pavement and we knew it would be you following it'," Pennant recalls. "It was like some kids had their teddy bear or favourite toy. Mine was my football. I would kick it everywhere. The neighbours hated me, always kicking it against their fence. Or I'd just find a bit of greenery. I can picture it now."

Image number two:

It's Pennant, the night before his 16th birthday, being handed the local newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post, by his father, Gary. A photograph of a grinning Jermaine is on the back page. "I got that newspaper and turned it over and there I was. I saw myself and just thought 'wow'. I was the most expensive teenager in the country. But it felt good as well. It wasn't like 'Oh, the pressure, that's too much'," Pennant says. It's January 1999. The last year of the millennium and he's signed for Arsenal. The Arsenal. Arsène Wenger, Dennis Bergkamp, the marble halls, Highbury. And they've just paid £2m – £2m! – for this skinny kid from Nottingham, from Notts County, from the Meadows, where the prospects of escape usually involve drugs and guns and the threat of jail.

Image number three:

It's now March 2005 and Pennant is in prison. Inmate number MX7232 at Woodhill jail in Milton Keynes. Now rejected by Arsenal, he's been convicted for drink-driving, while banned, and serves 31 days after wrapping someone else's Mercedes around a lamp post. "The consequences for my family and loved ones, what they must be feeling, what I put them through," Pennant says. "My grandma couldn't eat for a week. I was her oldest grandson. Prison wasn't hell – the other inmates asked me to sign things but I wasn't a star or anything – and I got on with it, I did what I had to do. It was degrading but it wasn't harsh, I didn't get any stick."

He knows there have been other, numerous troubled incidents in his life. He did more nightclubbing that football clubbing. "I had time to think," Pennant says. "It's the most time I've ever had to think. I thought about my life and what I had done wrong and what I could have done better. I knew that when I got out there was a second chance for me because Birmingham had already done a deal to sign me. I knew that when I got out I would do the best I could for myself and for my football. And I have stuck to that."

Image number four:

The Olympic stadium in Athens. It's 23 May this year, the European Cup final and Pennant has been selected to play for Liverpool against Milan. In the starting XI. In the stadium are his uncle, Mick, and his younger brother, Jaden. "I'm not saying it will never happen again, but I will remember that for the rest of my life," Pennant says. "It was a day to come off with my head held high. We lost, which was flattening, and upsetting, but to play well was fantastic. I remember a couple of days later thinking, 'I've been through a lot. I've been here and there. Not making it at Arsenal, being told I'm not good enough, that I'm not going to make it. Pat Rice [the Arsenal assistant manager] used to say that.

"And I just thought, 'You know, I'm going to show that to be wrong'. They probably just didn't have the belief in me. They thought they should just get rid of me, especially after the prison incident. 'Let's get rid of him', they thought. But playing in that final, I thought, 'Look what I'm doing now'. I thought of them. It made me feel great. It made me feel like I had turned a corner."

Image number five:

It's Melwood, the Liverpool training ground and Pennant is sitting in one of the interview rooms. Still in his training kit, he talks about his life, his football and what it all means to him. And he smiles. He's not the surly, skittish bad boy. Not the young talent who was in danger of wasting away a career. Not a fool. Not today. He's still just 24 and he's into his second season playing for Liverpool, the team he idolised as he grew up, whom he dreamt and prayed he would one day join. After a bright start the season is proving tricky for the team, but Pennant is sure things will improve. " There have been a few hiccups," he says. "But this is a big strong squad."

Tomorrow Liverpool host his old club, Arsenal, in the Premier League, although Pennant will be elsewhere, having succumbed to the leg injury that has dogged him all season. He has a stress fracture of his right tibia and is undergoing surgery this weekend. On Pennant's left arm is a tattoo which reads: "Somewhere between faith and luck lies destiny".

