Interview: Pat Jennings

Pat Jennings is widely recognised as one of the best British goalkeepers ever to have played. Born in Northern Ireland in 1945 Jennings went on to play nearly 600 games for Tottenham, over 300 games for Arsenal and earned a then world record 119 caps whilst playing for Northern Ireland.

Football wasn’t Jennings’ principal sport whilst he was growing up. Raised as a Catholic in Northern Ireland his school played only Gaelic football and other Gaelic sports. Jennings told me that he “never dreamt about professional football as a career…I left school on my fifteenth birthday…I went to work in one of the local linen factories from eight in the morning until six”.

Jennings unlikely career in professional football developed from his love of goalkeeping when he played football with his school mates, “We went to a field close to where we lived and  took a couple of stones out of the ditch or put down a couple of coats [for posts]…the goalkeeper always had the most to do.” Jennings was clearly a very good goalkeeper as a young boy and he played for his local under 19s team – Shamrock Rovers – when aged 11. This is an absolutely phenomenal feat for a goalkeeper, where height is often very important and Jennings told me “I couldn’t reach the crossbar” whilst playing in this team with people close to twice his age.

Despite his clearly noticeable ability from a young age Jennings continued working in the linen factory and then a timber yard. He had essentially stopped playing football when aged 17 the team his brother played for – Newry United – lost their goalkeeper when he went to England to look for work. Jennings said “I wasn’t all that keen” on playing for Newry United but he went along to a few training sessions anyway.

Three months later he and the team won the Irish Junior Cup and in the next year he was put forward for the Irish National Youth Team by the chairman of his club. Jennings was subsequently picked for the Northern Irish National Youth Team. The Northern Irish team qualified for the UEFA European Under-18 Championship in 1963 to be hosted in England. Jennings and Northern Ireland went on a run to the final, “At 17 I’d never been any further south than Dublin or any further north than Belfast…to finish up playing in the final at Wembley…I couldn’t believe it. England beat us on the night at Wembley 4-0. The England team we were playing against were all playing in the first division.”

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Things moved quickly for Jennings after this as Watford bought him from Newry and took him over to England. A year later, in 1964 Tottenham then purchased him and it was in this thirteen year stint at Tottenham that Jennings made his name as one of the best British goalkeepers ever. He won the 1973 Football Writers’ Association footballer of the year award and then in 1976 he was the first goalkeeper ever to win the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) player of the year.

Jennings played 1098 first class games in his career and made his Northern Ireland debut on the same day as George Best. A player he told me was the best player he had ever seen because as Jennings said “He did everything a yard quicker than everyone else.”

Unlike George Best Pat Jennings did represent Northern Ireland in a World Cup; in fact he managed to qualify for two. After four previous attempts at qualification with Northern Ireland Jennings made it to the 1982 tournament and then later the 1986 tournament as well. This is something that Jennings had wanted to achieve his whole playing career, “I had been trying [to qualify for a World Cup] from 1964…around 1982 you’re thinking you’re not going to make it…you always live in hope”.

Jennings’ last ever match was in the 1986 World Cup on his 41st birthday against Brazil. Jennings told me that “playing against them [Brazil] was just a dream for my last match.”

Tottenham still employ Jennings as a coach where he works with their academy two days a week. Jennings has been involved with professional football for over fifty years now and when I asked him what the biggest change had been he simply said “money”. He told me “I would’ve played football for nothing had someone paid my keep.”

Jennings also believes there has been a significant change in the culture in football clubs, “After matches and that we had get togethers, players would have a drink and then maybe go to a local pub. That was just the done thing in those days.” Not only does Jennings see a change in the players’ culture but he also thinks that clubs are putting more and more pressure on the young players as well as managers. Jennings told me about the boys he works with at Tottenham, “Some of the young keepers think they shouldn’t make mistakes. The man who doesn’t make mistakes, he hasn’t been born yet. It’s the one that makes the fewest mistakes that are the best goalkeepers.” Moreover with managers Jennings commented that “The old managers got four or five years at a club when they came in. They had an opportunity to come in and set up a youth policy at a club. Whereas now they work from three to four games.”

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Clearly football has changed significantly since Pat Jennings played but he believes the players aren’t that different as he told me “I could’ve played [in the modern game] no bother.” With such an impressive career it’s hard to disagree.