Jermaine Pennant: I had no say in whether I wanted to join Arsenal or not
Photography: Richard Cannon
“I have had a good career – I’m not unhappy – but I could’ve done more, I know that. I could have made more of myself and my ability.” This is what Jermaine Pennant allows himself to think in his more reflective moments.
But he is also very grateful to have enjoyed the career he did, after growing up amid gang wars on a Nottingham council estate with a father he says was a heroin addict and a mother who abandoned him when he was three.
Having survived this scarred start to life, he became Britain’s most expensive teenage footballer in 1999 when Arsene Wenger paid £2 million to take a 15-year-old Pennant to Arsenal.
The young winger would go on to become one of the Premier League’s most exciting, but frustrating, players. He scored a hat-trick on his first start for the Gunners, starred for Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League Final and played for 13 other sides, too, including Leeds, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Stoke, plus clubs in Spain, India and Singapore.
Now he’s sitting down in London with FourFourTwo – and Pennant doesn’t hold back as he answers your candid questions about being hungover for his big Arsenal break, playing prison football and being tapped up by Steven Gerrard...
What was it like, growing up amid the gang wars on Nottingham’s Meadows estate? Did you fear for your safety?
Zeeshan Hamed, Birmingham
Late one night I walked out of my house, thinking I could hear my dad’s friends on my doorstep. There was a bit of a commotion, so I thought there was a party happening. I walked outside in just a pair of shorts, but then I saw someone shooting at the house opposite – continuous gunshots going off, like fireworks. Car windows were also being smashed in. I was a boy, just a teenager, but in that moment I was scared they could mistake me for an adult and attack me in my house; drag me into the street. That’s probably the scariest moment I had on the Meadows.
Is it true that you were questioned by the police as part of a murder investigation when you were only 14?
Amy Walters, Sheffield
Yes, that is true. I was outside a KFC with some friends, in an area of Nottingham called Radford, when another group from a different area suddenly appeared and shot at us. Someone was shot, two people were stabbed and someone’s head was opened up with a baseball bat. I dived into the KFC and hid behind the counter. When I came back out, everyone had vanished. My friend came to pick me up about 20 minutes later, and soon we learned that a member of the other gang had died, so the police came to question me about that. They came to my house and were a little surprised to find out I was actually still at school.
How did you cope with being sold to Arsenal for £2m, being only 15 then?
Freddie Lamb, London
It was a bit of shock, but it literally happened overnight and I had no say in whether I wanted to go or stay. No one asked me my thoughts. My dad just arrived at my house with an agent, put me in the back of a Range Rover and drove me down the M1 to London. It was a bit scary, because I was only 15.
Apparently there was an offer from Tottenham, too, but my dad didn’t like George Graham. At the start I was really homesick, I was so young, and so I went back and forth to Nottingham. It was difficult – I had no friends down there. It was strange to get a lot of attention. I just wanted to be normal, but I would get into trouble.
How did it feel to score a hat-trick in your first league start for Arsenal?
Alan Roberts, Swindon
I’d been out the night before and had a big night, because I really didn’t think I would be playing, never mind starting the game. I’d never started a game for Arsenal and I didn’t think that’d change, especially as Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Ray Parlour were all in the squad.
I was guaranteed to be on the bench. I thought, ‘Sod it’, and the night before the game I went out with my friends to an FHM party and got home at around 6am. I couldn’t believe it when I saw my name in the starting line-up! I was still so hungover when I was playing; I just did everything in my power not to embarrass myself. I can’t believe I actually scored. It was just a huge relief – I thought, ‘OK, you can take me off now! Please, Arsene!’
I felt so sick and I could feel the vodka still bouncing around in my stomach. You could smell it on my breath, too! I did OK to score a hat-trick: it shows I had talent, though it helps when you’re playing with Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. That was the first game of Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run.
Why do you think it didn’t work out for you at Arsenal, especially with Arsene Wenger as your manager?