When he was born on 15 January 1983, fate seemed to have dealt Jermaine Lloyd Pennant a cruel hand. He's vague about his childhood, glossing over details, which is not uncommon when having experienced such hardship, but, he says, he's the eldest of four children. His mother died from cancer when he was three. Pennant helped to raise his siblings, two sisters and a brother, and faced shocking poverty. He didn't learn to read or write.

"It was hard," Pennant concedes. "There's a lot of crime, a lot of gun crime, drugs. And it's got worse. It was never nice growing up there but I did have good people around me. They kept me on the straight and narrow. Friends who probably could see the potential I had to play football and they would deliberately keep me out of trouble, trouble they were getting into, putting me aside and saying, 'We're going somewhere now and we don't want you involved'. I was 14 or 15 and they were 19, 20. I had family as well. My dad made sure I stuck with football."

It helped that Gary Pennant had been a semi-professional himself, a midfielder. Gary tried to provide and his son speaks lovingly of a pair of "Gary Lineker Quaser" football boots he was bought. "He loved the game," Pennant says of his father. And so did his son. His talent was quickly spotted and Notts County were alerted. They soon realised the environment he was growing up in wasn't the best. "They were protecting me and decided to put me in digs, even though I lived just 10 minutes from the training ground and the football club," Pennant explains. " They didn't want me mixing with the wrong crowd. It was make or break. If I hadn't got into football I could easily have gone down the wrong path. I was going to school from the digs and then training. I was just 14 but I wasn't at home, even though I was from the city. Instead I was living with YTS players who were 16, 17, 18. The club did a lot for me, they looked after me and I loved it because I was playing football. I knew things were getting good when I saw all the scouts talking to my dad."

A trip to the former national football academy at Lilleshall provides another memory. "I had visions that I would play for Liverpool," Pennant says. "And I had the old adidas kit with Robbie Fowler's name on the back. I went to Lilleshall for a trial and we had to take three kits. I took the Notts County kit, because I was playing for them, the old England grey kit and the Liverpool kit. Everyone was coming from their clubs and when I wore the Liverpool kit on the final day I think they all thought that was my club."

But it was Arsenal who came calling. They had monitored Pennant for three years. "When I actually signed," he says, "they showed me my progress marks. A, B, C for this and that. There were marks from my 13th to my 16th birthday. You can't say no to a club like Arsenal. I just thought, 'It's got to be the right move'. And looking back it wasn't a bad one, although, with hindsight, maybe I should have stayed at Notts County for another year, played for the first team. Maybe it would have helped me at Arsenal more."

At first Pennant was terribly homesick. Then, eventually, he just became sick. Sick of not playing – and that sickness spread. It affected his whole life. "They tried to make things as easy as possible for me," he says. "But I was there for almost seven years and I made five first-team starts [he scored a hat-trick against Southampton on his league debut] and a handful of appearances coming on as a sub. And that did take its toll. I was coming in every day but it was tough and that's when things started to go downhill. I remember arguing with my agent and saying, 'You have to do something, you have to get me out of here'. Loan deals were arranged – at Watford, Leeds. And I thought in my year at Leeds I did well and proved I could play in the Premier League. But I came back to Arsenal and nothing changed.

"I can remember the boss, Arsène Wenger, saying to me, 'Look for six months now you have been doing really well, I have nothing to complain about'. And I was left thinking, 'If he's got nothing to complain about, then why have I still not been given my chance?' It was six months, and suddenly it would be 10 months and I admit I then let things slip. I felt like I was not wanted. I was an outcast. I'd come in and did my thing. Then I started to make mistakes and it started to go downhill.

"I was frustrated. If I was playing football, just a bit more than I did, then it may have been different. But I wasn't playing. Saturday would come and I wasn't involved. I would be in training and it would be 'see you Monday'. It was difficult, very difficult. I'm not going to lie. I paid for it." The party-boy lifestyle – Pennant once said "I was always out partying" and compared himself to a "dog in heat" – took its toll. It became a vicious circle.

