Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

50 years on, Pat Jennings recalls Northern Ireland debut

Pat Jennings, George Best and Billy Bingham meet for international duty in 1969

It's understandable that 50 years on the memories of the actual match are rather vague, but one thing still stands out for Pat Jennings about his first Northern Ireland call-up.

Five decades have now passed since the legendary goalkeeper made his international debut as a raw 18-year-old in a British Championship match against Wales in Swansea on April 15 1964.

Walking out alongside him that night was another teenager, a lad by the name of George Best.

At the time nobody could have predicted the impact on the game that those two young pretenders would have.

Northern Ireland football is fortunate to be able to boast one of the greatest players ever to grace the game, as well as a goalkeeper who was considered as the best in the world at one stage during his illustrious career.

To Jennings, like most people, 17-year-old Best was still largely an unknown quantity, but that soon changed, even before seeing him play.

"I didn't know anything about George at that stage other than what I'd read about him in the papers," said Jennings.

"He'd just broken into the Manchester United team and was doing well, by all accounts.

"We ended up as room-mates – it was probably a case of putting the two young lads together – and even in the couple of training sessions we had before the game, I could tell that he was a special talent.

"We became good friends and we were together from then on for a few years."

They weren't together long enough for Jennings though. Best's international career lasted only 10 years effectively – he would go on to win five more caps between 1976 and 1977 after a couple of years in exile – while Jennings went on to bring the curtain down on his playing days in style, making his last Northern Ireland appearance against Brazil at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

"George obviously only played 37 times for Northern Ireland and looking back that's my one regret for George – that he only made those 37 appearance and never played in a World Cup.

"We were hoping that he was going to do it in 1982, but it didn't work out.

"Billy Bingham did take a look at him and he'd only have turned 36 at the time. Frank Lampard will be going to the World Cup with England this year and he'll be 36 while he's there. We did very well and we'll never know if we could have gone further with George in the team."

Northern Ireland's 3-2 win in Swansea wasn't enough to give them the Home Championship – it was shared with England and Scotland, with goal difference not introduced until some years later.

The process of picking players for Northern Ireland back in the 1960s was very different than it is now.

A selection committee deliberated on the make up of the squad and then left manager Bertie Peacock to decided exactly who would be in the team.

Best and Jennings were automatic choices for both parties from then on.

"It was a big thrill for me to get a call-up for the international squad," said Jennings.

"My dad had been taking myself and my brother up to the Northern Ireland matches at Windsor Park, so this was a dream come true for me.

"Northern Ireland had lost 8-3 to England at Wembley in the previous game and I was brought in to replace the great Harry Gregg. Harry had forgotten more about goalkeeping than I knew at that time, but he never played again."

While Best went on to win two league titles and a European Cup with Manchester United after his international debut, for Jennings it was part of a path which led him from the Irish League to England's First Division in just over 18 months.

"I'd only been at Watford for a year, but I'd played in almost all of the games," said Jennings.

"I'd played in the final of the European under-18 Championship the year before when we lost to England at Wembley and things happened very quickly for me, first going from Newry Town, as it was in those days, to Watford.

"Bill Nicholson, the Tottenham manager, came to watch me in the next game, against Uruguay, a couple of weeks later, which we won 3-0 and I signed later that summer.

"He said that he couldn't buy me on my performance that night, because I'd nothing to do, but he went on recommendations."

NORTHERN IRELAND (v Wales, April 15 1964): Pat Jennings, Jimmy Magill, Alex Elder, Martin Harvey, Terry Neill, Billy McCullough, Johnny Crossan, Sammy Wilson, Jimmy McLaughlin, Bobby Braithwaite, George Best.

Goalscorers: Jimmy McLaughlin, Sammy Wilson, Martin Harvey.

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