Iron(ing) in the midfield

You can pick Jermaine Jenas out of a training ground cluster a long way off. His wiry frame sticks out like a coat hanger and, although not quite six foot, he has a way of looking like the tallest man on the pitch. There is definitely something about JJ.

Six months ago, though, you would have heard a host of pejorative comments.
Not only was Jenas casually mooted as overpriced, but he came from a circle of footballers who had been getting the wrong kind of media attention. Word was out that Britain’s most expensive teenager before Wayne Rooney—Sir Bobby Robson paid £5-million for his transfer from Nottingham Forest to Newcastle in 2002—had let the diamond earrings go to his head.

Then you meet the guy and he is level-headed, articulate and polite. He speaks with a maturity that belies his youthful appearance. And rather than simply add to Tottenham’s midfield collection, he has played an essential role in the club’s unpredicted success this season.

At the time of his move to London, back in August, he had been pilloried in the media for describing Newcastle as a “goldfish bowl”, but he didn’t let it waylay him.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Newcastle, but I needed to keep progressing,” says the 22-year-old. “I felt they could do that better for me at Spurs. The youth players here reminded me of what we had when I first went to Newcastle: me, [Kieron] Dyer, [Craig] Bellamy. There was a lot of pace and it was exciting football. I felt we lost that. I felt that Tottenham were going places and I wanted to be a part of it.”

There is an air of self-determination about the England midfielder. He has 10 GCSEs and is well spoken; he defies the demographics of his upbringing—a single-parent family on an estate in Clifton, Nottingham.

“My mum was a social worker and she’d be working long hours. I’d come home from school and look after myself. You’d look in the fridge, find what you could, put it together and you’d got yourself lunch. In the evenings my mum would be too tired for cooking and cleaning so me and my sister would do it. My mum always instilled in us the importance of being able to look after ourselves. I used to like the ironing for some reason. I guess I found it therapeutic.”

Jenas saw his father most weekends until the Burton Albion player-turned-coach moved to New Mexico, when Jenas was 14. Rather than resent his father’s absence—they stay in touch—or his mother’s long working hours, he empathised.

“My dad got an opportunity in America that he couldn’t turn down. Yes, he left at an age where you need your dad, but I had plenty of male role models in my life. My cousin Richard Liburd was playing at Bradford at the time and he looked after me. He saved me ...” Jenas pauses, before clarifying: “In terms of what you crave for a father figure at that age.”

Until he emigrated, Jenas’s father fulfilled the archetypal role of a dad—watching from the sidelines of the football pitch. “My dad was all about technique. He used to make me do drills all the time, turning, passing, shooting. He was pretty harsh, many a time he made me cry. I would score a hat-trick, but it wasn’t good enough. Maybe I hadn’t set someone up.

“I could always feel him on the pitch. I was constantly hearing, ‘Jermaine Jermaine Jermaine.’ My mum used to say to me, ‘Just block it out’, but I knew if I heard too many Jermaines then after the game I’d get it. My mum would put an arm round me. It was good to have a balance, but it often led to arguing on the way home.”

Criticism from his father, though, made for good preparation for working under demanding managers such as Robson and Graeme Souness. “I think it helped me to grow up. Criticism comes with everything you do. You have to know how to deal with it.”

Jenas’s dad was famous around the area for the after-school coaching he organised. Darren Huckerby was one of the many local kids who came through the ranks with Jenas. Others included Michael Dawson and Andy Reid.

Recalling those days, Jenas unconsciously slips into a Nottingham street accent and, for a short time, speaks his age. “It was mad right, my local team, we was brilliant. Jermaine Pennant played for us from when we were about 12. He used to live two miles from my house. It was one of them things like, you know, when you’re younger. I was the best in my area and people used to say Jermaine Pennant was the best in his area, so I always thought, ‘Who’s this Jermaine Pennant?’ Eventually we played together.”

Pennant, Dyer and Titus Bramble are young players who have all had their fair share of tabloid run-ins—and are some of Jenas’s best friends in the game. How has he so far avoided a similar fate? The question itself is a stab at his friends’ reputation, but Jenas answers with honesty and without resentment.

“My mum has always instilled good morals in me,” he says. “Certain people have a tough upbringing and it’s harder for them to realise when they’re doing something wrong or when they’re in a place they shouldn’t be. It’s not always their fault. Footballers go through tough times, you know. It’s a great life, but it can be hard.”

Jenas is a good communicator. It’s a skill that has undoubtedly influenced significant moments in his career, such as captaining Forest at 18 and then leading Newcastle when Alan Shearer was injured during a difficult period for the club.

Volunteering to speak on behalf of the England team after they suffered racist abuse in Spain, just more than a year ago, was another landmark moment in the career of a footballer mature beyond his years. “It affected all the lads,” he says, “but the likes of Wrighty [Shaun Wright-Phillips] and Ash [Ashley Cole] seemed to get it more than others. People wanted them to talk, but they didn’t feel in the right frame of mind at the time. So when I was asked if I would talk about it, I said, ‘Well, someone needs to.’”

London life suits Jenas. “I love it down south,” he says. “It’s more anonymous. There are so many celebrities in London you’re a nobody. I’ll get on the bus and I’ll stand there and nobody will say anything. They’re all in their own zone doing their own thing.”

And he fits well into the Spurs set-up. He has started scoring again, a requirement manager Martin Jol has placed on him and one that he has responded to positively. “When I was younger all I used to think about was scoring goals. My dad’s football team used to say to me, ‘How many did you score?’ And if I didn’t score more than two or three they’d have a go at me. But my dad being a coach had a different priority. He’d see games differently.”

Jenas has come full circle now and he is optimistic about the remainder of the season. “If we just repeat what we did the first half of the season, we’ll go far.” His performance against Charlton recently suggested as much, but whichever team he plays in, it is likely that Jenas will go far.—Â

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