Dale Jennings was given the chance of a lifetime at 18 when he signed for Bayern Munich. Six years later he was hit with the “worst news imaginable”.
Jennings’ fairytale affair with Bayern ended abruptly after injury set-backs, and his football career started to spiral following unsuccessful spells at Barnsley and MK Dons.
Then in August 2017, his eldest daughter Mila, four, was diagnosed with leukaemia and Jennings’ whole world came crashing down.
But following a three-year absence from football, Jennings, now 25, has made his comeback after signing for local club Runcorn Town in the North West Counties League.
The winger scored on his first start in a 3-0 win over Silsden on Saturday and now he is keen to return to his peak and make a name for himself once again.
‘I couldn’t move’ – Jennings on family tragedy
Jennings had been released by MK Dons and was recovering from a serious knee injury when Mila was diagnosed with leukaemia.
She has been receiving treatment for the past 14 months and the family are hoping to get the all-clear by the end of this year.
But Jennings struggled to cope and found no motivation, prolonging his comeback from injury.
“Nothing else mattered then. It was about being with my daughter,” he told BBC Sport. “I wanted to be there 24/7 so football was the last thing on my list of things I wanted to do.
“It was tough. There were days when I didn’t want to do anything. I couldn’t move. My girlfriend and my kids were the only things that were motivating me to get up and do it.
“You suffer mentally so, so badly.”
Jennings’ last outing for MK Dons was in a 1-0 defeat by Preston in the Championship back in August 2015.
But when his family received a positive update on Mila’s illness, Jennings decided it was time to return to the game he once loved, even if it meant him dropping down nine tiers in the English leagues.
“I struggled for a long time but when we were finally getting good news, I said ‘this is it. I have to make a comeback and I have to do it right’.
“When you receive news like I did, it puts life into perspective. I took a new attitude on and wanted to go out and work.
“You have to make these sacrifices especially when you have young kids. I sat down with my family and decided I needed to try again. I still felt I had a lot more to give to the game.”
Struggles with injury and language in Germany
Jennings burst on to the scene in his debut season for Tranmere – scoring six goals and assisting five in 28 appearances in League One.
It wasn’t long until he attracted the attention of some of England’s biggest clubs – including West Ham and Everton – but word had also spread to Germany.
Tranmere boss Les Parry told Jennings Bayern Munich were interested during a training session and, within a week, former player Didier Hamann, a Champions League winner with Tranmere’s neighbours Liverpool, had set up a meeting and a deal was made.
At the age of 18, it was a big move for Jennings but he said it was “always a no-brainer”.
“When the manager said ‘can I have a word with you?’ I thought I was in trouble! He said Bayern had been in contact and I thought he was having me on,” said Jennings.
“It went over my head because I didn’t really realise how big a move it was. I just wanted to play football so I didn’t really care at the time. It was unheard of for anyone to move to Bayern Munich from Tranmere.
“I just wanted to see what it was like in Germany and the different style of play they had there.”
But the setback of an early injury and coping with a new language made it difficult for Jennings to settle.
“I tried to learn the language for about six months but I struggled,” said Jennings.
“I felt it was affecting my play as I was too worried about trying to learn to speak German rather than putting the performances in on the pitch. It got a bit too much for me and the club told me just to concentrate on my football.”
After failing to make a first-team appearance, Jennings was eventually sold to Championship side Barnsley for £250,000 just 18 months into his three-year deal with Bayern.
Starting again from the bottom
Jennings “liked being at Barnsley” but further injury setbacks meant he never became settled and he signed for League One’s MK Dons in 2015 following a short loan spell the previous year.
He suffered another serious knee injury and was out for six months before a mutual decision was made to end his contract prematurely.
“There is no worse feeling as a player than having to sit on the sidelines watching your team-mates when you want to be out there playing,” said Jennings. “It was demoralising. Every time I felt I was getting into good shape, there was something which knocked me back.”
Jennings was without a club when Mila was diagnosed with leukaemia so he went on to take a three-year break from playing before realising “how much he missed the game”.
Now he’s been given a second chance at Runcorn Town and he is determined to climb his way back to the top.
“I feel like I have that mentality back from when I was a 16-year-old running around for Tranmere,” said Jennings. “I just want to win games and progress as high as I can. I am enjoying my football again.”
‘I have learnt from my mistakes’
Jennings hopes his return to football can be a successful one with Runcorn and says he has “learnt a lot from his mistakes” in Germany, where he didn’t take advantage of his opportunity to impress.
“I am more clued up on how to live my life better, how to play football and the sacrifices you have to make,” he said.
This Saturday, Jennings hopes to make his second start for Runcorn Town when they take on Guisborough Town in the first round of the FA Vase.
It will be a special day as all three of Jennings’ children – Mila, four, Meadow, two, and Noah, one – will be on the sidelines supporting him for the first time and he hopes he can make them proud.
“They are all excited to watch me,” said Jennings. “It’s good for them to come and support me.
“I got butterflies when we talked about it the other day. Obviously every parent just wants to make their kids proud. For me to get back out there and have all my kids supporting me will be so good.”