FHM parties, vodka & a hat-trick: Pennant’s first PL start for Arsenal

Nostalgia

It was a full league debut to remember.

Being told you’re starting in a line-up which includes the likes of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires is enough to process ahead of your Premier League debut. In fact, you’d be forgiven for feeling sick with excitement and nerves.

That is exactly how Jermaine Pennant felt when Arsene Wenger announced his name was part of the starting XI for Arsenal’s clash with Southampton in May 2003. But rather than excitement or nerves, Pennant felt sick courtesy of an alcohol-fuelled bender that saw him rock in at 6am on game day.

With the domestic campaign coming to a close and no expectations of making the XI ahead of future Invincibles’ Freddie Ljungberg and Sylvain Wiltord, Pennant took it upon himself to attend a glitzy FHM bash with ex-Charlton defender Jonathan Fortune on the eve of Arsenal’s fixture with Southampton.

Wenger decided to reshuffle the pack against the Saints ahead of the Gunners upcoming FA Cup final against the same opponents 10 days later and handed Pennant, still drunk and reeking of booze, a start.

Pennant – who was signed from Notts County at the age of 15 for £2million, the most expensive fee for a British teenager at the time – was regarded as one of the most exciting young talents in the game and astonishingly, despite his hangover, repaid Wenger’s faith in him by netting a hat-trick.

Arsenal hit Gordon Strachan’s Southampton for six, with Pires also bagging three goals. Obviously, the focus was more on Pennant, whose treble came in the space of just 10 first-half minutes at Highbury.

With his stomach churning and the taste of vodka still present, Pennant was hoping for an early finish after a stunning 45 minutes. He would get his wish, albeit only in the 89th minute, when he was replaced by Justin Hoyte.

“I’d been out the night before and had a big night, because I really didn’t think I would be playing, never mind starting the game,” Pennant told FourFourTwo magazine in November 2018.

“I’d never started a game for Arsenal and I didn’t think that’d change, especially as Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Ray Parlour were all in the squad. I was guaranteed to be on the bench.

“I thought, ‘Sod it,’ went to an FHM party and got home at around 6am. I couldn’t believe it when I saw my name in the starting line-up! I was still so hungover when I was playing; I just did everything in my power not to embarrass myself.

“I can’t believe I scored. It was just a huge relief – I thought, ‘OK, you can take me off now. Please, Arsene!’ I felt so sick and I could feel the vodka still bouncing around in my stomach. You could smell it on my breath, too.

“I did OK to score a hat-trick: it shows I had talent, though it helps when you’re playing with Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. That was the first game of Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run.”

Despite a promising start at Arsenal, Pennant failed to make the grade and left for spells with Birmingham City, Liverpool and Stoke City before Pune City in India and Tampine Rovers in Singapore.

While he may class his Champions League final appearance with Liverpool against AC Milan as his proudest moment in football, that afternoon against Southampton in May 2003 was surely Pennant’s most remarkable moment in the game.

By Joe Hewlett


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