The Premier League record holder without a club - Ex-Portsmouth and Germany starlet Lenny Sowah's remarkable plight

Laughter introduces the sobering story of the Premier League record holder presently without a football club.

Thursday, 18th June 2020, 5:30 pm
Updated Friday, 19th June 2020, 2:30 pm
Lenny Sowah came through the Pompey ranks to make five first-team appearances before moving to Hamburger SV in July 2010. Picture: Will Caddy

Lenny Sowah’s positivity is infectious, sunshine pouring through recollections of a career which once glittered, yet was ultimately stifled by football politics, court cases and rotten luck.

‘On the Monday, we were sat around the breakfast table at Pompey’s training ground and David James asked “Lenny, when were you born?”,’ chuckled the 27-year-old.

‘Apparently they had been talking about me on Match of the Day. Not that I had been aware of it until Jamo explained.

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‘Then he laughed: “Man, I feel so old. The Premier League was my first professional game and you weren't even born. We’re team-mates – and you’re nearly the same age as my son!”

‘I have that Pompey debut shirt framed in my home. No-one can take that achievement away from me. I will tell my kids about it one day.’

It has been a decade since Sowah created footballing history by becoming the first player born after the Premier League’s inception to have appeared in it.

Aged 17 years, seven months and 12 days, the curious claim to fame was registered following a 25-minute Pompey substitute outing against Blackburn in April 2010.

Joel Ward and Lenny Sowah both made their Pompey debuts in April 2010. Picture: Malcolm Wells

By the season’s end, the former Arsenal left-back had amassed five first-team outings, Germany under-18 recognition and joined the Blues at Wembley for the FA Cup final against Chelsea.

Presently he doesn’t have a club. Sowah’s most recent appearance was with Scottish side Hamilton Academicals in a 2-0 win over St Johnstone – 13 months ago.

At the age of 27, he has become nomadic, featuring for seven different clubs in five countries.

Yet not a trace of self-pity intrudes during reflections of a career which, by his own admission, failed to scale the heights expected.

Lenny Sowah, now aged 27, beside the Pompey shirt he wore to create his Premier League record

‘Maybe if I had stayed at Pompey my career and life would have been worse. Maybe it would have been better. You never know,’ he told The News.

‘I am going to be honest with you, my career has not gone the way I wanted it. But that’s probably like everybody in their life.

‘Everybody has a certain picture of how they want their life to be. Sometimes it is better, sometimes it is worse, but I cannot complain. I’m still healthy, my family’s healthy, I have a roof over my head.

‘I’ve still got time and want to play football again. Sometimes in life, things don’t go as planned, but everything works out for the best.

At the age of 17, Pompey's Lenny Sowah became the first player born after the Premier League's inception to appear in the competition. Picture: Steve Reid

‘Occasionally a little thought comes into my head about how I shouldn’t have left Pompey, but then I think “No, I moved back to Germany and three years later met my girlfriend”.

‘We’ve been together eight years, hopefully I am going to marry her soon. That would never have happened if I had done things differently.

‘There are positives and negatives – that’s life.’

Sowah’s stock was soaring when he left Pompey in July 2010 – three months after his Premier League debut.

During the club’s top-flight relegation, the left-back featured in five of their final six Premier League fixtures.

A month after that first-team introduction against Blackburn, Sowah was handed a Germany under-18 bow, his team-mates including Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Gotze, Marc-Andre ter Stegen from Barcelona and Arsenal pair Bernd Leno and Shkodran Mustafi.

That summer, he quit Fratton Park on a free transfer, signing for home-town club Hamburger SV.

With Pompey mired in financial turmoil and overseen by administrator Andrew Andronikou and newly-employed chief executive David Lampitt, they merely received training compensation for the talented youngster.

Sowah said: ‘I actually wanted to stay. I had just made my debut and, even though Pompey had just been relegated, to be aged 17 and playing in the Championship is still amazing.

‘The problem was Pompey were not treating me fairly. No player would extend their contract if the club is lying to their face. Really lying to their face.

‘I was still on a scholarship contract, which contained different kinds of bonuses if you played for the first-team. Such as playing more than 30 minutes, winning, drawing, even being on the bench.

‘I didn’t receive a penny. The club told me “What bonuses? You’re not supposed to get any bonuses”. It was in my contract. I am not stupid, this is my contract, it says there, black and white.

‘The other thing was I had a pro contract to sign. It had been negotiated when I left Arsenal at the age of 15 to join Pompey on a two-year scholarship. Now I was 17 and had played five Premier League games, yet the contract was the same.

‘I knew some youth players not even in the reserves who had a pro contract after turning 17 and were earning more than me.

‘We wanted to negotiate, but the club said they were unable to give out new contracts. They were doing just that to others, though.

