Pelé has described football as the “beautiful game” multiple times and considering the point of view of the Brazilian magician and how it turned him into a household name across the world, it is a fair thing to say. But football, like life, is dictated by perspective. The diversity of the perspectives makes it vibrant.
Owing to that vibrancy, many would say that football is a cruel game too. Not because it has played a role in sending dreams back to mere imaginations, but also because football makes people forget some moments easily. Special moments in the annals of time get overshadowed by those that come later, undermining the ones that defined a player’s career.
Aaron Lennon is a player that has experienced both extremes of the spectrum. He has gone through the highs that made him happy, he knows how it can be cruel and how it is an escape route.
Once hailed as the next star of the English game, mental health issues hindered Lennon’s career along with other factors such as injuries and consistency. His story teaches one about multiple aspects of football. From an upcoming youngster at Leeds United to one of the fiercest wingers at Tottenham and the future stars of English football to a man whose career hit a major roadblock because of the neglected issue of mental health, Lennon has seen it all.
From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Not just in football, but in life too.
Maybe, if not for his off-field issues, the man from Yorkshire could have fulfilled the promise of being an England hero today. But some things are just meant to be. Some things are just meant to happen in a particular way and it’s written in the stars. Football has seen numerous examples of that and will see it time after time too.
It is sometimes easy to forget that Lennon has been playing in the game for over 15 years now. But as unfair as football can be, it will be easier for fans to remember the infamous incident when he was found in a precarious position close to the Salford Royal Hospital near the Manchester city centre.
It sparked a global sea of support for the winger, who was detained under the Mental Health Act and his situation made many aware of the fact that while being where players are is the stuff of dreams, it isn’t always the best place to be for any person when things aren’t going right.
Much like some of the current batch of England players, one-half of Aaron’s parents were Jamaican. His father had a Jamaican descent and was a taxi driver by trade. The family from Chapeltown in Leeds wasn’t rich by any means. But Lennon loved football and a lot of times, he seemed too good for someone of his age.
Very few players get picked up by scouts when they are less than 10, but Lennon was only 8 when he caught the attention of many. Even at that age, he was small yet destructive. His pace could cut defenses to shreds at will.
He was so good that when he was playing for an Under-14s side, a Leeds United coach called Greg Abbott caught his eye. And since that day, Abbott knew the boy had something special in himself. He stood out, despite being smaller than the others. He told in an interview with the Evening Standard that it took him just three seconds to spot the bubbling talent of the then 14-year-old Lennon.
He impressed Abbott enough to then be picked up by the Leeds United Academy – the place where his real development took place. In the same interview, Abbott explained that Lennon was always a ‘family guy’ and going to London at a tender would have been tough for him. Liverpool or Manchester would have been better places for Lennon’s footballing development because of their geographical proximity to Leeds.
But Leeds United it was. Lennon changed his school solely because it was closer to the Leeds United’s Thorp Arch training ground and he stood out well above everyone else for the player he was. There was always interest in him at this point, with Manchester United and Liverpool both casting glances at the 14-year-old.
At a point during that time, Lennon had become such a junior star that he became the youngest player ever to have his boots sponsored as he signed with Adidas when he was just 14. And considering how good he was, a debut in the first team was soon coming. The boy was enjoying his football and dreaming big, looking forward to what was coming.
At the age of 16, Lennon got his Leeds debut and was then the youngest player ever in the Premier League, coming on in a defeat to Tottenham in 2003. From that moment on, Lennon became a more regular face around the first team. He hadn’t just begun training with the first team at Elland Road, he was sharing the dressing room the likes of Mark Viduka, Alan Smith and Scott Carson, and James Milner.
He didn’t make a single start that season, Lennon made 11 appearances in the Premier League and assisted once. He was being seen as a man for the future and training with the first team is never meant to be a piece of cake for a player in his mid-teens. Many people at the club knew that the boy was the club’s future and would soon be a regular and a mainstay at the side very soon.
That 2003-04 season was the first time Leeds got relegated after a 14-year long stay in the top flight. It did dent the club’s flailing financial situation even more, but it did more good than bad for Lennon and his possible breakout into the first team. Playing in the Championship means playing more games and playing against opposition of lesser quality. And that very often means more opportunities for the younger players to shine.
Lennon certainly was at the receiving end of more chances to impress. What also increased were the club’s debts. The Championship side was now burdened by a debt of over £100 million and if they spiralled out of hand, administration seemed to be around the corner.