Pennant admits to feeling that there was an anti-English bias under Wenger. "There has got to be something," he says. "If you look now there are no English players in the squad, apart from Theo [Walcott] and he's not a regular, even though he's been there for a while now. I always felt we got overlooked. The facts speak for themselves. There are no English players in that team so he must have something, not necessarily against them, but that they don't fit into his philosophy. He likes the foreign players more. Maybe he believes their attributes are better. And that's his choice."

Fortunately, after prison, Birmingham City, where Pennant had been on loan, his third long spell while at Arsenal, gave him a choice. Or, more truthfully, a shot at redemption. Thankfully, he took it. "It was the best move for me," he says. "I played every week and [manager] Steve Bruce was great, a great man-manager. He told me straight and that was what I needed. I always felt that if I ever needed anything or needed to say anything I could knock on his door. At Arsenal it was like, 'Do I have the right to go in?' There was Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry. What right did I have to speak to the manager?"

If he felt liberated, then Pennant also played with freedom. Birmingham struggled but he did not even if, inevitably, there were more immature run-ins with authority. His attacking verve down the right wing, constantly able to deliver crosses, did not go unnoticed. Even so it was a surprise when, last year, Rafael Benitez came calling and finally agreed a fee of £6.7m for Pennant.

He was in the changing rooms at Birmingham's Wast Hills training ground when the phone call was made. "It was the second session of the day," Pennant recalls, "a double-header and my agent just said, 'They've agreed a fee'. So Steve Bruce and [the managing director] Karren Brady came to see me and said, 'We've done the deal, all the best'. I tried not to show my emotions too much and just said 'thank you', but then I went out to see the boys and Dunny [David Dunn's] saying, 'How did you get that, you lucky so-and-so?'"

Pennant acknowledges that he was, indeed, fortunate, especially as Benitez had to receive assurances before pushing ahead with the deal that he was prepared to put his troubles behind him. "But, looking back," Pennant says, "I think everything that has happened has happened for a reason. And now I believe I'm playing the best football of my career. After all the frustration of Arsenal I played 52 games last season. It was the highest after [the goalkeeper] Pepe Reina. So I couldn't ask for much more, really." Except, maybe, one more image. It's one for the future, the end of the season. Of Pennant, and Liverpool, and of lifting a trophy.

'You try to deal with racism, but your blood can boil'

As a young black footballer, Jermaine Pennant is acutely aware of the problem of racism in the game and in society, and has been an active supporter of the Kick It Out campaign. The 2007 week of action for the organisation ends on Monday after a number of awareness events.

"I haven't experienced it at a major level," Pennant says of racism. "But there have been chants when I've played for the England Under-21s against countries such as Slovenia. Monkey chants and those kinds of noises."

He admits it is difficult to know what to do – and, indeed, was sent off for retaliating after claiming he had suffered racial abuse from Croatia's Niko Kranjcar during an Under-21 international four years ago. "It's like, 'Is that what I think it is?'" Pennant says. "And then I just think, 'Sod it, I'll deal with it'. You try to, but it does sometimes affect you. Your blood is boiling and it can interfere. But coming from another player makes it even worse.

"I know how shocked players can be. You don't know what to do. Sometimes you try to take it into your own hands, maybe when you go for a little bit of revenge. But the best thing is just to go out there and beat them on the pitch and that makes them look even more stupid.

"Unfortunately, it's not just in football, it's in society. There are different colours of skin but we are all still the same. We're all here for the same reason and just because you are a different race or background doesn't make any difference."

Pennant says the problem is not so acute in Britain, although he suffered abuse as a child. "I experienced it as a little kid," Pennant says. "Sometimes you'd get idiots saying, 'Oh, go back to your own country'. And I'd be thinking, 'I was born here and my mum and dad are British'. I remember encountering that at a very young age. But, thankfully, not since in this country."

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