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Arsenal and Spurs legend Pat Jennings shares words of wisdom as Northern Ireland prepare for Euro 2016

By Allan Preston

Published 10/03/2016

Safe hands: Sport Relief Ambassador Pat Jennings visits the Light House project
Safe hands: Sport Relief Ambassador Pat Jennings visits the Light House project
Pat Jennings in 1982

Northern Ireland's most experienced international player has offered up his words of wisdom as manager Michael O'Neill prepared to regroup with his players.

Having played in both the 1982 and 1986 World Cup squads in Spain and Mexico, goalkeeping legend Pat Jennings knows a thing or two about handling the build-up to a major tournament.

And yesterday, he shared his advice with O'Neill as he gets ready to head off to France for Euro 2016 - Northern Ireland's first international finals since Mexico.

"This is a one-off so it's absolutely brilliant that the boys are in the competition," said Jennings, our longest-serving goalkeeper and most-capped player.

"It's a really tough section, there's no easy games there - but I hope whatever they do they just go and give a good account of themselves and hopefully we can maybe make the next round."

In a tough group, Northern Ireland play Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany.

"The important thing from their point of view is - they've lost a couple of big players to injury - you just hope by the time you get there you've got a full squad to pick from," added Jennings.

"They're playing football twice a week from now to then so that'll be the main issue, to steer clear of injury. You don't think about it but it's so important with small squads to keep everybody fit."

The Newry-born keeper recalled how the Northern Ireland had prepared for vastly warmer climates in their '80s heyday.

"For the first World Cup in 1982 we went to Brighton for a few weeks before Spain. In Mexico we went to America for a couple of weeks to get acclimatised, then moved into Mexico, so the preparation was brilliant," he said.

Asked for his fondest memory of those times he said: "It's so long ago. But without a doubt it was in Spain 1982 beating the hosts.

"Leading up to it we did really well against Yugoslavia, Honduras and went into the last match against Spain hoping to get something out of it."

He added: "Quite a few of the boys already had their bags packed waiting to go home the next day, and somehow we went out and beat Spain with a goal from Gerry Armstrong. Absolutely brilliant, a great memory."

Jennings and O'Neill were speaking to the Belfast Telegraph as they lent their support to the Sport Relief Flagship Games taking place in the city on March 20.

Earlier in the day, manager O'Neill said he couldn't wait to start training.

"I've not seen the players since November really," he said.

"But I'm really looking forward to seeing them in March. When we were together in November it was almost like a celebration step, we were still enjoying the fact that we were qualified.

"But now the focus is firmly switched on to France."

He said that upcoming friendlies against Wales, Slovenia, Belarus and Slovakia would give his team the best possible preparation.

"If you look at our squad obviously no one has been to a major tournament, so we don't have any experience of that. You only have to look at players from 1982 to see how they're revered and remembered."

He continued: "It's a great achievement for the squad to get there but equally we can't just accept that's the end of the road."

We're very much at a stage where the players believe they can be competitive and hopefully make it a memorable tournament for everyone in Northern Ireland as well."

As part of Sport Relief, Pat Jennings was also lending his support to the suicide prevention charity Lighthouse in north Belfast.

After meeting with volunteers and young people who had received life-saving help from the charity he said: "There's a lot of families throughout the county that have all been touched by suicide and mental health issues," he said. "These people are doing a great job to help."

O'Neill added his encouragement: "It's a great cause and a great charity and it's nice to help in anyway you can," he said.

  • To sign up to this year's Sport Relief Flagship Games in Belfast at Custom House Square on March 20 go to: sportrelief.com/Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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