Will his pennant fly internationally?

M. SRINATH

Jermaine Pennant is a quintessential winger with blinding pace. He still dreams of playing international football and says, “I’m only 31 and there are players in the Premier League who are 34-35, so I still have my chance,” as Ayon Sengupta and N. Sudarshan listen.

Evolution is a process of constant branching and expansion.

— Stephen Jay Gould (Paleontologist)

Like everything else around us, football — the beautiful game — too has branched and expanded over the years gone by. The emergence of new styles of play has often made players and systems relics of a bygone era. And the old-fashioned tearaway winger, who once breezed past defenders to play the perfect measured cross for the athletic No. 9, has lost his position in this evolution. Wider players are ever eager to cut in and operate more centrally, while the width and pace are now offered by the overlapping wing-backs.

England’s Jermaine Pennant, once the youngest Arsenal debutant, has always been a quintessential winger, blessed with terror pace. The 31-year-old, still in his prime, but perhaps sidelined by the changing systems in Europe, is now in India, lending his experience and speed to the inaugural Indian Super League. The FC Pune City star is still proud of his unique abilities, though he expresses his disappointment in missing out on international football.

Question: How has been your experience in India, so far?

Answer: It’s been good. I haven’t seen much (of the country) as I have not been able to step out of the hotel, because there have been far too many games. Even when I was playing in the Champions League for Liverpool there weren’t these many games (in such a short duration). In England, probably only during the Christmas week we play so much. Some of the training pitches here have been very hard, but not much to complain about the match grounds.

What were the reasons for you to pick India as a playing destination?

PENNANT IN ACTION against Chennaiyin FC in the Indian Super League.-SPORTZPICS/ISL

It was more for a different experience. I have played in England for almost my entire career — 15-16 years. They wanted me to play in the Super League and help the League and I said why not. It’s not a long season, so it leaves other options open. It helps me to stay fit and maybe move to another club in January.

Has it been difficult to adapt since you joined the team late?

No, the squad has made it easier for me. I feel I have been here from the start. The first game was difficult — getting used to the refereeing, getting used to the style of the Indian players, the climate. In England some fouls will be fouls, but in India it’s more lenient. It is not as strict as in Europe and I was shocked.

What is your opinion about the quality of the game here?

Obviously, the foreign players have good quality. They have been brought here for a reason. Even some of the Indian players are good, some players on the wings have good pace. It’s been a learning curve for the Indians because football is not their main sport. There are some little basics that need to be addressed, but it can’t be done in a week. But, I am sure, the Indians will benefit from having us here, playing with us and getting the right feedback.

You were once the youngest debutant for Arsenal. How was it to be a part of the London side when it went on a 49-match unbeaten run?

It was a great achievement. We got into every game feeling confident, thinking we can’t lose. 25-30% of football is confidence. If you get into a game with that you tend to do better. And in that team all of us had that confidence.

How difficult was it to break into the Gunners’ first team?

They had too many great players — Ray Parlour, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires were playing in the wider positions. But maybe now Arsene would have gone about it differently because he is giving new players more chances. But in 2003-04 it was a new thing. As football grows newer players are coming in. If it was now I would have played more games.

How would you compare the Liverpool and Arsenal experience?

Liverpool was better because we were playing in the Champions League — and I was a first team regular, a Premier League regular. Arsenal was about fine tuning my game, learning as a young player and it was about making me the player to be. I am grateful to Arsenal for that.

How would you compare Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger as managers?

Rafa was more tactical whereas Arsene was better with technical play and his game was more free-flowing. Rafa was all about team shape. As you could see Liverpool had great discipline, but Arsenal was free-flowing.

What’s your take on the present Liverpool side under Brendan Rodgers?

Brendan has taken it forward from Swansea, they pass a lot. The massive difference for Liverpool from last season is Luis Suarez — he is a big player to lose. Without Suarez, Liverpool might not have finished second (last term).

Despite doing well at the club level you never got to play for England…

I did expect to play for England, especially when you play in the Champions League final. I am the only English player to play in the Champions League final and then not feature for the country. I remember after the final the England manager (Sven-Goran Eriksson) said “you are doing well” and I thought there’s a chance, but it never happened. Maybe there’s politics and I was a bit disappointed.

The famous English sports writer, Brian Glanville, said, “Jermaine is a better winger than Beckham.” What do you say about that?

(Laughs) It’s nice to hear that. End of the day Beckham has done great for both club and country. I was different from Beckham, I had pace and I could run past defenders, so maybe as a winger I was better. He is a great crosser, but even I could cross the ball. So it’s a little frustrating that it never happened. But that’s football. Beckham is great and he is more than a footballer, he is an icon.

Do you still dream of playing international football?

Definitely! I’m only 31 and there are players in the Premier League who are 34-35, so I still have my chance.

Will you prefer to play for Ireland or Jamaica? (Pennant is also eligible to play for these nations because of his ancestry.)

You can’t be picky. It’s international football. It’s great to play against nations, travel. If they come knocking on the door and if I can I will play for any of them.

What’s your opinion about the current England national side?

A lot of older players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have retired and they are giving the younger boys a chance, much like Germany. Germany had seven-eight players of their under-21 side, who went on to play the World Cup. England are trying to do the same, but you won’t see the results in a year or two, you will need time.

Germany and Spain have more licensed coaches compared to England. Do you think the grass-root model in both countries is better than England’s?

In Spain and Germany the grass-root is more technical, fluent and free-flowing. In England it’s too structured, so at a young age the players don’t develop the best way. They develop to play the England way whereas they should be able to express their ability. Young players in Spain are free and I remember when I was young and was playing against Barcelona, their boys were always more expressive.