You may have heard of Dale Jennings already. Back in 2011, the Liverpool-born youngster made headlines when Bayern Munich signed him as an 18 year-old from Tranmere Rovers.
Jennings, a gifted winger, had played barely a season for the Prenton Park outfit before the European giant swooped in the close season.
It was a move that caught the imagination of those within football. After all, it’s not everyday that a then-four time Champions League winner signs an unheralded English player from League One, and especially under the noses of the Premier League’s giants. Dale Jennings was suddenly a name that was on lots of peoples lips.
But the move to Munich ultimately didn’t work out for the youngster. Beset with injuries and problems adjusting to German culture – notably the language barrier – Jennings was to return back to England just two years later.
Two clubs later, Jennings now finds himself without a club and in serious danger of finding himself on the football scrapheap at the age of twenty-four.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Six years ago, Jennings had none other than ex-Germany international and Liverpool’s Champions League winning Dietmar Hamann, personally recommending the midfielder to Bayern’s technical director, Christian Nerlinger.
Nerlinger had the player scouted, liked what he heard, and followed up with an offer that, at first, the Tranmere board thought was a wind-up.
His then-manager, Les Parry explained, via the Daily Telegraph;
It was the Wednesday before the end of last season when I got a call from an agent saying Bayern were interested in him. I thought they were joking. So did the chairman, when I told him they were serious. It shows you it’s important not to be too cynical.
Jennings was put to work at Bayern II, the Bavarian giants second team, playing in the third tier of German football. Per Hamann’s autobiography, The Didi Man, he had given Jennings some sage advice before he departed the UK’s shores;
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.
It was advice that Jennings was unable to heed. His teammates in Bayern’s second team grew to resent the English player’s inability to learn German and Jennings was cut-off from the everyday banter and camaraderie that forms a positive dressing room environment.
Eventually his coaches too began to tire, resorting to speaking to him in his native tongue in order to make their instructions clear. After an injury-plagued couple of years, during which he got nowhere near making an appearance for Bayern’s first team, Jennings was heading towards the exit.
His return to English football, at Barnsley, wasn’t to work out either. There were some brief glimpses of the talent that had earlier persuaded Bayern to bring him to Germany.
In March 2014, he was awarded the Football League’s Young Player of the Month prize, but his time at Oakwell became better known for his struggles with fitness and weight issues.
When Danny Wilson was sacked as manager in February 2015 the writing was on the wall for Jennings.
His replacement, Lee Johnson, took one look at Jennings and said publicly, “You can’t play for me if you can’t run. I am not saying he can’t run, but at the moment, he’s got to do a little bit more”.
Barnsley terminated Jennings contract in June 2015, a year before his deal was due to expire.
Jennings was to find seemingly good fortune in the shape of Karl Robinson, the then Milton Keynes Dons boss. Robinson knew Jennings from his time as a youth coach in Liverpool’s academy, before the winger was released at the age of 15, and decided to take a chance on him.
But even Robinson wasn’t able to find the key to help Jennings unlock his talents.
Unable to get his new signing in a fit enough state to get out onto the Stadium MK pitch, Robinson went public about the difficulties he was facing with the youngster, telling the Liverpool Echo; “Dale Jennings hasn’t worked yet,’ said Robinson.
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.
However, Robinson’s public demonstration of tough love didn’t do the trick either. Jennings had his contract torn up in February 2016 after making only one appearance for the Dons.
If anything Jennings story is a cautionary tale. Too often young players leave the comforts of their home environments before they’re ready and take their chances abroad.
Often this is at the expense of regular first-team football at their hometown club. In Jennings’ case, the opportunity was more glamorous than most.
After all, there’s not many that can say they shared a training pitch with the likes of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben.
But one wonders where the talented wingers career may have headed if he had resisted the Bavarians overtures in 2011 and continued to play week-in, week-out, with Tranmere.
If Jennings had needed convincing of the challenges of a young player moving abroad, a look down the road at his boyhood club, Liverpool, might have sounded a warning of the dangers lying ahead.
The Anfield side have seen dozens of talented Europeans come through the doors of their Kirby-based academy since it opened in 1998, and not one of them have been able to establish themselves into the first team set-up.
And Liverpool are far from the only club in the Premier League to have difficulties with turning young, talented, players from overseas into genuine first team stars.
For every one Cesc Fàbregas there’s hundreds more non-native speakers that sink without trace.
After making twenty-nine appearances for Tranmere in the 2010/2011 season, Jennings has only made 54 competitive appearances in the five years that followed. This statistic alone points towards a major stalling in his development at a critical age.
At the time of departure he was the Football League’s reigning Young Apprentice of the Year. All the evidence points towards moving to Munich as being the right move at the wrong time.
However, speaking to the Daily Mail in February 2016, Jennings was still sure the had made the right decision in joining the Bavarian club at the stage where arguably his star was shining brightest; “I’d tell a young player in my position now to take the chance and go for it,” Jennings said.
People ask me if I have regrets about going and I say ‘no’. I think I would have had more regrets if I had turned it down because you don’t know what is going to happen.
One year on from that interview, Jennings still finds himself looking for a club and a second chance within the game. Whether he gets one is by no means assured.