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
Monday 26 January 2009
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.
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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.
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