By Ryan Ferguson
The introduction was sudden, unexpected and wonderfully beguiling. Like Mozart, he figured it all out at once, with only slight encouragement from others. Just when we were down in the dumps, heads scrambled from the looming threat of relegation, this raw colt exploded onto the scene in a blur of inexorable ability to save the day. It was a salve for sore eyes.
Dale Jennings had it all. Blinding speed. Fantastic imagination. Courage that pushed him to humiliate experienced players with phenomenal skill. In terms of pure ability as a Tranmere teenager, the only comparable players were Iain Hume, Jason Koumas and Dixie Dean. For ten glorious months, we just enjoyed the show, scarcely believing the fairytale before us.
At 17-years old, he was thrown in at the deep end. A fairly unheralded product of the club’s youth system, little was really known about Jennings when he came on as a sub against Charlton in September 2010. Of course, that changed when he swivelled smartly and rifled a twenty-yard shot into the top corner away to Bristol Rovers, and systematically destroyed MK Dons with one of the most electric displays ever seen at Prenton Park.
Indeed, that showcase, in which Jennings scored two jaw-dropping goals, ranks with Hume’s annihilation of Blackpool in 2003 as the greatest individual performance I’ve ever witnessed from a Tranmere player. Dale was simply irrepressible on the wing, forcing MK Dons to substitute tortured right-back Danny Woodards after just twenty-eight minutes and ruffled World Cup finalist Dietmar Hamann at half-time. They simply couldn’t cope.
A few weeks later, Jennings scored a goal that almost broke the Internet. Facing Plymouth at Prenton Park, Rovers lacked inspiration, but with an hour elapsed, the ball was funnelled to Jennings barely five yards inside the opposition half. He controlled with balletic poise, then fairly exploded towards the Argyle right-back, exposed horridly up field. A whirlwind of pumping arms and scampering legs, Jennings jinked past the defender like he wasn’t there, before slicing between a dizzy centre back and flailing midfielder. In the box, he floated past another challenge, before ramming the ball home beneath a stunned Kop. He breezed past four players and beat the helpless goalkeeper in just seven seconds, leaving a trail of total destruction strewn across the pitch. A star was born.
With his reputation soaring in January 2011, Dale produced another virtuoso performance against Southampton at Prenton Park, as Rovers ran out 2-0 victors. The visitors boasted a team brimming with talent, from Jose Fonte and Morgan Schneiderlin to Rickie Lambert and a young starlet named Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who battled with Jennings for the title of League One’s brightest prospect. However, on that occasion, there was no comparison. Oxlade-Chamberlain was neat and brainy in possession, but Jennings was a force of nature. Teaming with left-back Aaron Cresswell to create wave after wave of pressure down the left flank, Dale was a constant menace. After sixty minutes, he scored yet another wondergoal, doubling Tranmere’s lead with a stunningly inventive curler from thirty yards that caught Kelvin Davis off guard.
At this point, Premier League scouts began flocking to Birkenhead, with representatives from Everton, West Brom, Fulham, Sunderland, Watford and West Ham keeping a close eye on Rovers’ phenom. Unfortunately, Tranmere weren’t in a strong negotiating position. In fact, they were essentially desperate for the revenue Jennings would undoubtedly bring. The club’s annual budget typically included a black hole, which ownership endeavoured to fill by selling players on a regular basis. Whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually moved to Arsenal for £12 million, Tranmere only received an initial down payment of £600,000 for Jennings, according to media reports. That was a shock, considering Dale beat Oxlade-Chamberlain to the League One Apprentice of the Year award. However, the bigger surprise was his destination, rather than the fee.
After rejecting a bid from a Premier League club in January 2011, Rovers kept hold of Jennings and managed to survive in League One. Yet interest mounted throughout the summer, as hope dwindled for fans. Then, in July, the football world was rocked by the news that Bayern Munich, a certifiable juggernaut of the European game, were deep in negotiations to sign Jennings, on the recommendation of Hamann, who was left dazed by the youngster during the MK Dons clash.
Bayern viewed Jennings as a wildcard, a tale similar to that of Franck Ribery, who rose from humble roots to enjoy genuine superstardom. Indeed, Christian Neringer, the club’s sporting director, hoped Jennings would one day replace Ribery in the Bayern first team. It was all a bit surreal.
Even when a fee was agreed, Dale was understandably anxious about moving abroad. The challenge of adapting to a new language and culture was daunting for a Merseyside lad who didn’t even hold a driving licence. Therefore, Bayern drafted in Hamann to broker the deal on their behalf. He was a recognisable face, and somebody Jennings could relate to. In his autobiography, Hamann recounts his conversations with Dale:
“I sat down with Dale, who seemed a quiet, reserved sort of lad.
