As Jadon Sancho enters the England fold, one-time Bayern Munich starlet Dale Jennings is determined to relaunch his career
It’s Tuesday night in the back end of Bootle at a football ground on the edge of a trading estate which roughly marks the half way point between Aintree Racecourse and Savio, the secondary school where Jamie Carragher was once a pupil.
Dale Jennings should be playing for Runcorn Town but he is not; rested, according to the committee men drinking hot tea from polystyrene cups, after it was sensibly decided by manager Chris Herbert that three games in seven days would probably be too risky for a winger who has not played at this competitive level or above in two years.
It is a slightly cruel twist that in the course of the same week, one young English player in Jadon Sancho who went to Germany after deciding the possibilities at Borussia Dortmund were better than those at Manchester City would get called up to play for his national team, while another in Jennings, having followed a similar path some years before, would sign for a team competing in the North West Counties League.
Jennings, now 25, has since played twice: against Congleton Town and at Silsden. He had left Tranmere Rovers for Bayern Munich in 2011 for a fee that would reach £1.8million. Bayern’s appetite to sign him came via a reference from Dietmar Hamann, who realised after trying to stop Jennings’ pace and trickery while playing for MK Dons that it was probably best he soon retired.
Hamann drove to the home of Jennings in the Kensington area of Liverpool on behalf of Bayern where he told him the club would take care of him – that potentially, he had the ability to succeed Franck Ribery or Arjen Robben. Once in Munich, the encouragement continued and his youth coach Mehmet Scholl, winner of eight Bundesliga titles as a player, spoke of a future in the first team.
Reflecting on his teenage self, Jennings later admitted that the move away from Merseyside had been too soon but luck would have a role too; there were two hernia operations before he featured in a game and when he did return, he soon sustained an ankle ligament injury. By his own admission, language problems and a poor diet did not help his integration and he felt lonely living in a city centre apartment.
In 2013 – the summer Pep Guardiola was appointed as Bayern manager – Jennings chose to return to England with a year left on his contract, signing for Barnsley where he was relegated from the Championship. By then, there had been two further knee injuries and a permanent move to MK Dons which did not work out under the guidance of Karl Robinson, a fellow Liverpudlian.
Until he joined Runcorn Town, Jennings was signed to Page Celtic, a successful amateur club from Huyton where Lee Trundle, the maverick former Swansea City forward, kept on scoring goals for years following his professional retirement. In an interview with Radio City this week, Jennings partly explained his absence from the professional arena where he has “always loved playing” by the condition of his daughter, whom he committed to caring for after she was diagnosed with leukaemia soon after he left Milton Keynes.
Without knowing this significant life-changing detail, it is imaginable that easy conclusions would be made about Jennings, starting with the one about it being unusual that someone of such promise should find himself where he is, even though it isn’t particularly true. It quickly gets forgotten just how much the odds are against footballers like him regardless of where their contracts have been.
Runcorn’s No. 9 at Silsden was Craig Lindfield and Liverpool supporters might remember him from the summer of 2006 when he scored the only goal for the first team in a pre-season friendly at Crewe Alexandra – an occasion when he partnered Robbie Fowler in attack. Last night, Lindfield was back at Nantwich Town where he holds dual registration, and his two goals helped the Cheshire side beat Hednesford Town.
Meanwhile, tenants at Bootle are top-of-the-table City of Liverpool, the region’s socialist club. The scorer of a penalty in their 4-0 victory over West Didsbury and Chorlton on Saturday was Karl Clair, a midfielder who like Lindfield a few years before him had featured for Liverpool in an FA Youth Cup final. Beside him on that run was Adam Pepper, who Liverpool had signed for a six-figure fee from Everton while he was still in primary school. For the time being, Pepper is a substitute trying to displace Clair as the creative hub in the City of Liverpool side.
In the same summer that Jennings left Tranmere, Liverpool bought Daniel Trickett-Smith from Crewe Alexandra for a fee reported to be close to £500,000 and he now plays for Leek Town, the league above Runcorn Town.
Much was expected too at Liverpool of Jack Dunn; 2011 also had the potential to be significant in his story of development because that was the year he went to the Under-17 World Cup with England, where he flourished in the same team as Raheem Sterling and Jordan Pickford. On Saturday, Dunn scored the winner on his debut for Widnes at Skelmersdale having been sent there on loan by Warrington – a move which would have been more controversial had this concerned Rugby League rather than football.
The pattern stretches further than the boundaries of Merseyside. Jordan Slew’s starring role in Sheffield United’s run to the FA Youth Cup final beside Harry Maguire in 2011 earned him a £1.1million move to Blackburn Rovers. He is currently without a club, having last been attached to Radcliffe from north Manchester. Slew, like Jennings, had been 18 when he sealed his big move, though he had played even higher – featuring in eight Championship games, a level where he was able to score twice.
Those who have seen Jennings perform say he is the sort of player who takes more from games than training when it comes to fitness and confidence. He described Runcorn as “the ideal level” to return and there is a lot of truth in that.
He would not be able to find this opportunity that much higher than where he is now. The competition in non-league football has intensified more than many who don’t follow it recognise, with the rise of professional clubs and the frequency with which managers are hired and fired. The Salfords, the Fyldes, the Eastleighs and the Billericays have transformed the landscape and so, fewer chances are taken and fewer favours are offered.
It is unlikely that Liverpool are alone in being a Premier League club whose standard practice is to take their academy players to watch non-league football. The message they receive can be subliminal or firm: “You could end up here.” In an attempt to keep them motivated they are sold a dream but they are also exposed to a nightmare, a nightmare which tells them performing at the standard of football where they are probably more likely to arrive at is, in their view, a sort of embarrassing reality.
Jennings, though, is determined for this not to be end for him and it is his aim is to return to the Football League. At 15, he had been let go by Liverpool and so, by the time he left Birkenhead for Bavaria he was already a teenager who knew about ruthless practices in football, carrying with him a determination to prove Liverpool wrong. It was his decision to leave Bayern, not the club’s, and you do wonder whether he regrets not sticking it out in Germany that bit longer.
In this context, with at least one crushing disappointment behind him, along, perhaps, with a dose of regret, he should be credited for finding the spirit and humility in himself to start again.