Dale Jennings had a vivid reminder of his old life when he tuned into Manchester United's Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich on Tuesday. There on his TV screen were players the Barnsley winger saw virtually every day for two years inside the European champions' Säbener Strasse training complex – from Philipp Lahm, who welcomed him warmly on his arrival as an 18-year-old, to Franck Ribéry, who inspired him with his dedication on the training field.
Jennings is the young Liverpudlian who made the improbable move from Birkenhead to Bavaria when Bayern signed him from Tranmere Rovers in 2011. Last summer, he came home, swapping Bayern for Barnsley in a £250,000 deal. Leaving FC Hollywood for a relegation fight in south Yorkshire might sound like a Cinderella story turned sour but Jennings does not see it like that at all: he gained a rare learning experience at one of Europe's glamour clubs but, after two seasons in Bayern's reserve team, FCB II, was hungry for senior football.
"I had a year left on my contract and didn't think I was going to break into the first team," he tells The Independent. "I had been there two years and just wasn't happy living there and wasn't enjoying my football."
It is worth recalling how raw Jennings was when he left for Germany. Winner of the 2011 Football League Apprentice of the Year award, he was making only his seventh league start when a superb individual display against MK Dons – featuring two goals – led then Dons midfielder Dietmar Hamann to recommend him to Bayern, whose rumoured interest was confirmed by Tranmere manager Les Parry during a day at the races at the season's end. "He said: 'Bayern have put an offer in. There's another Premier League team and a few Championship clubs interested too.' I didn't want to know who the other teams were!"
Over in Munich, he made 36 appearances overall for FCB II in the regional fourth division, working first under Andries Jonker, who will replace Liam Brady as Arsenal's academy chief in July, and then ex-Germany playmaker Mehmet Scholl. Jennings' progress was stalled by a succession of injuries yet the opportunity to look and learn was priceless. "For me Philipp Lahm was the best player. Going forward, you couldn't get the ball off him. He was so composed." And helpful, too. "I was 18, going into one of the world's best teams, and in the changing room he made me feel welcome, whereas some other players didn't really."
Ribéry, meanwhile, offered a shining example as "the most-hard working player. He was always doing extra after training – extra sprints and extra work on his finishing. At times I trained with them and played some friendlies with them," he adds. "I would have liked to have been involved a bit more but that wasn't the case. If I hadn't had injuries things may have been different, but I don't think I'd change it for the world."
Asked for an insight into Bayern's methods, he cites "a lot more passing" on the training ground – even before Pep Guardiola's arrival – along with words like hard work and discipline. "I'm not saying the English don't, but they commit everything to what they are doing and technically they are very good."
Scholl once likened Jennings to a mustang horse but the 21-year-old believes he matured in Munich. "Before I went, I thought I could take a whole team on but now I am more of a team player. I've always been good on the ball but my passing has got a lot better," says a player with dreams of playing in the Premier League but whose immediate aim is helping third-bottom Barnsley stay in the Championship.
Jennings was sent off on his debut in August but has shone since returning from a month's loan at MK Dons under Karl Robinson, once his coach as a schoolboy at Liverpool. Danny Wilson, who returned to Barnsley as manager in January, has told him to "go out and express yourself" and he scored in all three of their league victories in March as they lifted themselves off the foot of the table. This included a characteristic solo strike last weekend at Yeovil Town as the stocky Jennings cut in from the left, beat two defenders and curled a shot inside the far corner. The result, he adds, of all that extra practice à la Ribéry. "When you see the best players in the world doing it, then it is good enough for me to do extra finishing and crosses and it has been paying off."