Dave Shute, London
I think I got too frustrated when I didn’t play. I had arrived there when I was 15 and I was labelled a wonder kid because of the huge fee. I did well in the youth teams: we won back-to-back FA Youth Cups and I was one of the best players. I was ready. But I had to bide my time for so long, and that was tough. My focus began to wobble, and because I wasn’t playing in the first team I would think, ‘What’s the point?’ Of course, I let myself down a bit too.
I remember arriving at training once still dressed from the night before, and I could see Arsene looking out the window of his office as I got out of a car with two birds from that night. I definitely didn’t help myself! But as I wasn’t playing, I thought I might as well just enjoy my life. I didn’t go about it the right way. I think I moved to Arsenal too early, and in that era it was difficult for young players to break through. If it was now, it’d be different.
Arsene Wenger’s assistant at Arsenal, Pat Rice, told you that you weren’t good enough and wouldn’t make it. How much did that motivate you?
Ralph Goodman, via Twitter
He didn’t say that directly to me, but he said it to my agent because of my attitude. We never really got on, even though I always tried to be polite to him. But I remember that when I went to Birmingham and Liverpool and had success there, I said to my agent, “I wonder what Pat Rice is thinking now?” A few years later, I scored for Stoke against Arsenal in a 3-1 win and as I walked past the bench I sneaked a look at Pat, but he had his head down.
How do you look back at your 30 days in prison? What was the scariest part, and what did you learn about yourself in your time there?
Graeme Ainsworth, via Twitter
The scariest part was being driven to the prison in the back of a van, because I had no idea what to expect. My only ideas were all from films. It wasn’t a nice place, but once I was there it wasn’t as scary as I had expected. It was more about the boredom, and how you filled your time. I had a lot of time to think about my sins.
Did you play for the prison football team while you were inside?
Patrick Dorsey, via Facebook
Yes, I played for them once in a match and it was carnage! It was on AstroTurf, but the really old one that’s more like a carpet. I skipped past a few players, and they were all diving in on me like they were playing on ice. They had no care in the world and I was worried that one of them was going to take me out. I would have been left with no legs! There were a few who just wanted to foul me, so I was like Colin Jackson doing the hurdles. I was on set-pieces, and I think I scored a couple of goals.
What was it like, playing with an electronic tag? Was it uncomfortable? How did you play in those games?
Barney Avon, via email
I just ignored it. To be honest, I couldn’t feel it at all, because we covered it in padding. It was a bit hard to ignore, though, when I’d look down at my ankle and it was twice the size of the other one! The fans were giving me stick, too, but it was all OK.
Is it true Steven Gerrard tapped you up to sign for Liverpool while you were playing in a game against him?
Tony Mulrone, via Twitter
Yes, that’s absolutely true. I was playing for Birmingham against Liverpool at St Andrew’s and Gerrard said to me, “Who is your agent?” while the game was going on. I said, “Sky Andrew – do you know him?” He said, “No, but I’ll find out.” I was trying to focus on the game! Straight after the game, I told Sky about it. Obviously a move to Liverpool eventually came about.
During the 2007 Champions League Final there was a PA announcement asking you to come to reception to sort out some tickets – but you were on the pitch! What was that about?!
Jack Davidson, via Facebook
I‘d left tickets at reception for some members of my family, but before they turned up, some Scouser picked them up by pretending they were for him. It was a bit of hustle. Then, in the first half, I was playing and I heard an announcement on the Tannoy: “Can Pennant come to reception please?” I was really confused – did they actually mean me? It meant that my family flew to Greece but never got into the ground, and I fell out with them as they accused me of forgetting to leave the tickets.
I heard you passed out on a flight from Spain only a few days after the Champions League final. Is that true?
Matty Balgowan, Eastbourne
We’d gone to Marbella and Ibiza, and you only go there to party. The flight home was at 10am, so we went out for the whole night, finished at 8am and went straight to the airport. I felt so rough. I got onto the plane and I knew I was going to be sick. I started getting the cold sweats, so I tried to go to the toilet. The next thing I knew, I was on all fours in the aisle.
Did you really turn your garage into a mini-nightclub while at Liverpool?