‘I would have understood if Pompey had said “Look, the club is in a financial situation where it can’t really pay out”. I would have understood it. But to come to me with those types of excuses showed they were not valuing me or respecting me as a player and a person.

‘I am quiet, I don’t really speak a lot, but I notice everything. I see when I’m not being treated fairly and notice when there are lies. I was sticking up for myself.

‘Out of nowhere, I had an offer from Hamburger. I was born in Hamburg, I had their kit as a three or four year-old, it was a dream to play for them. It must have been a sign.’

Sowah spurned interest from Premier League pair Stoke and Wigan to head back to his home country.

However, he would never play in the Bundesliga, instead condemned to Hamburger’s B team, operating in the fourth tier of German football.

A January 2012 loan move to Millwall offered a lifeline, yet was aborted without an appearance over financial issues, while a permanent switch to Danish side FC Vestsjaelland culminated in Sowah winning a court case for unfair dismissal.

He added: ‘I didn’t know anything about politics in football, but soon learnt.

‘At Hamburger, it turned out the guy who brought me in didn’t have the best relationship with the new coach. I was basically standing in the middle of the war zone with people fighting around me.

‘It came to the point where we had 18 fit players. The coach decided he would rather not fill the bench and I was left behind. My head was gone, I needed to leave if I was to fix my career.

‘A loan deal was done with Millwall, they were in the Championship fighting relegation and, after three weeks, I hadn’t made a squad. I was wondering what was happening.

‘The manager, Kenny Jackett, called me into his office. It turned out the arrangement was that if I was involved in one match, even just making the squad, they had to pay Hamburger my year’s wages. Why would you agree to a deal like that?

‘Millwall didn’t even have a reserve team, so I never played. I terminated my loan after six or so weeks.

‘Then I went to FC Vestsjaelland, which didn’t start well. The contract we had agreed turned out to be totally different numbers when I arrived to sign it.

‘The club was in financial trouble and by the winter wanted to remove some of us. I received a letter in Danish, which unfortunately I don’t speak, basically saying they were terminating my contract with immediate effect because I had walked off at half-time in a reserve game and gone home.

‘Who would walk off in the middle of a game? It was clearly a lie and I later won a court case over my dismissal.

‘My apartment was from the club, my car from the club. They were taken away from me. I had to travel to Germany to hire a car and travel back to Denmark to get my stuff, making the journey twice because I had a lot of possessions.

‘I thought “Who cursed me? What have I done wrong in my life to actually deserve this?”’

Scottish football would offer salvation for Sowah, albeit for a short period.

He joined Hamilton on a short-term deal in October 2016, following a successful trial. The defender’s form then earned a January move to Scottish Premiership rivals Hearts for the remainder of the season.

Next was an ill-fated spell at Polish top-flight club Cracovia, before returning to Hamilton for the 2018-19 campaign, making 21 appearances as they clinched survival in Scotland’s top flight with a final-day victory.

He said: ‘For my first month in Poland, I was paid two weeks late, yet no-one else did. From then on, I got my salary on time just once.

‘I played some games but wasn't happy in my surroundings. Just one player spoke English because he’d spent a year in Holland.

‘The coach knew a little German because he played there. He’d speak to the team in Polish and sometimes translate it to me. I was one my own. I wouldn’t leave the house after training, apart from going grocery shopping.

‘Halfway through, they wanted to sell me to a Belarus club, but I wasn’t interested. I was put in the reserves and they stopped paying me. I received £1,000 in two-and-a-half months before cancelling my contract.

‘I got a lawyer and took them to court. It took a year, but I won the case.’

Sowah eyed fresh opportunities and, last August, a purported move to French Ligue 2 club Grenoble didn’t materialise when the agent arranging the deal abruptly cut all contact.

Having already turned down Kilmarnock in favour of agreeing a two-and-a-half year deal, the defender had no more options.

Then it was the turn of coronavirus to intervene, the global pandemic’s influence forcing the scrapping of a March move to the Slovakia Supa Liga for the remainder of the season.

This is not the end, of course. Despite 13 months without football, Sowah has maintained fitness and seeks a return.

The future remains positive.

‘Football has been tough, but outside of it I would say I am blessed,’ he added.

‘I love football and always used to say it was my life, but it really isn’t. My life is my family, my girlfriend, people around me.

‘Football is my number one and if I never play again, of course I will be sad, but it’s not like I will die. My life will still go on.

‘My football career didn’t go as I wished, but I am not sad. This was supposed to be like this. If I have the chance to make the same decisions, I would make them again.

‘It made me stronger, these are experiences through life. I’m 27 and still have some years in me. Hopefully I will get a chance.’

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