The Peacocks finished 14th in their first season back in the Championship, 13 points off the play-off spot. But it was Lennon though, who emerged as a shining light. He only scored once and assisted thrice, but Lennon represented a hope that the club had been deficient off ever since the financial issues crept.
This teenager and the way he played: full of freedom, skill, and panache, gave belief to a set of fans who perhaps seemed resigned to their fate a lot of times during those times.
Twenty-seven appearances in the Championship meant Lennon was not very much a first team player, but his goalscoring tally was low for someone who had to play every game. Under Kevin Blackwell, Lennon had thrived more than he had under John Oster, as the 17-year-old lifted people off their seats and made them struggle to believe if they actually had such a good player on their books at Elland Road.
But as much as Lennon represented a sign of hope and fight in times of distress, the club’s board saw him as a commodity to make use of if money for him came in the right amount. The club’s situation was indeed worsening with every passing day and with every passing expense that was being made. They had to cash in on Lennon.
And when Tottenham made an offer of about £1 million for Lennon, it was accepted as soon as it came. It was seen more like a chance of possible survival than the opportunity to cash in.
It was clear Lennon had made a massive jump. From playing in the Championship to a historic Premier League club was possibly a dream come true for the teenager. He was certainly not expected to start from day one, but he was surely seen as someone who would be a first team player in the next two years. But as surprising as it was, Lennon made his debut against Chelsea during Spurs’ fourth game of the season.
The impression he made saw Martin Jol trust him for handing him a full game against Liverpool in the next game. And the nippy winger caught the eyes of the Tottenham faithful. The youthful verve about the man was unique at a club that didn’t really have too many players with a blistering pace in the wide areas during that time. Young Lennon was filling that spot very well.
His first goal in Tottenham colors came at away to Birmingham City and it showed the maturity Lennon had developed as a player. Having received the ball from the left, instead of having a shot with the first touch like he would have done as a 16-year-old at Leeds, Lennon waited for the ball to come to his feet, made use of the time he had in the box to play it to his left, before hammering a shot into the Blues’ net.
His second goal of the season came against Bolton towards the end of the campaign, as Tottenham finished just two points behind fourth-placed Arsenal. More than that, Lennon’s rise to prominence saw him get nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
While it was Wayne Rooney who picked up the award, Lennon was nominated for it again in the 2006-07 season. He had carried his performances forward and having improved his goalscoring and assists tally, he was closer to getting the prize than he was last season. He scored thrice and assisted six times in the league, also racking up good numbers in the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, helping the duo of Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov get the service they needed to flourish.
But here is where Lennon was probably unlucky. These were times when not just Rooney, but Cristiano Ronaldo had arrived onto the global scene. Even at the age of around 20 or 21, both of them were close to falling in the ‘world class’ category and Lennon wasn’t really that. If not for their presences, Lennon could arguably have won the accolade.
Other than that, there was a feeling that while Ronaldo and Rooney had finished product in their game, Lennon was still indecisive in the final third a lot of times. His final pass was not as incisive as the Manchester United pair and because of that, he couldn’t assist or score as much as they did.
Despite that, Lennon made an impact. He became part of that Tottenham spine that had a host of upcoming British stars in the side. Those like Tom Huddlestone, Jermaine Jenas, Jamie O’Hara, Darren Bent, and Danny Rose were expected to play for England very soon. Alongside Lennon, they had begun to catch the eyes of the Lilywhites faithful. Leading from the front was Ledley King – the most senior of that English bunch.
The 2007-08 season wasn’t Tottenham’s best by any means. The club finished in a disappointing 11th and Martin Jol was axed for Juande Ramos to come in and take charge of Tottenham. Fortunes did improve to an extent, but the club could win only one out of its last seven games after having played a fascinating 4-4 draw against Chelsea and having beaten Portsmouth 2-0.
And Lennon’s numbers did take a dent. He scored twice and assisted six times. But it showed that he was slowly having more end product to his style than he ever had. The only way was up.
While despite the better times that came after the 11th placed finish, Lennon’s goalscoring tally or assists tally could never exceed 10. He did assist 10 times in the 2009-10 season which saw Spurs get Champions League for the first time, but one can still say that Lennon never really reached the peak of his powers. Or he could never be as good as he could have been.
