Jermaine Pennant has not been this closely tracked since he infamously wore an electronic tag whilst playing for Birmingham City in 2005. Much like the humble high street shopper, Europe’s biggest clubs are looking for bargains in the January sales and are finding an unpolished, inconsistent, speedy winger with bags of potential and a rather awkward personal history. The eclectic list of suitors – Real Madrid, AC Milan, Juventus, Hull City, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic – leads us to an inevitable question: should he be plying his trade with Kaka, Ronaldinho and Beckham in Italy or learning how to get on the end of a Rory Delap long throw in Stoke?
When Jermaine Pennant joined Arsenal as a fifteen-year-old he was the most expensive trainee of his time. He went on to make twenty-four appearances for England U21s, making him the eighth most capped player at that level. But being a promising youngster in Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ team was a frustrating time and he was often late for training.
Each time Pennant has looked like fulfilling his potential he has fallen. After failing to persuade Arsene Wenger, he proved his ability during a loan spell at Leeds United and became a fan favourite, but the club were relegated.
He stayed in the Premiership and continued his fine form with Birmingham City but was then sentenced to ninety days in prison for drink driving; it didn’t affect his form and OPTA statistics showed he came back to finish the 05/06 season with the most amount of crosses in the league. Unfortunately, Chris Sutton, Emile Heskey and Mikael Forssell couldn’t put any of them in the back of the net and another relegation followed.
A dream move to Liverpool followed in 2006 and the threat of a hat trick of relegations subsided. Pennant played 34 league games and reached the highest point of his career to-date by starring in the Champions League Final defeat by AC Milan. At the start of last season he continued that fine form but infuriated Rafa Benitez with a reckless red card against Porto that nearly cost Liverpool precious Champions League points. Then after a stress fracture of the tibia Pennant slipped off the radar as Dirk Kuyt made the right wing position his own.
During this chequered history, Pennant has at times looked like an extremely good player. Critics may look to the current economic climate for the reason why such prestigious clubs are interested, but Pennant has the technique of a continental winger, is comfortable on the ball and has that all-important burst of pace. Carlo Ancelotti at AC Milan will no doubt remember these qualities from that night in Athens in 2007, Claudio Ranieri at Juventus has memories of Pennant racing down the wing in a Leeds shirt back in 2004 and Juande Ramos imagines Aaron Lennon but with crossing ability.
Clearly Benitez does not share the same view. Pennant has not always been able to sustain his good form for Liverpool and his manager has little tolerance for ineffective flair players. At his best he is a cultured and silky winger; at his worst he is a drifter, needlessly running the ball into traffic. If he were born in São Paulo rather than Nottingham we would probably celebrate this unpredictability.
Whilst Pennant’s attitude has been questioned in the past, he has shown honourable determination to win his place back in the Liverpool team. Despite being ignored by Benitez this season he still claimed, ‘I would love to stay here for longer, I am a Liverpool fan and it was always my dream to play here’.
So is it the Bernabéu or the KC Stadium for Jermaine Pennant? Based on this evidence he could probably play at both. He is likely to spend a lot more time on the bench should he join another big European club, but with the right support perhaps he could again terrorise defences in Champions League finals. Otherwise it looks like Pennant will once again be the big fish in a little pond, staring into the murkiness of another relegation battle.