Long Reads

Dale Jennings – Ambition, disappointment and lessons learnt

For a number of young players seeking that elusive breakthrough into first-team action with a top-level English club, a diversion onto the continent is increasingly becoming an attractive option. Players such as Jadon Sancho have followed that path, in his case breaking free of the bottleneck of talent at Man City to forge a new career with Borussia Dortmund, before becoming a highly marketable commodity back in the UK. Until his injury a few games short of the transfer window, it seemed almost inevitable that Callum Hudson-Odoi was bent on a similar plan with Bayern Munich willing to spend £22.5 million for his signature. All of that may have been scuppered by his unfortunate injury, but that does little to suggest that any number of young fringe players now see venturing abroad as a peril. Any temptation should, however, be tempered by the old maxim that the other man’s grass isn’t always greener. It’s a warning that Dale Jennings may well feel happy to underscore.

A prodigy with hometown club Liverpool, Jennings seemed destined to make the grade with the Anfield club but, as with so many other aspiring young players, things didn’t pan out well, and he was released, before being picked up by Tranmere Rovers in 2008. Perhaps feeling more comfortable in the less pressurised atmosphere of Prenton Park, the young Jennings flourished picking up awards as his apprenticeship in the game developed. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a step down in order to take a step up, and that seemed to be the case when bigger clubs began to take notice of the blossoming young talent displaying his wares on The Wirral. Rumour has it that a number of Premier League clubs enquired about signing him, but when the move eventually came, it was to a far more unexpected destination.

The young wide player had made 28 League One appearances for Tranmere, scoring half-a-dozen goals and providing six assists, when manager, Les Parry, called him over for a word after a training session. There had been talk of approaches from West Ham United and local club Everton but, unbeknown to the 18-year-old, his fame had spread much wider. The deal on the table was for an opportunity to move to Bavaria and sign for perennial German champions Bayern Munich.

Former Liverpool player, Didier Hamann appeared to be a key component in the move. Given the German’s connections with Liverpool whether he had been made aware of the player’s potential in his aborted career with the Reds is unclear. The former German international apparently eased any concerns about the cultural differences and within a week the deal was sealed. Jennings would later describe the move as “always a no-brainer”. In an interview with the BBC, he added, “When the manager said ‘can I have a word with you?’ I thought I was in trouble! He said Bayern had been in contact and I thought he was having me on. It went over my head because I didn’t really realise how big a move it was. I just wanted to play football so I didn’t really care at the time. It was unheard of for anyone to move to Bayern Munich from Tranmere. I just wanted to see what it was like in Germany and the different style of play they had there.” Fairy tales can often turn into adventures though with sometimes less than happy endings. For Dale Jennings, there was no fairy godmother to look after him.

Injuries began to take a toll on the player, and the harder he drove himself to succeed, the more setbacks he seemed to suffer. “I tried to learn the language for about six months but I struggled,” he explained. “I felt it was affecting my play as I was too worried about trying to learn to speak German rather than putting performances on the pitch. It got a bit too much for me and the club told me just to concentrate on my football.” It’s easy to forget of course, that even in the heady financial world of the modern-day footballer, so many young players are merely just teenagers with all the insecurities, doubts and concerns that anyone of their age may endure. They just have to endure such times in a goldfish bowl of media attention.

Eventually, Bayern decided to cut their losses. Jennings had spent 18 months in Bavaria but failed to break into the first team even once. When things go well, it can often be a virtuous cycle of encouraging success and burgeoning confidence. In other scenarios though, the reverse applies and, at the end of the day, the move just simply didn’t work out for either club or player. Bayern sold Jennings back to England and Barnsley for a fee of £250,000.

There was perhaps an omen of ill fortune to follow when Jennings was dismissed in his debut for the Yorkshire club, but he had the resilience to battle back, claiming that he “liked being at Barnsley.” Injuries again thwarted ambition though, and he never truly settled before moving to League One side MK Dons following a short spell on loan at the club. More injuries followed though, like a dark cloud that the young player was reluctantly being compelled to drag around with him and six months out of the game led to the contract being ended.

At the same time, Jennings suffered a personal crisis with his daughter being struck down by serious illness. In any walk of life, such trauma can derail anyone’s professional ambitions, and a three-year break from the game followed. Eventually, he realised “how much he missed the game” and made his return with Runcorn Town.

Perhaps with a sharper perspective on life, Jennings mentioned that the more mature person he had become was now more ready for a career that had looked set for lift-off. “I feel like I have that mentality back from when I was a 16-year-old running around for Tranmere,” he explained. “I just want to win games and progress as high as I can. I am enjoying my football again.” It seems a happier, more satisfying approach, but probably with no less an ambitious attitude. “I have learned from my mistakes, he confessed. “I am more clued up on how to live my life better, how to play football and the sacrifices you have to make,” he said. A chance to play football for one of Europe’s biggest clubs may be the dream that fires many young players careers, but if they took the opportunity to have a word with Dale Jennings, they may just discover that there are far more important things in life than a chance at hitting the big time.

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