Down Memory Lane: Tears in his eyes, Pat Jennings took his bow on the biggest stage
Published 11/06/2011 | 00:00
The date: June 12, 1986. The occasion: Brazil 3 Northern Ireland 0 in the World Cup finals. The place: Jalisco Stadium, Guadalajara, population three million, nestling at the foot of the Sierra Madre.
And it was Pat Jennings’ 41st birthday and his retirement from football after collecting 119 international caps — the end of a distinguished and phenomenal career with Watford, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.
As he prepares for tomorrow’s 66th birthday celebrations with his family we salute a wonderful ambassador for Northern Ireland.
How privileged I have been to cover for this newspaper all his international games, from his 1964 debut along with George Best against Wales at the Vetch Field, Swansea, to the final bow at Jalisco where 16 years earlier I was awe-struck by Gordon Banks’ wonderful save from Pele.
Northern Ireland’s squad under Billy Bingham had surprised many when reaching the 1986 finals, qualifying from a difficult group which included England, Finland, Russia, Israel and Turkey.
Northern Ireland finished second in the group, two points behind England, with whom they drew 0-0 at Wembley in the last qualifying match with Jennings producing one of the finest exhibitions of goalkeeping seen in the World Cup.
Who will ever forget those last few seconds when he twisted backwards and flicked Kerry Dixon’s header just over the bar? The route to Mexico lay ahead.
Northern Ireland drew 1-1 with Algeria in their opening match in Mexico, lost 2-1 to Spain and then came the finale against the Brazilians.
Jennings, who has just had his contract as goalkeeping coach renewed by Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, recalls vividly that game watched by 42,000 spectators.
“I felt it an honour to be playing my last game against a team everyone on the planet admired,” said Pat.
“Yes, a fantastic honour to be saying goodbye to football after playing in more than 1,100 fixtures.
“I had contemplated retiring earlier but kept playing, mostly for the reserves, leading up to the Mexico tournament, so that I would be fit.
“Indeed, following the Brazil game, I felt so exhilarated I could have gone on for years.”
Northern Ireland’s squad, brilliantly motivated by Bingham, a true guerrilla general, still dreamed they could beat the Brazilians.
That dream lasted only 14 minutes when Careca volleyed a cross into the goal to break the deadlock. Then came that fabulous 35-yard strike by Josimar, which flew into the net, and finally Careca got his second goal to make it 3-0. The end for Northern Ireland and Big Pat.
The emotion was dripping. This is how I described the scene in my Belfast Telegraph report: “Pat’s lips quivered as he sat amidst his colleagues in the dressing room.
“There were tears in the eyes. He knew that never again would he experience the thrills, the disappointments, the agony, the glory of international football.
“It was the climax of it all — 119 matches, a world record. Players had lumps in their throats and officials who spoke to him revealed traces of trembling voices.”
Never will I forget that moment when this giant of football left the pitch and walked down the steps to the dressing rooms and disappeared. Would we ever see his like again in Northern Ireland?
“Do you want a bucketful of boots,” quipped Pat to Irish FA general secretary David Bowen. “I have no further use for them.”
Many happy returns Pat — and thanks for all those memories. Your place in the game’s Hall of Fame is assured.