Steve Overton, via Twitter
My driveway was so big that you could park 11 cars on it, and I had a little arch there with a roof on it, which is where I set up a nightclub. I had a sign above the door saying ‘Players’ Lounge’, and a DJ booth and a bar. We always went back there after a night out in Liverpool.
How did you get on with Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher? Did they rule the Liverpool dressing room?
Geoff Barnes, Kirkby
They ruled the dressing room and the club. I got along with them fine – they knew I was a bit crazy. We weren’t best pals, but we got along and I respected them. We were just team-mates.
Why do you think you were never picked to play for England?
Adam Blandford, via Twitter
I think it was the drink-driving incident. To play for your country, you must have a good image, and after that my image was tainted – it didn’t matter how good I was on the pitch. It might be a bit different now. It has been frustrating seeing players I was better than play for England, but I have to live with that. I know I made some mistakes.
Is it true that Real Madrid made a bid for you? Why didn’t the move happen?
Simon Blake, via email
Real Madrid wanted to sign me when Juande Ramos, was in charge there. The board wanted to do the deal as they wanted a right-winger. On transfer deadline day I got a call from my agent, saying, “You could be going to Madrid – keep your phone on.” But the board had gone over the manager’s head, so he started to get upset, and to placate him they pulled the plug on the deal. The club wanted me; the manager didn’t.
What was it like living and playing in Spain for Real Zaragoza, and why didn’t it work out for you there?
Duncan Kingham, via email
The football was good. I loved how technical all the teams were, even the ones down at the bottom. The weather was nice. The pitches were immaculate. But Zaragoza was a bit difficult to live in as it was traditional Spain – it wasn’t very multicultural. On days off, I would go to Madrid or Barcelona for a good time. Once, I went to Barcelona for a night out and then got the train back on the morning of training, but I felt so bad that I couldn’t go in, so I told them I wasn’t well. The club doctor came to my house to check on me, but I didn’t answer the door. I think they knew!
Did you really forget that you’d left your Porsche in Spain when you came back to play in England?
Jordan Potter, via email
I didn’t forget it, but I did kind of abandon it. I always knew where it was. I signed for Stoke on deadline day and had to get over there fast, so I left my car at the train station. It was in the station car park for three months, soI asked my friend to collect it. While it was there, though, the security were getting suspicious. When they ranthe number plate it came back to me, and so stories began to leak about it, and it did look a bit bad.
Do you think you made the most of your career and your ability?
Jason Nolan, via Twitter
Considering where I came from, I did well, but I could have done better if I didn’t make certain mistakes. But that all comes from my upbringing, where I didn’t have the guidance I might have had. From a young age, I didn’t have the discipline. If you think about where I came from as a kid, and that I played in a Champions League final, that means I had a good career, I think.
Is it true that an anonymous person used to email clubs to try to stop them from signing you?
Stuart Northam, Kent
That’s true. I was baffled, because I would go to a team, shine in training for two weeks and expect to get a deal. The manager would be delighted with me. But then, when it came to talking about a contract, they’d suddenly tell me they didn’t have the budget. I didn’t understand it, because it happened with several teams.
My agent was tipped off by a board member at a club about an email they were anonymously sent about me, which said I was into drugs, that I had abandoned my child and that I was always out, and so they couldn’t take a risk on me. I’ve since found out who sent them, but I haven’t talked to them. They were just bitter. They know that I know now, too.
After turning out for Arsenal and Liverpool, what was it like to play in non-league for Billericay Town last season? Did other players want to kick you and prove themselves?
Alfie Battison, Ipswich
I was definitely targeted in that league. I played with a good bunch of lads, but it was
a bit of a circus down there with the owner [Glenn Tamplin] and the staff. It was crazy – an eye-opener – and I couldn’t stay there any longer. But it was interesting while it lasted. We would get changed in sheds. I was used to immaculate surfaces, and suddenly I was playing on a cow field in front of 100 people. It was a fun experience, but one that I’m glad didn’t last forever!
Do you regret being so critical of Loris Karius on Twitter after Liverpool lost the 2018 Champions League Final?