I explained to him that this was a great opportunity, not only to learn about football in the great Bayern tradition in the way that I had, but to sample a new culture. I told him what a great thing it had been for me to come to England and see and try different things and that opportunities like this had to be grasped with both hands.
I said, ‘You need to get out there and make sure that you learn the language. A lot of English players struggle to settle abroad because they struggle with the language.’
I reported back to Christian. Having seen the lad play and now talked to him, I felt that as long as Bayern could put a strong and stable support network around him to help him settle, then they had a prospect on their hands.”
Soon after meeting Hamann, Jennings agreed a three-year deal with Bayern in one of the most compelling transfers of all-time. “You would really have to rack your brain to think of an unknown eighteen year old player from England who has been taken to one of the European giants,” said then Tranmere manager Les Parry. “This is a massive, massive move.”
But almost from the very beginning, Dale encountered problems in Munich. While completing his medical assessment, the club discovered a hernia that threatened to derail the transfer entirely. Yet, Bayern officials believed in Jennings so much that they took a gamble and completed the move regardless. Thus, Dale’s time in Bavaria began on the treatment table rather than the training field, as frustration built.
After returning from an operation, he suffered another setback almost immediately. This cycle was repeated throughout his time in Germany, as persistent niggles stifled his growth, rather like a young Michael Owen, with whom he was regularly compared. Nevertheless, even when Jennings was fit and playing for Bayern II in the fourth division, he encountered difficulty with the philosophy of coach Andries Jonker, who played a direct style that frequently bypassed mercurial wingers.
Ultimately, Dale struggled to settle in Germany. He always felt like an outsider, perhaps because of his stuttering progress, perhaps because of his nationality. Jennings struggled to learn a new language after being placed on an arduous fast-track course, as the seeds of stagnation were scattered. In an interview with the Independent, the youngster later admitted to feeling isolated at Bayern, concluding that “Phillip Lahm made me feel welcome, whereas some other players didn’t.”
Despite the obvious social struggles, Jennings must have gained something from his experience. Just sharing a room and occasionally a training field with legends such as Lahm, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger must have taught him a lot, even if they never totally let him in. Ultimately, Jennings played 36 times for Bayern II, scoring one goal and providing two assists. But, deep down, he knew things weren’t developing as officials wished, and the end came sooner than anyone expected.
“With a year left, I thought it was best to move on,” he told BBC Sport. “I was feeling a bit homesick and, to be fair, Bayern said what mattered most was my happiness.” His girlfriend soon became pregnant, and Jennings sought a move back to familiar surroundings. In June 2013, Barnsley paid £250,000 for his services on a three-year deal. The fairytale was over.
Jennings was sent off within five minutes of his Barnsley debut as a substitute against Wigan. Despite the inauspicious start, he scored a hat-trick for the reserves while suspended, only to be loaned out to MK Dons in November. After six appearances for the team he once tormented, Jennings returned to Barnsley, where he struck a rich vein of form under manager Danny Wilson. Dale scored three goals in seven games, and was voted Football League Young Player of the Month for March 2014, a reminder that he was still only 21.
Sadly, Jennings couldn’t maintain that form, and when Wilson was subsequently sacked a year later, he fell out of favour and was released by Barnsley. MK Dons swooped in with a one-year contract, as boss Karl Robinson hoped to rekindle the talent that once frightened him as an opposing manager. Alas, Dale again struggled to hit the ground running, and chances soon dried up amid accusations of a poor work ethic.
In fact, Robinson was controversially public with his criticism of the winger. “Dale Jennings hasn’t worked yet,” he said. “It was my wildcard. He has a lot to do, and he owes a lot of people. We all know the talent he has. He’s a top footballer, but he needs to realise football isn’t just about what you do on the training pitch, but away from it as well. He’s carrying a bit of extra weight. Maybe putting it out publicly, he might sort it out.”
The relationship soured considerably, and Jennings was released this month, leaving him without a club just five-and-a-half years after having the world in his palm.
The meteoric rise of Aaron Cresswell, Jennings’ former Tranmere teammate, serves only to highlight his struggles even further. When the duo combined down Rovers’ left flank, Dale was destined for stardom while Aaron flew under the radar. However, through unending persistence and phenomenal hard work, Cresswell developed his game and conditioned his body to reach Premier League renown with West Ham United. Meanwhile, Jennings spiralled in the opposite direction, from Bayern Munich back down to earth.
But let’s not forget the depth of his skill, nor the indelible memories he created at Tranmere Rovers. Also, remember that Dale Jennings is only 23-years old. Write him off at your own peril.