Belfast Telegraph

Pat Jennings: 'I had a fantastic career with Tottenham, Arsenal and Northern Ireland but my one regret is that George Best never played in a World Cup'

Legend Pat Jennings on glittering career that took him from Newry to top of the world game

Safe hands: Goalkeeping great Pat Jennings, a McDonald’s Football
Ambassador, at the launch of the McDonald’s Fun Football initiative
Safe hands: Goalkeeping great Pat Jennings, a McDonald’s Football Ambassador, at the launch of the McDonald’s Fun Football initiative
Perfect couple: Pat and wife Eleanor at George Best Foundation gala dinner
Goodbye: Pat, with son Patrick, says farewell to Arsenal in 1985
Big names: Pat Jennings and George Best with NI boss Billy Bingham in 1969

By Steven Beacom

When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were at Windsor Park in February, the former made a beeline for a familiar face. "Now there's a man who needs no introduction," said Prince William as he approached Pat Jennings.

For decades here in Northern Ireland, big Pat, as he is universally known, has been regarded as sporting royalty. Clearly the future King recognises how special the Newry native is too.

Pat is 73. Yet even up close you feel he hasn't changed in appearance since his glorious playing days. Same face, same hair, same huge hands. He also has the same enthusiasm for the game and the warm personality that made him so popular with his peers and fans.

Jennings is one of the greats - a goalkeeper who defied logic with stunning saves.

As a teenager he worked as a forester in his home town before going on to become a hero for both Spurs and Arsenal, winning FA Cups, the League Cup and UEFA Cup along the way.

Pat also won Footballer of the Year awards and even scored a goal for Tottenham in the 1967 Charity Shield.

He played over 1000 times at the top level, 119 of those for Northern Ireland. Pat remains his country's most capped performer, starring in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals.

It's well known that his final game, at the age of 41, was in Mexico 33 years ago against Brazil on the biggest stage of all, but how his incredible career started at Newry Town is a compelling story in itself.

"I was 11 playing in an under-19 league in Newry," he recalls with a smile declaring that would never happen now.

"I really enjoyed sport and playing football and when I was 17 won the Irish Junior Cup with a Newry team which was fantastic because 300 sides entered the competition.

"Three months later the club chairman told me about a European Youth tournament coming up. I'd never been out of Ireland and the tournament was in England.

"I didn't realise something like that would be available to me. The trials were cancelled because of bad weather but we had a match for Newry Town against Crusaders and the chairman of Crusaders was on the selection panel for the youth team. He came into our dressing room after the match and said to me 'it would be a pleasure for us to have you in our team son' and that was how it all began.

"I literally came off the mountains where I was working in a timber gang up above Newry and 10 days later I was playing in the finals of this youth tournament at the world famous Wembley. In those days unless you played in the FA Cup final or for your country nobody got near Wembley so you can imagine what a thrill that was.

"After that I went back to work on the mountain and at training one night was told there were one or two teams interested in me…Watford and Jimmy Hill's Coventry. I joined Watford and had an unbelievable 15 months there."

Jennings made such an impact in a short period of time, Tottenham signed him in 1964, three years after they famously won the league and cup double.

"When I heard the great Tottenham Hotspur managed by the legendary Bill Nicholson were interested there was no doubt where I wanted to go," says Jennings. "I had an unbelievable career at Tottenham and loved it."

In 1977 in a move that shocked British football, the then Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw felt Jennings was surplus to requirements and he was sold to fierce rivals Arsenal.

"Yes, I got sold believe it or not to Arsenal and went to Highbury and played something like 330 games there and enjoyed some great days," says father of four Jennings, who is 74 in June.

Remarkably Pat would return to Spurs in 1985 to play reserve team football to prepare for Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifiers. Even more noteworthy is that Jennings is revered, respected and loved by followers of both north London giants.

For the last quarter of a century he has been coaching at Spurs, at first team and Academy level yet could go to the Emirates and receive the same positive reception.

"I think this is my 40th year at Tottenham, 14 years as a player, plus one more going back to play in order to be ready for Northern Ireland's World Cup games and 25 years on the coaching staff," he says.

"There's no doubt where my loyalties are but having said that I would never have a bad word to say about Arsenal. They were brilliant to me. They gave me two four-year contracts and I always had a good relationship with the supporters. It's nice for me to have an association with two great clubs like Tottenham and Arsenal."

Jennings will forever have an association with Northern Ireland. From 1964 to 1986 he excelled for his country. It all kicked-off with a 3-2 win against Wales when both Pat and the iconic George Best made their international debuts.

The reliable goalkeeper immediately took to the more cavalier Best, though reflects that he does have one major regret surrounding his friend's football life.

"I'd read about George but hadn't met him. I was just 18 and was taking over from the great Harry Gregg. Harry would have forgotten more about goalkeeping than I knew about it. It was an unbelievable thrill to play at international level and myself and George both started in the team for the first time on the same night," he says.

"I hadn't played against George though once I saw him in training I knew he was a talent. I roomed with him for Northern Ireland but unfortunately George only played 37 times at international level.

"It is my one regret for him that he never got to play in a World Cup with us. What a player George was. Without a doubt he was the best I've ever played with. He's my number one."

On the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals, Jennings adds: "We had been trying to qualify since I'd joined the team in 1964. We thought we were never going to make it. Then against the odds we qualified for the 1982 World Cup and to go out to Spain and beat the host nation in the finals was just incredible.

"Somehow we did it again four years later to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. When you think about it now that was some achievement."

Throughout it all, Pat's rock has been wife Eleanor, a singer from Newry. They have been married for 52 years and have four children - Mairead, Siobhan, Ciara and Patrick Junior, a fine goalkeeper himself who played for Derry City, Shamrock Rovers and Glenavon.

Rarely asked about his family, Pat beams: "Family always gave me great stability and provided great support.

"My wife came from literally the same town as me. Eleanor was in showbusiness and is a great woman.

"I've been so lucky with my wife, my children and now my grandchildren."

Pat has lounges named after him at White Hart Lane and Windsor Park. He also has a park bearing his name in his home town.

He says: "I never miss an opportunity to tell people wherever I go that I have a Pat Jennings park in my home town of Newry. That makes me very proud. It's where it all started. I've never forgotten that."

Pat Jennings was speaking at the launch of the McDonald's Fun Football initiative. Pat is a McDonald's Football Ambassador.

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