Jenas rides out 'Big-time Charlie' accusations and rises after the fall

A taste for expensive cars and diamond ear-rings, plus a dip in form last season, prompted savage criticism of Britain's most expensive teenage footballer before Wayne Rooney. The England midfielder talks to Simon Williams
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Gambling, whatever the Government's new licensing laws might suggest, is a risky business, especially so when you are talking about a £5m wager on a teenager with no track record in the Premiership and barely a handful of first-team appearances to his name.

Gambling, whatever the Government's new licensing laws might suggest, is a risky business, especially so when you are talking about a £5m wager on a teenager with no track record in the Premiership and barely a handful of first-team appearances to his name.

But when Newcastle United spent that on Jermaine Jenas - making him the most expensive English teenager until Wayne Rooney's recent move - in 2002 it was seen, not as a speculative plunge into the transfer market, but a sound and reliable investment in the club's future.

That remained the critical view until last season when it seemed Sir Bobby Robson's bet may have been misplaced as Jenas's progress ground to a halt. However, after a summer of soul-searching, he has bounced back and when Jenas made his first start for England in Azerbaijan last month, in place of the suspended David Beckham, it was clear that Newcastle's investment was paying off.

"I thoroughly enjoyed my first start for England," reflects Jenas, who has represented his country at every level since he was 14. "I'd played in the Champions' League with Newcastle so I wasn't nervous. It was a great experience and something I'll always remember. The most important thing is I'm refocused and determined. I think I'm seeing the benefits of what I went through last season."

What Jenas "went through" was utterly alien to him. Having been praised since he first pulled on a pair of football boots in Clifton, the working-class area of Nottingham in which he grew up, Jenas suffered the type of dip in form and confidence every young player must deal with at some point.

Previously the biggest obstacle to his progress came when he was 15 and almost gave up football because his mother did not have a car to take him to training. He stuck at it and, at 17, made his debut for Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round in January 2001.

Less than 13 months and 33 senior appearances later he was on his way to Newcastle, the latest addition to Robson's ambitious policy of buying talented young players with the aim of eventually moulding them into a side capable of winning the Premiership.

Jenas, who had been made captain of Forest at 18, soon became the golden boy by becoming a first-team regular and winning the acclaim of his fellow professionals. In his first full season in the Premiership they named him Professional Footballers' Association Young Player of the Year, in preference to Rooney.

Jenas's progress was also recognised by Sven Goran Eriksson, who rewarded him with a senior England debut as a second-half substitute against Australia. Jenas was named man of the match - again rather than Rooney - and became a regular in the England squads.

This rapid and seemingly irresistible rise looked close to completion only for a sudden, sharp decline to leave him struggling to come to terms with what had gone wrong.

It began with a missed penalty in a pre-season tournament in Malaysia - a misplaced chip which brought a public rebuke from Robson - and grew worse with a poor start to the season in which his individual errors cost Newcastle points. With the antics of Newcastle's infamous brat pack now a favourite subject of the tabloid press, it was believed Jenas's form had dipped because he was falling into the same playboy trap which has waylaid Kieron Dyer's career.

A close friend of Dyer, and with the same taste for diamond ear-rings and expensive cars, Jenas became a target for critics for the first time.

"It was the fact people were openly questioning my attitude which really hurt me," Jenas said. "I began the season badly, but I wouldn't say it was awful. I played in spurts all season. I didn't really find any consistency, but that was the same for the team as a whole.

"There were some unfair things said," he adds. "It hurts when someone calls you a 'Big-time Charlie', that I was arrogant and had lost my desire because I drive a nice car and wear an ear-ring. These people do not know me at all."

Jenas does not come across as a playboy, despite the fashion accessories. He is intelligent and approachable and credits his mother, Lynette, a social worker and his father, Dennis, a former striker for Burton Albion, with keeping his feet on the ground.

"They have been a big influence on the way I conduct myself. They will never let me get big-headed," Jenas said.

"Mum has worked hard all her life and I just want her to be able to put her feet up. Dad helped persuade me to carry on playing when I'd lost my motivation."

But even his parents struggled to help him through a troubled campaign which ended prematurely when Jenas tore a thigh muscle in April. It may have been the best thing for him as he was ruled out of Euro 2004 and was able to reflect on why his progress had halted.

"I lost my way last season and my head wasn't right," he explains. "It's easy to cope when a lot of nice things are being said about you, but it's harder when you have to cope with criticism. You've got to have broad shoulders and mine have got broader.

"I went away and I got my head right. I was determined to prove the criticism wouldn't knock me down. I realised I'm in a profession where you are going to get these things said about you."

It was a beneficial spell of self-analysis. Jenas has been Newcastle's most consistent midfielder this season, first under Sir Bobby and now under Graeme Souness, despite occupying every midfield position since the latter took over in August.

"Nice things are being said about me again now after playing for England," Jenas said, "but I know it can all change again. It's how you react which is important.

"I'm 21 and I don't want to stand still. I want to get better. I'm playing with two experienced midfielders at Newcastle in Nicky Butt and Lee Bowyer and have played with Gary Speed and Kieron Dyer as well. I'm learning the whole time.

"I learnt a lot from Sir Bobby Robson, but Graeme Souness was a midfielder so he takes a special interest in the position. We've done well since he came in and I've been pleased with the way I've played. It's a case of right man at the right time."

Souness has told Jenas he has all the skills necessary to rival Steven Gerrard for a starting place for England. He has also warned him the only things likely to stop him from realising his potential are the pitfalls of being a celebrity Premiership footballer.

Yet, having made his first start for England, Jenas will face a fight to even make the bench when the squad reassembles in the new year with both Beckham and Gerrard fit again.

"I definitely want to become a regular in the starting line-up for England," says Jenas, who names John Barnes and Stan Collymore as his inspirations, but who wants to make more of an international impression than either.

"Time is on my side, but my target has got to be the World Cup in 2006. I'm under no illusion as to how tough it's going to be. I play in the area where England are probably strongest. There are many good midfielders around at the moment so I'll play anywhere.

"The manager [Eriksson] has shown a lot of faith in me and even when I wasn't at my best last season he kept picking me [in the squad]. That has helped because I've felt part of things for a while now.

"All I can do is carry on working hard and take another opportunity to impress if it comes along. I might have to wait a while, but it took me nine months to make my first start so I'll be patient."