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Mar 2, 2005

Driven to distraction

Six years after hitting the headlines as the most expensive teenager in British football, Jermaine Pennant stands at a footballing crossroads. After a catalogue of excess off the pitch he has failed to find success on it.

Today he sits in a prison cell serving a three-month sentence for a second drink-driving charge in the space of 12 months. He is at the last chance saloon of his career rather than in one of the capital's bars.

It was January 1999 when Arsenal splashed out £2million on an unknown teenager from struggling Second Division side Notts County. Signed on his 16th birthday with only two substitute appearances under his belt, Jermaine Pennant was very much a raw talent.

The magnitude of the move led to wide media interest in the kid from Nottingham's The Meadows estate, a run-down area where crime and violence was prevalent, not least because County claimed that the Londoners had poached their star talent. .

Pennant has become the perfect case study for the trappings of fame.

He can consider himself lucky, however, that in Birmingham City manager Steve Bruce he has someone who still believes in him when all others have written him off.

With his Arsenal contract due to expire within four months he was running out of takers.

Pennant could be released from jail, with good behaviour, in time for the visit of Portsmouth to St Andrews on April 17. And with Birmingham honouring his loan deal he will have the opportunity to win a permanent move.

It may prove to be the final opportunity for the troubled player to realise his potential in the Premiership.

He was only 18 when he made his debut for the England Under-21s. But after a promising start the coaching staff at Arsenal began to have grave concerns about his behaviour away from their watchful eyes.

Maybe Pennant found it all too easy to take the wrong route after acting as a parental figure to his siblings after his mother walked out.

For Pennant, school was an afterthought and when he wasn't playing football he was helping at the family home. He arrived in London as a child with little education, barely able to read or write and bereft of the social skills that could have helped him cope with the media attention.

After the shackles of responsibility were removed, the hours of free time and Premiership wage provided a distraction he couldn't shake off.

After the shackles of responsibility were removed, the hours of free time and Premiership wage provided a distraction he couldn't shake off. Arsenal were unable to focus his mind on the game.

Pennant's rise to national recognition came at a similar age to Wayne Rooney. But while Rooney remained wrapped up in cotton wool by those who had nurtured his talent Pennant had moved to a new club, city and to a group of coaches who knew little about him.

The player's Arsenal debut came as a substitute in a 2-2 League Cup draw at Middlesbrough in November 1999 when still aged 16. But by the time his 19th birthday approached he had only four additional League Cup starts to his name plus a late appearance in a Champions League match at Schalke 04.

His frustration at failing to break into the Arsenal first team continued to gnaw away at him and the distractions were plentiful. The player was consistently late for training sessions, one of manager Arsene Wenger's greatest annoyances.

In January 2002 he began the first of two loan spells with First Division Watford, the second coming in November. Although both stints were successful he remained eager to make a go of things.

Wenger's patience was tested in April 2003 when the player was sent home from England Under-21 duty by David Platt for breaking a curfew prior to a European qualifier against Turkey. Even so, Pennant was handed his first Premiership start at Arsenal the following month, which he marked with a well taken hat-trick at home to Southampton.

By August, Pennant's behaviour had again caused anger. Days after being sent off for punching a Croatia player during an Under-21 friendly, he was loaned to Leeds United in a deal which would eventually span the season.

Despite this, Pennant struggled to adapt to living away from the capital's nightlife. It was during the secondment at Elland Road that he was first charged with drink-driving after being spotted driving erratically in Paddington by the police. He was banned from driving for 16 months.

Jermaine Pennant: Unlikely to be seen in the red of Arsenal again
Jermaine Pennant: Unlikely to be seen in the red of Arsenal again

His performances for Leeds were excellent despite their failed attempt to avoid relegation to the Football League.

At the start of this season it seemed as though Pennant had finally won over his detractors at Highbury to become part of the first team picture, making 11 of his 26 total appearances in the opening few months.

The final straw came when he was arrested again for a second time after being spotted driving around a car-park dragging a lamp post beneath his vehicle. The associated tales, including his attempts to work out the Mercedes' satellite navigation system when driving to Bristol via Aylesbury, did little to help.

Birmingham's decision to stand by the player, despite the charges emerging at the same time as their loan deal was being finalised, is admirable. But they know their loyalty could have its rewards.

Steve Bruce is a very shrewd operator. He knows that Pennant still has great ability and, in many respects, untapped talent. As such, Birmingham went out of their way to make sure the 22-year-old stayed on the straight and narrow in the Midlands, employing a chaperone to ensure the City's nightlife did not become too tempting.

And with Pennant out of contract in the summer, and the chances of him being offered one by Arsenal negligible, Bruce knows he has the chance to pick up a potentially quality performer on the cheap.

There are risks involved, but the possible pros outweigh the cons. If his performances for Birmingham in the month prior to sentencing are an indicator then Bruce's stance may well prove rewarding. Pennant will now be well aware his career has two paths - he can either implode or put right the wrongs.

After years of scratching around in the background at Arsenal, Pennant has the chance to kick start his career in an environment where he can blossom.

Bruce has already transformed one misfit Arsenal player into a full England international after signing Matthew Upson. There is much more work to do with Pennant but he has the ability. The question is, given time, does Pennant have the temperament, dedication and focus to turn his career around?

It's all about learning from your mistakes.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.