Connor Shields, Southend
I don’t know if I really regret it. I was just being light-hearted, having a bit of banter. He made a big mistake – we’ve all done that. I’ve made mistakes and people are quick to let me know. Being an ex-pro doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion. I hope he bounces back. I was just saying what everyone was thinking.
— jermaine pennant (@pennant83) May 26, 2018
Who got the best out of you: Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez or Steve Bruce?
Barry Stevenson, London
Steve Bruce at Birmingham, because no matter what I did off the pitch, he knew I’d always give him 100 per cent on it. And my form at Birmingham earned me a move to Liverpool.
What was it like to play for Tony Pulis at Stoke? Is he a scary character?
Chris Pawlton, Bexhill
He’s a lovely guy: when you come into training, he’ll always ask you about your family. But there’s a dark side to him, too; he can be scary. There’s the famous story about him going to headbutt James Beattie naked in the dressing room. Players had that in the back of their minds and knew not to cross him!
How did you react to being outed as a porn star on the front page of The Sun earlier this year?
David Larsen, Brighton
I just laughed! I was a porn star! I wasn’t bothered – I’ve had a lot worse, trust me – but my family were a bit upset. Of course I’m not a porn star; it was all exaggerated.
There are rumours that you were once at the centre of a kidnap plot – are they true?
Fraser Sprackling, via email
The police thought at first that it was a kidnap plot, but it turned out not to be. They had found a picture of me in a bag with a gun in it. The police came from Nottingham to Arsenal’s training ground in order to warn me. It transpired that a friend had hidden a gun in a bag without knowing that there was a picture of me already in it.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? Ideally, what would you like to be doing?
Gary Peyton, Essex
I would like to get myself on television, whether that is in punditry or on shows. I’d like to get back into football and become a coach. I think I would really get along with my players. I always said, “If I become a manager, I am going to be totally different.” I would tell my players that if they put in a shift for me, they would get some holidays.
That motivates players. When I played, if a manager said they’d give you Sunday and Monday off if you got a win, that would really help you. You need to get away. I think my players would like me. I need to start doing the badges in Wales or Ireland. But I am not going to play again – that’s me done with that.
Looking back, do you regret the Monopoly game that you describe in your book, where you would rate girls from Old Kent Road up to Mayfair and receive ‘rent’ if one of your mates slept with them after you?
George Crepton, via email
No, I don’t regret it – it was just banter with the boys. We didn’t disrespect anyone. I put it in the book as something funny for people to read. The girls had no respect for themselves anyway – it’s not as if I’m taking a lovely girl and exploiting and exposing her. They knew what they were getting involved in; they just wanted to have some fun.
Every lad of that age goes out and sleeps with birds. I’m sure there are plenty of WhatsApp groups with people saying, “I done this with that bird.” I was still learning: I was just a teenager, and then in my early twenties. I don’t regret it. But I wouldn’t act like that now.
If you were sent back in time, what would you do differently?
Goal Scorer, via Twitter
I would stay longer at Notts County, because I was playing in their first team when I was 15. If I’d stayed, I would have played more, and it was under Sam Allardyce, who I got on with. It would have boosted my value to the club, but also I would’ve improved as a player. That would have done me good in the long run.
Did you enjoy your time spent playing for Pune City in the Indian Super League?
Aadil Kiaan, Mumbai
It was hot out there, and a little bit different, but I enjoyed it. They really love their football – there were 60,000 in the stadiums for some games. Obviously the football wasn’t great, but I enjoyed exploring a different country and culture.
- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – "At first I wasn’t mean enough. My teams weren’t solid – now I’ve learned a lot"
What was the best moment of your career; the best goal you scored; and the best five-a-side team you can name from players you played with?
Charlie Ellis, via Instagram
The best moment was playing in the Champions League Final for Liverpool in 2007, without a shadow of a doubt. The best goal I scored was for Liverpool against Chelsea, because I did it at Anfield against my good mate Ashley [Cole] and a great keeper in Petr Cech. And my five-a-side team from former team-mates would be Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and David Seaman.
This feature originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of FourFourTwo.