Sam Wallace: Pennant and Oher's emergence from shadows proves sport is force for good

When your father deals crack any achievement beyond the family trade is to be celebrated

There was a photograph published recently of the gates to Jermaine Pennant's house which had been smashed by burglars. Pennant was in the picture too with the gesture of staged disbelief favoured by local newspapers for victims of crime. One thing stood out: Pennant seemed still to be in his pyjamas.

That is the trouble when Rafael Benitez takes against you as a player, you might as well stay in bed all day. As for Pennant, he seemed to be taking it in his stride. There is an obvious conclusion to jump to when it comes to Pennant: waster. A footballer more content to live off his earnings than fulfil his potential, a man who went to prison for wrapping his team-mate's Mercedes around a lamp post.

Except whenever Pennant happens to resurface, as he did this week with a loan move to Portsmouth, it makes me think about where he came from and the miracle that he has held it together. He may not be everyone's idea of the best January signing, he may never play for England but in many ways that does not matter. Because when your father is a convicted crack dealer, and an addict as well, any kind of achievement beyond following in the family trade is to be celebrated.

There is a parallel of sorts in American sport with the development of Michael Oher, now at the University of Mississippi and regarded as one of the hottest prospects in American football. Oher, 22, will be one of the most sought-after picks in the NFL draft this year, which is not bad going for a kid from the appropriately named Hurt Village housing project in Memphis. His mother was a crack addict, he has never met his father and, until the age of 16, he was feral – obliged to forage for food.

Oher has become a cause célèbre because he is the subject of a brilliant book, The Blind Side, by the journalist Michael Lewis. Oher's life changed when he was adopted by a wealthy, white family from a well-heeled part of Memphis who just wanted to help a 16-year-old, 6ft 5in, 23st black kid. Their paths crossed through sport when Oher was brought by one do-gooder in the ghetto to try out for a basketball scholarship at the local Christian private school.

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Blind Side is the nagging question over whether Oher's life would have been turned around had he not been so valuable as a sportsman. The position he plays is left tackle, a relatively recently created position that requires a rare combination in an athlete – he has to be very big, very strong, very tall and very fast. When Oher was 18, recruiters from America's top universities besieged him and his new family.

It is unlikely that Pennant's life would have been transformed were it not for his ability at football. If Oher had not shown enough promise to be taken to that basketball trial he would never have encountered the people that would change his life. But so what? The point is that sport did change their lives for the better. In Oher's case when social services had failed badly (he literally escaped from one of Tennessee's Dickensian-style orphanages).

Like Oher, Pennant came from a background designed to screw him up. Pennant's father Gary was eventually convicted of dealing in Nottingham Crown Court last month and sentenced to four years in jail. Like Oher, Pennant was left to care for his siblings from a young age (his mother died when he was three). Like Oher, Pennant struggled to read and write. Oher got lucky when he was picked up by his adoptive family and has not got into the scrapes that Pennant has in adult life. Pennant got lucky when Notts County picked him up as a kid and moved him into digs, even though he only lived 10 minutes away in the infamous Meadows Estate.

Pennant's achievements as a footballer will probably be, at best, mixed, but for him success is relative. Staying out of prison – where he spent 31 days for that drink-driving incident with the Mercedes that was not his – is an achievement. Making a contribution to society, even if it is just paying 40 per cent of his Premier League wages in tax, is an achievement. Oher might go on to be one of the greats of his sport. Pennant probably won't. He left Liverpool last week with a stinging remark about Benitez's "anti-English" agenda. It was an interesting point albeit harsh on Benitez.

The Liverpool manager is too much of a pragmatist to care about a player's nationality; what he has little sympathy for are the more volatile characters. Which is why he has not picked Pennant since he turned up late for training the day after the MTV Europe Awards were held in Liverpool.

Even before then Pennant had only featured four times for Liverpool this season. Since then he has not played once. Turning up late that day was not the smartest move but, given where he comes from, things could have been a lot worse.

Heskey deal heightens Villa's fourth dimension

The signing of Emile Heskey was a masterstroke by Aston Villa's manager, Martin O'Neill. Low transfer fee, relatively low wages of £40,000 a week, one in the eye for Rafael Benitez and a genuinely useful long-term signing secured in January. As transfers go, it ticked all the boxes for Villa and made you wonder what their rivals for fourth place, Arsenal, are doing this month.

If O'Neill keeps this up his team might just qualify for the Champions League. It would be a great achievement and fascinating to see how a club that prides itself on a relatively modest wage structure then goes about using their Uefa loot. It wouldn't be any use in the bank.

Sheringham off target in censure of Tottenham's bog-standard display

In response to Teddy Sheringham's criticism of Spurs' performance at Old Trafford on Saturday, only Vedran Corluka and Giovani Dos Santos of the 14 Spurs players who featured against Manchester United were not involved in the 120-minute thriller on a boggy pitch at Turf Moor on Wednesday. Eight of the starters against Burnley started against United. Perhaps they were just knackered. Even so, 2-1 was a better result than fourth-round day last January when Spurs lost 3-1 at Old Trafford.

What happened to love-all in tennis?

Hard not to laugh at another outbreak of tennis hooliganism at the Australian Open. After all those years of tennis club types wagging their fingers at football, isn't it time for them to admit that they have a problem? There's only one thing for it: segregation at Wimbledon and the confiscation of any potential weapons. You won't believe the damage those cool boxes can do in the wrong hands.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform