Jermaine Pennant: 'I was stupid and I made mistakes, like people do'

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The Independent Football

Jermaine Pennant loves using the whip. Now there's a sentence to titillate the red-top press and feed the prejudices of those who would typecast him as a world-class waster rather than an international-class winger.

The whip in question has nothing to do with sleaze. It is the viciously struck and cunningly flighted ball from the flank that swerves in the air like something unleashed by Michael Vaughan's reverse swingers during the Ashes series. David Beckham was formerly the English game's arch exponent. Now it is Pennant, the prodigy who exhausted Arsenal's patience when he was sent to prison this year, who arguably whips in the meanest crosses (as well as the most according to the statistics).

Such an attribute, allied to scorching pace, should ensure that he is a key figure in the collision of two of the Premiership's bottom three when Birmingham City, Pennant's club, receive Everton today. As the World Cup looms ever closer, it might also have been expected to put the 22-year-old among the fringe contenders for the England squad.

Pennant trusts that recognition from Sven Goran Eriksson is "all about how you perform", and states, matter of factly, that he could be "a good squad member". The snag, leaving aside possible reservations about his reliability, is that Beckham and Chelsea's Shaun Wright-Phillips may have already booked places on the right of England's midfield.

Pennant, however, has a tattoo on his left arm that reads, "Somewhere between faith and luck lies destiny". He has responded to the faith in him shown by Steve Bruce, Birmingham's beleaguered manager, and is convinced that he is playing better than ever. No professional wishes another ill, but it is a fact of football life that someone else's misfortune, with lost form or injury, may yet provide the break he needs.

As the third most-capped player in the history of the England Under-21s, he is not exactly unknown to Eriksson. "If you look at the delivery of Beckham and the pace of Wright-Phillips, I think I've got a bit of both. I've just got to keep doing the best I can for Birmingham, getting in the crosses. I certainly haven't given up on going to the World Cup."

On meeting Pennant, who is polite, punctual, articulate and willing to discuss his aberrations as openly as his aspirations, it is hard to reconcile the quietly spoken individual across the table with the person who arrived at Birmingham last spring trailing a talent for self-destruction.

Wingers are accustomed to being tightly marked, but when Pennant came to St Andrews it was being shadowed by the law, rather than the close attentions of any full-back, that made him the centre of attention. Having been released from jail after serving one month of a three-month sentence for a drink-driving offence - he was said to be dragging a lamp-post along in an Arsenal team-mate's Mercedes when arrested - he had to wear an electronic tag on his leg when making his Birmingham debut.

But then Pennant has long been subject to surveillance, having done his growing up in public. The process started in his home city of Nottingham, where he remembers dribbling rolled-up socks around a council flat at the age of three. His father, a former semi-professional player, would sit him in front of the television to watch his own favourite clubs, Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday, or put tapes of Brazil and Pele on the video.

He has a vague recollection of being rejected by Nottingham Forest at nine. Within a year he was attached to Notts County, playing for the Junior Magpies and becoming a YTS player. At 15, he made his senior debut against Hull City. "I was small and I was up against these massive defenders," he says. "But it was a great buzz, and I was used to playing against men from games with my dad and his brothers."

Arsenal were impressed, whisking him away to Highbury for £2m when he turned 16. "I was very excited. A great club like that - I couldn't wait. With hindsight, I shouldn't have jumped at the offer. If I'd stayed at Notts longer, I could have gained more experience and played more games." A case of too much, too young? "I think it was at first. The change was too great. But it was hard for a 15-year-old boy to say no to Arsenal."

One day Pennant was living at home on a rough, run-down estate in the East Midlands. The next he was on the loose in one of the world's biggest, fastest cities. Any teenager would be prone to the temptations. Pennant also felt that he kept getting knocked back. "I was given my debut at 16, but that was it for ages. To get a taste of it, then have it taken away, is hard to deal with for a young lad away from home.

"I was doing well in training and in reserve games. The few times I got a chance in the first team, I was pleased the way it went. Arsène Wenger told me, 'Keep going, keep going'. But nothing ever changed. I'd go in on Friday to look at the squad list. It showed me in training on Saturday. When Arsenal were kicking off, I'd be going home after training. There seemed to be no end product to the hard work I'd been putting in.

"I got a hat-trick against Southampton in my first League start, but it was the same again. The two teams were due to play again in the FA Cup final, and I thought I might get some kind of chance, but I didn't. I wasn't asking to walk into the side - I knew it was one of the best in Europe - but just for 20 minutes here and there to show what I could do."

A season-long loan at Leeds United acquainted him with relegation and a club in turmoil, yet it also gave him a Premiership platform. "I loved it there - the atmosphere, the fans, the players - although it was a difficult time for the club. Part of me went with them when we went down at Bolton. If they had stayed up, I'd probably be a Leeds player now."

Wenger appeared impressed, initially involving him more on his return. But he soon became a peripheral figure once more. After just five Premiership starts in as many years, Pennant claims he ran out of patience. "Sheer frustration" over his lack of opportunities, combined with "other issues in my life that weren't right", contributed to the booze-fuelled lunacy that cost him his liberty.

Looking back on his time in London, he describes Wenger as "a great manager with a great team" but points to a continued lack of British players in the Highbury ranks as evidence of the barrier he faced in breaking into the first team. "He feels that foreign players bring something different," says Pennant, "but I'm sure that the fans would like to see more English players coming through."

In his own case, he fully accepts that part of the fault lay with himself. Expressing remorse for "some of the things that happened" (he was already banned from driving when he took the wheel), he adds: "I was stupid and I made mistakes, like people do at that age."

There was a precedent in the shape of Tony Adams, who ended up incarcerated - cell-sharing with a Tottenham fan - after drunkenly driving into a wall but became one of Arsenal's greatest captains. "Tony was going through problems that got on top of him. That doesn't make you a bad person. He came back stronger. I'm determined to do the same."

Adams had to face up to his alcoholism before fulfilling his potential. Pennant also had to look deep within himself, and "doing time" gave him the opportunity to do that. "I learned a lot from my month inside. Most of all, how much football means to me. Instead of dwelling on things I'd been unhappy with, I thought about what I loved about the game.

"I was on my own in a cell most of the time, so I had almost every minute of the day to think, about my football and my life. It made me absolutely determined to give it 100 per cent when I pulled on a Birmingham shirt. That, plus the fact that Steve Bruce showed he believed in me.

"This is what I'd always dreamt of doing. The manager and the club gave me another chance to make it a reality. I like to think I've got a good rapport with Steve. If I feel the need to talk, or something's on my mind that I don't feel comfortable about, I can go and see him. He's very approachable. All the time I was at Arsenal I felt too intimidated to knock on the manager's door. I'd just leave it and the feelings got worse.

"I think coming here may also have been my last chance of playing in the Premiership. If a manager shows faith in you and you throw it back in his face, other clubs think, 'We're not going to take him'. The word goes around and you end up playing your way down the leagues."

This afternoon, Pennant and his colleagues could conceivably be playing for Bruce's job as they strive to improve on a record of just one point out of 15 at St Andrews. Pennant has been satisfied with his form, but he maintains that results have not matched performances.

"We're all surprised we haven't done better and there's a feeling that once we get that first home win, we'll be flying. We seem to have been more nervous here and perhaps it has played on our minds. It's going to be a tough game because Everton showed their qualities against Chelsea and they'll be fighting hard for the points to get out of trouble."

In Birmingham's position, they can ill afford Pennant to lapse into his old ways. While realising that to boast of becoming a reformed character would be a hostage to fortune, he believes he is more aware that being a top-flight footballer - and an England hopeful - demands maturity.

"At Arsenal, I just thought I was a reserve; not even a squad player. I felt I could do this or that and get away with it. I'm only in my second season of regular first-team football, and I'm still learning from some very good players around me at Birmingham. But I know now that the public and press are out there watching. You have to take responsibility and live differently."

A fair crack of the whip, it seems, can work wonders.

Highlights, trials and tribulations

* VITAL STATISTICS

Born: 15 Jan 1983

Height: 5ft 8in, Weight: 10st 1lb

* JANUARY 1999

Record signing (£2m) for a teenager when he moved from Notts County to Arsenal.

* APRIL 2003

Sent home by David Platt before England Under-21 game with Turkey after breaking a curfew.

* MAY 2003

Hat-trick on full Premiership debut against Southampton.

* AUGUST 2003

Sent off during England U21s' 3-0 defeat against Croatia.

* JANUARY 2005

Arrested and charged with drink-driving while on loan at Birmingham after crashing Ashley Cole's car while under a 16-month driving ban. Served 30 days of three-month jail sentence before being released on 1 March and playing for Birmingham while wearing electronic tag.

* ARSENE WENGER: 'Everyone would say this boy is a special talent. But what happened to him cannot be repeated or people will lose faith.' The Arsenal manager after Pennant was sent home from Under-21 training.

* STEVE BRUCE: 'You can't describe how stupid he has been but as long as he learns from it, I don't think there is going to be any benefit from sending him to prison. The Birmingham manager before Pennant was jailed.

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