Football: Pennant gets a flashback to his own no-frills childhood

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Pennant taking part in drills with participants yesterday. ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE
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(Above) Jermaine Pennant autographing a ball yesterday for Muhamad Arsyad Ajis, 17, during SportCares’ Saturday Night Lights programme, aimed at empowering underprivileged youngsters.ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE

As a boy from a working-class family, Jermaine Pennant did not get to enjoy many of life's luxuries while growing up.

But the one thing that was a bright spark in his childhood was football. And he got his kicks at a centre with other underprivileged youths.

Yesterday, he found himself in a similar setting, albeit in Singapore, where the Englishman plies his trade with S-League club Tampines Rovers.

The former Arsenal and Liverpool winger was the surprise guest at SportCares' Saturday Night Lights (SNL) football programme, which aims to use football to motivate and empower underprivileged youths.

Pennant, 33, who grew up in a crime- and drug-infested neighbourhood in Nottingham, believes that such programmes are extremely beneficial for vulnerable youth, noting: "It keeps kids off the streets and out of trouble and helps them meet friends who have similar interests."

VALUABLE PROJECT

It keeps kids off the streets and out of trouble and helps them meet friends who have similar interests.

JERMAINE PENNANT, praising the SportCares football programme.

Growing up without a mother, who died of cancer when he was just three, Pennant had to help raise his three siblings and did not immediately learn to read or write. As he admitted in an interview with The Independent in 2007: "If I hadn't got into football I could easily have gone down the wrong path."

He told The Sunday Times that his own background helped him relate to yesterday's participants: "I didn't have a high-class background, or rich parents, and it was a struggle sometimes.

"Football was what got me to where I am now. If they (the SNL participants) can continue to work hard, who knows what the future will bring for them?"

Pennant, who not only addressed the participants but also joined in the training session, taking part in drills and observing the players' techniques, said that he hoped to inspire the participants to persevere in following their ambitions.

"I hope they will keep going until they have knocked on every door and tried every angle," he said, even though he also took pains to address the youths individually.

Ironically, he feels the SNL participants are slightly more privileged than he was when he was undergoing similar experiences from his youth.

"With this programme they get to play on a big field, not in a centre with youth clubs like I used to," he explained.

When Arsenal fan Muhammad Alfie Aasriq, 20, saw Pennant walk into the training session yesterday, he thought he was dreaming.

"It took me a while to realise that it was real, and there was actually a former Arsenal player here," he said.

"He talked to me about his experiences playing at Arsenal," said Aasriq, who also had his Arsenal jersey signed by Pennant. "He told me it was a great experience playing in midfield instead of right wing like he usually does."

Pennant is settling in here after almost four months in Singapore. "I am not as reliant on my GPS any more!" he said yesterday.

Little fazes him these days, although he did admit that the S-League was tougher than he had expected.

"We are given a test in every game we play. Even though we have been doing well so far, every game is difficult," he said.

"I couldn't name all the players who have impressed me. I think our whole starting XI are of a high quality. They have won big games when Billy (Mehmet), Jordan (Webb) and I were not playing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Pennant gets a flashback to his own no-frills childhood'. Print Edition | Subscribe