Position: Right winger
From: Arsenal - on loan - November 2002
Record: Played: 14 Scored: 1
WFC total: Played: 23 Scored: 3
To: Arsenal - end of loan - February 2003
Career stats: Soccerbase
He was: Destined for bigger things. Or Arsenal reserves, again.
"Much as he likes a player to have a trick 'in his locker', suspicious Ron is wary of the gent who sells one lollipop too many at the expense of 'knocking it out of his feet' and 'having a dig'. Such dilettantes are dismissed as amusement arcades."
- Learn Ronglish, Lesson Three
As so often with Big Ron, it's a delightful and bafflingly apt expression. Heaven only knows where he gets them
from...but thank the lord that he does, otherwise we'd just have the intolerable Peter Drury for
company. And I'd have to think of my own descriptions for Jermaine Pennant, Arsenal's top lollipop salesman
and amusement arcade extraordinaire....
It's been an interesting three months. During his first loan spell, Jermaine
Pennant provided a welcome distraction amid the monotony of the mid-part of Luca Vialli's first and, as it
turned out, final season. Very much the amusement arcade, his tricks and spins and dribbles and generally
decorative wing-play livened up several drab afternoons without making any great impact on the largely
dreadful results. It was quite fun, in an insignificant way.
But, although he never quite had Nordin Wooter's penchant for pointless over-elaboration, it was nonetheless
somewhat noticeable that when Anthony McNamee burst onto the scene at the end of the season, the youngster
was able to match the slightly-less-youngster's skills and deliver the ball into the box. End product
counts for rather a lot...especially if you're attempting to break into the Arsenal first team. When Jermaine
Pennant returned to Vicarage Road, joining up with a rather different and altogether more focused squad,
that was the main challenge. The amusement arcade needed to start paying out.
There will be differing views on this, I suspect. As it happened, Jermaine Pennant's arrival coincided -
and it was largely a coincidence, to my mind - with the team's first serious dip in form. With the Hornets
beginning to slide through the playoff places and towards mid-table, the case was certainly made that the
loan signing had unsettled the side unnecessarily. The fixture list would suggest that there's some truth
in that - his first appearance was also our first home League defeat, in which we were thoroughly
out-manoeuvred by Ipswich. But it was a bit more complicated than that, I think.
The initial problem, really, was the desire of both Arsene Wenger and Ray Lewington to play Jermaine Pennant as a
striker. Nice in theory, but it simply didn't work. Actually, it's not that good in theory either -
the rarity of genuine, top class wingers in the modern game is oft-bemoaned, after all. Anyway, Pennant's eagerness to make an impact led to him dropping far
too deep, often receiving the ball fifty yards from where we'd have liked him to be. When he was closer to
goal, his intricate approach work was frequently crowded out - a winger always has space to attack, but it's not
so simple when everyone's bunched around the edge of the box. And, frankly, his finishing isn't up to scratch.
When he was moved to his customary wide position, however, it was a different story. There, he could be
found easily by team-mates. There, one piece of skill to beat an opponent could open up acres of space
and countless possibilities. There, he started to deliver. And in Heidar Helguson, he found someone
who appreciated the delivery.
These were the finest moments. Jermaine Pennant receives the ball at his feet, on the corner of the penalty
area. With one dummy and drag-back and touch forward, he's away from a couple of opponents and heading
for the by-line. He has a moment to consider the options, before whipping a low, pacy cross into the six yard
box, where Heidar Helguson's flinging himself in at boot-height to score. It's the kind of thing that
Vicarage Road loves, that most of us were brought up on. And it'll guarantee that Jermaine Pennant has
an extremely lucrative career...although probably not at Arsenal.
That's a made-up example, but a quick tally of assists illustrates his growing influence. Burnley at home: Pennant cross, Helguson header. Bradford at home: foul on Pennant, Cox penalty. Leicester at home:
Pennant cross, Helguson finish. Portsmouth at home: Pennant cross, defender's mis-kick, Hyde finish. Norwich
at home: Pennant cross, Nielsen finish. West Brom at home: Pennant pass, foul on Smith, Cox missed penalty;
Pennant pass, Helguson finish. Several of these goals, particularly the last, were utterly thrilling...and,
of course, there were countless near-assists. He might only have scored once - a beautifully-taken goal at Macclesfield - but
we were increasingly dependent on his creative talent. This time, he was more than just decoration.
It wasn't always perfect...but we're Watford fans, and we'd be bored by "always perfect". Arsenal fans
may be rather harder to please. When things weren't going well, the temptation to cut inside proved hard to resist and largely unproductive. And Ray
Lewington's continual emphasis on working on the defensive side of the game tended to indicate that the
Watford manager feels that Jermaine Pennant still has some way to go. That said, he appears willing - as
in his first spell, he seemed to relish the opportunity to play competitive football, even when it
involved taking a few knocks. That's an encouraging sign.
Watford fans will watch with interest. Purely academic interest, mind you, as there's no absolutely chance that
Jermaine Pennant will fall far enough to join us on a more permanent basis. You suspect that he'll find it
pretty much impossible to break through at Arsenal...but you also suspect that more than a couple of
Premiership clubs will be on the phone when he gets tired of trying. I mean, if Stuart Ripley was good