The BBC’s newest signing to Match of the Day has not had an easy first season. In his debut year as a pundit, Jermaine Jenas has watched his current club QPR be relegated, his former side Newcastle United implode under Mike Ashley, Aston Villa only just avoid relegation and Spurs fail to capitalise on the brilliance of Harry Kane.
The 32-year-old midfielder hasn’t even technically hung up his boots yet. A cruciate ligament injury left him sidelined in April last year, and Jenas has been working to get back to match fitness ever since – while fielding questions on the fate of his former teammates.
Despite the baptism of fire, Jenas has enjoyed speaking his mind. “People develop their own perceptions of players based on what they see on the pitch. They might be arrogant or cocky or aggressive, and so people think that’s how they are in real life,” he says.
“But all you’re doing on the pitch is surviving. All footballers need a level of arrogance to survive day in, day out, in the changing room or on the pitch. So when people see players like me talk freely, they’re surprised: ‘Wow, he can actually have a conversation!’
“The common perception of footballers is that they’re thick, grew up on a council estate, got lucky playing football and got paid lots of money, but there’s no substance to them. It’s not true.”
Jenas still hasn’t given up hope of playing football again, but at least the punditry work has given him the chance to stay connected with the game – and win a couple of celebrity admirers along the way.
In my humble @jjenas8 is turning into a very good pundit.
— Dermot O'Leary (@radioleary) May 10, 2015
He talks to RadioTimes.com about the perils of sticking the boot into your teammates, footballers’ fear of retirement – and trying to sign Gary Lineker up to Snapchat.
You’ve settled quickly into the punditry game. How did you learn?
Once the injury happened, it was a good opportunity for me to give it a go. I had one session with a guy from the BBC called Rob Nothman. He does a lot of commentary on Final Score, but he’s brilliant at advising players how to do it.
Sometimes, when you step off the pitch as a footballer, you’re thinking almost too technically. When you only have a minute and a half to explain your analysis in a game, you have to get your point across clearly, and he was really helpful with that.
Match of the Day is a brilliant platform. You watch the game, go into the VT room and speak with the guys about what you want to point out. Once it’s on the screen I can pause it, add arrows and lines and really break down why certain things are happening.
The whole punditry game is changing, but what I’ve learned in my first year of doing it is that the better ones have an ability to break down the game and explain why it’s happening really simply.
What’s it like sitting alongside Gary Lineker on the Match of the Day sofa?
I’m obviously really young to be doing it. I’m only 32 and I’m working with the likes of Lineker, Shearer and Lawrenson, people that are a lot older than me and have been doing it a lot longer.
They do treat me like the youngster every now and again. We have a lot of banter about it, especially because I’m always trying to bring the new younger generation to Match of the Day. I go in there and tell them, “You need to get on Snapchat”, and they’re like, “What?” But they love it, and it works for me. It must be good for them to have a younger opinion of what’s going on as well!
QPR have been relegated, Newcastle are on the brink. Has it been hard to say what you really think about your old clubs?
It’s as tough as it gets with some of my ex-clubs, even with Spurs to an extent. I don’t take any heartfelt view on it, I’m not like, “I was at that club, I’m going to give them a bit of leeway.” If I feel that QPR or Newcastle or Spurs or Villa are not doing what I know they’re capable of, I’ll make that point. I’ll explain why it’s not going well.
It’s tough to watch though. They are my old clubs. Especially Newcastle: I was there for a long time, we were in the Champions League, I was with Bobby Robson… To see what’s happened to the club, not just on the pitch but also the off-field stuff, has been tricky.
Football’s a business, and Mike Ashley’s running it as a business. It’s been run ‘well’ as a business, but that in itself is the problem. For the fans, it’s all about heart up there, and how much you’re prepared to give on that pitch. When they look at their manager and owners, how much are they prepared to sacrifice for a club that they feel is theirs?
There’s been a massive uproar at the club for the best part of a year, and the questions that have been thrown at me left, right and centre about it have been non-stop. I only came off the pitch not so long ago – I’m still doing my rehab – and so being asked those questions has been difficult. You have to box clever sometimes.
You’re still doing rehab at QPR and have better access to the dressing room than most. Do you learn things you choose not to share?
100 per cent. I would never betray what goes on in the training room, and the lads know that and I haven’t done that throughout the season. I wouldn’t want that, and it’s not fair for a club that is helping me with my rehab for me to say on air, “I was in the changing room at the weekend and so-and-so said this.” The whole sound of that situation is horrible to me, and it’s not what I’m about.
What’s the situation with the injury – are you still hoping to make a comeback?
The situation is pretty simple: I’ve been doing my rehab all year. The knee is still not great at this minute, but I’m taking advice from my surgeon. I’m 32, not that old, it’s just one of those injuries that is very tricky. I have to keep working on it, and if it’s good in a few months, great. If not, then I’ll probably have to have to reevaluate.
I’ve always had good relationships with the clubs that I’ve been at. I’ve spoken to Tottenham in the past, and they’ve been more than open for me to train with them, because I only live just round the corner from the training ground.
But I know a lot of people at QPR too, having spent time with Chris Ramsay and Les Ferdinand at Tottenham. As it stands, the injury happened at QPR and they have all the details of the situation. So that’s where I’ll be continuing.
What about work outside football – how good is your dancing?
The knee’s not quite going to hold up for Strictly Come Dancing yet, don’t worry about that! The knee’s not ready.
I was always quite active while I was playing. I’ve got my own teacher recruitment agency, which I’ve had for six years. I’m always going into schools doing speeches and setting up courses to try raise attainment levels, especially in the Nottingham area but also in the London area now. It’s about staying active for me; I need a routine in my life, I need to look in my diary and know I’ve got a structure.
Is the prospect of retirement scary for footballers?
I think it’s very scary. I even have players now when I go into the changing room at QPR asking me what’s going on. I’m not on a contract with QPR, I haven’t been paid all year, so they look at me and ask, “What do you do? What’s it like?” It’s the biggest fear for a footballer: what do you do when you stop playing?
A lot of players make good money these days. They think they can go and play golf and chill out, but they find they get bored pretty quick. Options for footballers are much better now than they were back in the day. They just need to make things happen themselves. The phone doesn’t ring; you make it ring.