The fact that he had already made a spot for himself in the national team was certainly encouraging. He was seen as a pocket rocket who could make an impact as soon as he came on, torturing defenses at will using his raw pace and acceleration.
In an England side that had multiple stalwarts, Lennon was one of those who brought something fresh to the plate. He had something to prove and wasn’t a star already. He was deemed to be a future star; a detachment from the frustrations faced by the English generation of superstars.
Same for Tottenham. He was a fans’ favorite. They loved the sight of him running defenses ragged with his verve and constant willingness to run at them directly. And Lennon loved that too. He was ruthless and relentless.
In the end, it was the lack of completeness and low consistency in his play that often let him down.
By the beginning of the 2013-14 season, Tottenham had changed. Gareth Bale had been sold to Real Madrid for a world-record fee and the club had signed the likes of Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Roberto Soldado among others. And that indicated that something fresh was waiting in the wings for the club. They were moving on from the players they had.
The players who once formed the foundation of the side were now being slowly fringed out. Tom Huddlestone and Michael Dawson were among those too, as the signings made by André Villas-Boas suggested that he was now looking at a transition period at the club; a period that would soon end by the sales of the players who were fans’ favorites not long ago. Étienne Capoue, Paulinho and Vlad Chiricheș were roped in and the process seemed to be in full flow.
While the new crop of players struggled to make an impact, proving that money isn’t the solution to all ills in football, Lennon remained a mainstay. But he wasn’t the same player anymore. He scored once and assisted five times – a tally that speaks for a drop in form or a drop in quality. Spurs finished sixth that season, as Tim Sherwood was brought in as the interim boss after the sacking of Villas-Boas.
It was next season though, that the scene changed. A certain Mauricio Pochettino had impressed during his stint at Southampton and the young Argentine boss was brought in as the club’s new manager. As evident from his spells at St. Mary’s and at Espanyol in Spain, Pochettino’s playing style and approach focused massively on work-rate and fitness. Players had to undergo double training sessions to keep up their fitness in order to suit the high-pressing approach to football.
And Lennon, who later admitted in an interview with the Telegraph that he had stopped enjoying football by this time, found himself on the peripheries. The younger and the fitter players were prioritized over the older player ones with lower work-rate than the younger ones. This was the time when Lennon lost his way. In football and life.
The fact that he was on the fringes a lot of times did him no good. He made only two starts for Tottenham that season. With the wheels turning, times changing and the club’s new sensation Harry Kane defining a revolution that Pochettino brought, it was time for Lennon to move on too.
Despite joining Everton though, Lennon struggled to recover his love for football. He did play just about every game since making his Toffees debut in February 2015, but the announcement of his signing said a lot.
The occasion was laughed at by the average football fan, as Lennon hardly looked happy in the photos of the announcement. The player was visibly joyless. It seemed as though he was being forced to do it because he was a footballer and had been so for the last ten years.
The 2015-16 season suggested that somewhere, Lennon was back to his best. He scored five times that season and was one of the brighter lights in a campaign that saw the club finish 11th.
But what went down in May 2017 changed his career and how it will be looked at. And when he was found in that bad state near the Salford Royal Hospital, everything that had happened over the last two or three years now started making sense for everyone. Be it the drop in form, the Everton move or the eluding smile during his announcement as a player at the club.
Now at Burnley, Lennon is enjoying football again. He is enjoying life again.
All things considered, Lennon’s story defines how mental health is one very undervalued aspect of football. Players take abuse and are at the receiving end of expletives when they aren’t playing well. But a week later they praised in high regards if they play well. These extremes represent the extremes of a player’s professional career. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, they go through more than we can imagine.
An average football fan who loves spraying his or her opinion about what his club is doing can’t be blamed. Going through these tough phases and facing backlash is a part of every footballer’s life. While the fans are impatient and sometimes nonsensical, all they care about is their blind faith for the club they support. All else is just meaningless.
And perhaps, amidst all that and amidst the extremities of life and expectation, a footballer is a person who suffers great emotional duress. Falling short of his or her own expectation and that of the fans can be of a crippling thing for the mind. And that’s when things start to get worse. The confidence drops and everything follows suit.
One can only hope that examples such as that of Lennon don’t crop up too often. Although it’s human to be in a state like that, it makes people easy to forget how good Aaron Lennon was on his day. And if not for off-field issues, one can only imagine how far he could’ve gone in his career. After all, football, just like life, can be difficult and unfair.