JERMAINE PENNANT says joining little Billericay Town will not finish his career in football — but prolong it.
The ex-Liverpool and Arsenal star signed for the ambitious Essex part-timers last night on a two-year, £3,000-a-week deal.
It is a sensational swoop, revealed first by SunSport last month, that has sent shockwaves through the non-League game and beyond.
Fans are also asking why the former top-flight ace, 34 — who played for the Kop in the Champions League final just ten years ago, snubbed offers from bigger clubs in Scotland and abroad to join a team that plays in the Bostik Premier League.
That is the SEVENTH tier of English football.
Pennant joined the Gunners from Notts County on his 16th birthday in 1999 for £2m — then a record fee for a trainee.
He went on to play for Watford, Leeds, Birmingham, Real Zaragoza, Stoke, Wigan and Bury — and believes his latest move will help him achieve his ambition of becoming a boss one day.
Pennant said: “People will obviously say ‘What are you doing?’ But I’ve had a good career, I’ve enjoyed it and now it’s about looking to the future.
“I have no qualms or embarrassment about stepping down to this level — it is still football.”
A decade ago, Pennant kicked off the season by helping Liverpool to a 2-1 win at Aston Villa in the Premier League in front of 42,670 fans at Villa Park.
This Saturday, he is set to make his competitive debut for Billericay in their Isthmian Prem opener at home to Kingstonian in front of a tenth of that number.
He added: “The standard might be different to the Prem or Champions League but the move and the deal is right for me.
“It keeps getting pointed out to me that ten years ago I had just played in the Champions League final. So what?
“I had offers to move to the SPL or abroad but chose to come to Billericay as it is right for me and my family.
“People can question my decision but I know what I am doing and I had to think of the future. I’m not 24 any more, I am 34.
“Coming to Billericay is about setting up for the long term.
“I’m looking forward to trying to help this club get into the Football League — but it’s not just about playing.
“I’m thinking about what happens afterwards and getting into the coaching and management side of the game.
“I’m not looking to worry the gaffer here but he knows I am looking at that.
“I am not just here to play — although I am looking forward to that because I still love the game — there is a bigger picture.
“There are not many black coaches out there at the moment who have been a success. I can only think of Chris Hughton and Powelly (Chris Powell), other than that the numbers are very limited.
“I know there has been talk of the Rooney Rule and that but I feel if I am going to be successful as a coach and a manager then I have to put in the groundwork and accumulate as much experience as possible.
“So while I’m coming here as a player initially it is with a view to looking at the bigger picture.”
Few would have tipped former bad-boy Pennant as management material when he was jailed for drink-driving while on loan at Birmingham in 2005.
But he showed he has clearly learnt lessons from his past as he talked candidly and eloquently at Billericay’s training ground.
He said: “Everyone judges a book by the cover and a lot of people have a certain opinion of me that will never change even though they don’t know me and have never met me.
“They think I am this lunatic who lives this wild and crazy lifestyle, spends fortunes on sports cars and then leaves them in car parks!
“But anyone who knows me will tell you that could not be further from the truth.
“For some reason I have been portrayed as this flash so-and-so who is a bad egg in the dressing room.
“But if you speak with my team-mates past and present I bet you would struggle to find one who would say a bad word against me.
“They might say I am a bit loud and boisterous and always at the front with the banter. But when it comes to work I work.
“People will be shocked that I have joined Billericay and I am looking to one day move into management. But I love the game and want to stay in it.”
Pennant admitted his biggest regret is that drink-driving charge that saw him sentenced to three months behind bars
He said: “I was set to sign a new contract at Arsenal with a really big salary but then I stupidly got that conviction.
“I am not trying to make excuses but I was going through a really bad time in my life.
“People don’t understand the pressure and stress of being a footballer. They think because you are well paid you have no worries and life is stress free. But it’s not like that.
“There is so much in football that goes on behind closed doors that players have to deal with. The money is good but this can bring its own pressures.
“If I do become a manager I will make sure I will do what I can to help my players avoid the same pitfalls.”
For now, Pennant will concentrate on playing after becoming Billiericay’s latest big-name signing.
He joins his fellow former Premier League stars Paul Konchesky and Jamie O’Hara at the most talked about club in non-League.
Wealthy manager and owner Glenn Tamplin has vowed to get the club into the EFL in five years and has already spent £2m on improvements on and off the pitch since taking over last December.
Pennant’s £3,000-a-week wages by will be paid by another rich Essex businessmen, recruitment boss Andrew Cosias, who has bought 10 per cent of Tamplin’s stake in the club.
Pennant said: “It will be a challenge but it won’t faze me.
“I know I will make headlines and get targeted by opponents looking to make names for themselves. But I’ve had this all my career since I was 15.
“I’ve got bags of experience and tons of knowledge to be able to deal with whatever comes my way in this next step of my career.”
And the car park attendant at Billericay Station does not have to worry about Pennant leaving his car there – just like he famously did with a £30,000 Porsche at a rail station in Spain when he made his deadline day loan move from Real Zaragoza to Stoke in 2011.
He said: “The newspapers in Spain claimed I had forgotten about it and then the story was picked up over here.
“But the truth is, I knew it was there, i just never had enough time to fly back over to move it.
“In the end, i sent a mate over to move get the car and move it into a garage. When he put the ticket in the machine to get out he had to pay 450 euros.”
Billericay have also signed former Wolves and Republic of Ireland defender Kevin Foley, 32.
Have you signed up to play fantasy football yet?
If the answer is no you need to take a long, hard look at yourself.
Because the Dream Team game – the UK’s biggest fantasy football game – is back and better than ever this season.
You’ve got a £50m budget to pick 11 players, with all the biggest new signings ready and raring to go ahead of a mouthwatering new Premier League campaign.
So what are you waiting for? Sign up to play now!