Jennings looks on in wonderment at Tottenham’s brave new world
Still coaching at Spurs, the legendary goalkeeper is thrilled with the club’s progress
Pat Jennings: He [Pochettino] has a great team around him and with the chairman they’ve done an unbelievable job. Hopefully we can push on – win the Champions League, get top four.” Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Pat Jennings is in his Tottenham Hotspur tracksuit. He is walking in from training. It is a Friday morning and he has just had his weekly session with the club’s Academy goalkeepers. He is 73. Legends never cease.
Some 55 years since Jennings had his first serious Spurs conversation – with ‘Mr. Tottenham’, Bill Nicholson – the big man from Co Down is still part of the furniture.
Coming from Newry Town and Watford, Jennings thought Spurs pretty sleek back in 1964; today he looks at Tottenham and says: “It’s like a five-star hotel. Whenever you see this training facility, what it has done for the club. And the new stadium? We’ve everything in place.”
It is hard to argue.
It feels insufficient to describe Tottenham’s 77-acre complex at Enfield on the fringe of north London as a training ground – it is more than that. It is a statement of intent and Jennings speaks with a mixture of awe and pride as he recounts the 36 groundsmen who have the place resembling Augusta National, the 15 pitches, the lodge in which Brazil stayed pre-Russia last summer.
Then there is the market garden which supplies the kitchen, the swimming pool, plunge pools and rehab rooms which overlook the first-team pitches so that eyes are kept on the prize.
There is much more. Jennings is surrounded by modernity. Tottenham have invested in the future and as he walks around, he greets Hugo Lloris, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker-Peters. Theirs are handshakes with history.
“It’s a different world,” Jennings says.
That becomes ever more clear when the subject changes from the Spurs of today, the Champions League semi-final against Ajax, Mauricio Pochettino and the progress of 17 year-old Dubliner Troy Parrott – “doing brilliant” – to Jennings’ pre-Tottenham youth in Newry. Then he brings memories of walking up a hillside near Meigh on the border with a hatchet in his hand.
My job was to go in with a hatchet and trim all the branches
“I was 15, finished school – couldn’t wait to get out,” he says. “Got work in a factory but it closed.
“My dad was working in a timber gang on one of the mountains just outside Newry. I joined that timber gang.
“They were clearing the whole mountain – nothing mechanical. My job was to go in with a hatchet and trim all the branches. Then my dad would come along with a horse and drag the trees off the mountain. Massive 80ft trees.”
As he says, a different world.
Jennings played Gaelic football at school because soccer was banned. But soccer was the street game in Newry and he joined a team calling itself Shamrock Rovers – “you’d adopt the name of a famous club. That’s who we were, then there was Celtic, Arsenal, Spurs and so on. The rivalry was unbelievable.
“That’s where I started and it’s now Jennings Park. I was home last week doing some IFA and McDonald’s work and we put on a session there. I’m so proud – Jennings Park in my home town.”
John and Sadie Jennings had seven sons and a daughter. One of Pat’s brothers, Brian, was at Newry United, the juniors of Newry Town: “One night Brian said their goalkeeper had gone to England to look for work. ‘Why don’t you come down?’ he said. ‘You might get a game.’ I’d just come off the mountain.”
Pat went along and, naturally, impressed. Soon he was in the senior side and then the Northern Ireland youth team.
“I was 17,” he says, “never been out of Ireland, never been further south than Dublin. I’d been to Derry to play basketball for the school. That was it.
“I was told there was a European youth tournament coming up in England. Northern Ireland got to the final. Ten days after coming off the mountain I was playing at Wembley. Wembley. Ten days. Can you imagine?”
McCracken, the Belfast giant who changed football forever by making Fifa alter the offside rule in 1925, was scouting for Watford. Quickly £5,000 was in Newry Town’s account and 17 year-old Jennings was in the first team playing Third Division professional football. Watford trained in a local park.
It was May 1963 and Jennings was thrust into a debut at QPR when they played at White City. He stayed in the team the next season and in June 1964 was summoned to Vicarage Road by hard-faced Watford manager Bill McGarry.
Jennings, who had gone home to Newry, thought it was about pre-season. Instead he found he had been sold to Tottenham and Bill Nicholson was sitting in front of him. Jennings, 18, said no. He flew back home.
McGarry and Nicholson followed and at a meeting in the old Grand Hotel in Belfast, Jennings, now 19, spoke to the great Nicholson. Here was Tottenham’s Shankly, their Busby, the man who had been at Spurs since 1938, who had restructured the club, led it to the Double in 1961 and then to Britain’s first European trophy in 1963.
“I referred to him as Mr Nicholson of course,” Jennings recalls. “He said: ‘Forget about the ‘Mr’, just call me Bill.’ So now I’m on first-name terms with the great man.”
Jennings may have just come off the mountain but he knew his worth. Players talked.
“Somehow I plucked up the courage to ask if I was getting a few bob out of the deal. I was chancing my arm. Further down the line I asked what the transfer fee was. ‘None of your business,’ I was told. That’s how it was.”
Both Jennings and Watford got their money and so began the goalkeeper’s glorious Tottenham career. It lasted 13 years, took in 656 appearances and included winning the FA Cup in 1967, the League Cup in 1971 and 1973 and the Uefa Cup in 1972. He was voted the Football Writers’ Player of the Year in 1973 and the Players’ Player of the Year in 1976.
He became ‘Big Pat’, no surname necessary, the calm ’keeper without gloves who made breathtaking one-handed catches. His voice sounded like it had been excavated from the Mournes. He went to two World Cups and won the last of 119 Northern Ireland caps on his 41st birthday, playing against the Brazil of Zico and Socrates in Mexico.
“You never get carried away if you’re a goalkeeper,” he says.
“I knew I could do things other ’keepers couldn’t. The one-handed catches – that was Gaelic, absolutely. People think it’s the size of your hands – it’s not, it’s timing and confidence.”
Along the way there was even – once – a compliment from Nicholson: “We played Grasshoppers away and he came in and told all the boys they should give me their bonus money. That was it.
“That’s what he was like. He was a taskmaster. Even the night we won the Uefa Cup – we’d beaten AC Milan in the semi – and we’d only drawn with Wolves in the home leg after winning away. In the dressing room, we’re swigging champagne – just won the Uefa Cup. Bill comes in and says: ‘Boys, I’ve just been in next door to tell the Wolverhampton team that the best team lost tonight.’
“That was him. ‘You’ve another match on Saturday’.
“But I have to say, I’ve worked with unbelievable managers, but I never heard anything new in terms of coaching that I didn’t hear from Bill Nicholson all those years ago.”
There'll never be another Jimmy Greaves. I know that. Such quick feet
One manager Jennings did hear something new from was Danny Blanchflower. Jennings caught the end of Blanchflower’s time at Spurs; they met again in 1976 when Blanchflower became manager of Northern Ireland.
“Danny loved the underdog. At our first meeting, he told us we were boring people to tears with 1-0, 2-1 losses. ‘Let’s go out and entertain,’ he said, ‘lose 5-4’.
“I’m there, with this massive reputation, listening to this. I was thinking: ‘Yeah, we can give away five, but how are we scoring four?’ That was Danny’s way, and if ever you wanted to win for a manager, it was for him.”
Jennings’ Irish career was 13 years old then. He had been given a debut in 1963 while at Watford. It was at Swansea and he roomed with the other Northern Ireland debutant that day, George Best. It was the beginning of a long friendship. The two roomed together on each of Best’s 37 internationals.
Jennings is not a man prone to melodrama but his tone becomes wistful when speaking of Best – and of Jimmy Greaves. One was the greatest ever Irish footballer and the other was, arguably, the greatest ever English player. Jennings knew them both intimately.
“There’ll never be another Jimmy Greaves, I know that. Such quick feet. In my first international in Belfast, England beat us 4-3 and Jim scored a hat-trick past me by half-time.
“He was brilliant for me, gave me so much encouragement. ‘You’re going to be the best,’ he’d say after I’d made a mistake. I’ll not forget that.
“Me and George, we weren’t two opposites exactly, we suited each other. If George wanted to talk, I was there. He was a really clever lad.
“I was so disappointed he didn’t make it in either 1982 or ’86. Billy Bingham looked at him in ’81 and was thinking of it. It seems such a waste for George that he didn’t get to a World Cup. His funeral that day in Belfast was painful. It felt like a bit of everyone had been lost.”
With Dutch opposition on Tottenham’s mind, Jennings remembers Best’s performance in Rotterdam in 1976. Holland were at their peak, between two World Cup finals, and Best was at Fulham. Northern Ireland drew 2-2. The Dutch captain was Johan Cruyff.
“If Graeme (Souness) had stayed, the club would have had a different path. That was one of the great wastes.”
“George ran riot,” Jennings says. “They pushed Johan Neeskens back to do a man-marking job on him and he nutmegged Neeskens about six times. George finished up taking his tie-ups off his socks and offering them to Neeskens so he could tie his legs together.”
It was an eventful season, 1976-77, for Jennings. It ended, amazingly, in Spurs’ relegation. Even more amazing was that the club’s reaction was to sell Jennings – to Arsenal.
He was 32 and says “it was the worst day of my life in football”. But he recovered and stayed eight years at Highbury, joined the Arsenal Irish of O’Leary, Nelson, Rice, Stapleton and Brady. He won another FA Cup and the respect of Arsenal fans.
He is not a man to preach – it was not easy for his generation to follow the Double-winning team – but there is a lesson about investment. Spurs sold Greaves, Dave Mackay and others such as the young Graeme Souness and ended up relegated. Jennings witnessed Souness’s young brilliance; Spurs could have had a Hoddle-Souness midfield.
“If Graeme had stayed, the club would have had a different path. That was one of the great wastes.”
When he looks around him today, Jennings sees a club with foundations, strength, ready for a different path.
“Poch is a gentleman, a lovely man. Demanding, too, I’d say – players wouldn’t be taking any liberties with him. He’s a great team around him and with the chairman they’ve done an unbelievable job. Hopefully we can push on – win the Champions League, get top four.”
He nods at passing Academy boys. “Oh, they’re brilliant. We have to be realistic with them, they aren’t all going to play for Tottenham. We tell them not to waste a day.”
Pat Jennings didn’t. Different football worlds, different Tottenham landscapes, he’s still here; “still love it” he says. As his car pulled away, two young fans stopped him. He rolled down the window. “My granddad says you’re a legend, will you give him a message?” Jennings speaks into the boy’s mobile phone: “Come on you Spurs,” he says.
And then the legend drives on.