In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the calendar says it's a week into spring, but all through the morning the sky has looked heavy with snow and now the first flakes are dancing around the high gantry rigs of the Harland & Wolff shipyard. "That's where they launched the Titanic," says the driver of the car pulled up at a stoplight, but he gets no farther because there's a rapping on his window and a red face, split with delight, fills it.
The window goes down. "Alla best, ya lovely, big fella!" says Redface, and from nowhere he thrusts a tiny, uncomprehending boy through the window. The big fella does the proper thing—a kiss for the baby, a handshake for the dad—for he is well practiced at handling such innocent intrusions, as indeed he should be, for this is Pat Jennings, the most enduring of Irish sports heroes and one of the finest goalkeepers soccer has ever known. Jennings turned 40 last summer, but nevertheless he will be in Mexico to play in soccer's World Cup tournament, which begins Saturday.
He will be taking with him an extraordinary record—one of the most significant in the worldwide history of the sport. This snowy March morning, Jennings and the Northern Ireland team were getting ready for a pre-World Cup warmup game against Denmark. The eventual outcome—a 1-1 tie—was not the reason the game made soccer history. No, what made the event memorable was that it was Jennings's 115th appearance for his national side, equaling the record of Bjorn Nordqvist, a center back who played 115 games for Sweden from 1963 to '78. A month later, on April 24, Jennings would make his 116th and record-breaking appearance in a final pre-Mexico match, a 2-1 win over Morocco.
There was no ceremony at Windsor Park in Belfast, although—and this itself might prove some kind of record—later this summer the University of Ulster will install the retired Mr. Patrick Jennings as a doctor of science. Before that ceremony, however, during the World Cup there will be another matter for celebration—Jennings's 41st birthday on June 12.
June 1, 1986
It is just possible—but better whisper it outside of the big fella's hearing, because he is superstitious about such things—that there could be a double celebration on that particular Thursday: At high noon in the city of Guadalajara, little Northern Ireland, a 100-to-1 long shot, will take on the Cup favorite, Brazil, in the round-robin phase of the 24-team tournament. Even in sentimental Belfast, very little smart money will be wagered on Northern Ireland. Still, on a hot night in Valencia, Spain, during the 1982 World Cup, who would have backed the Northern Irish against the powerful host team? But when the final whistle blew at 11 p.m., 48,000 Spaniards in the Stadium of Luis Casanova could barely believe the 1-0 score that had sunk their team.
And, if you have faith in omens, consider the following: This will not be the first time that Jennings cuts a birthday cake in Mexico. He spent his 21st birthday at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City keeping goal for Tottenham Hotspur, the London club he served for 13 seasons, in an exhibition against Mexico before the 1966 World Cup in England.
"I'm pleased to say we beat 'em 1-0," says Jennings, still relishing the score, and maybe also the remembered sunshine as, nearly 20 years later, he drives along Belfast's Lagan River in the snow. "I worked here one time," he says, jerking his thumb at a warehouse, "loadin' timber. I was 15 and I'd left school, but I was too young for a union card, so they'd smuggle me in lyin' down in the cab of the truck. Then, at the end of a day like this, I'd be riding back home to Newry—that's 60 miles from here—and I'd be frozen stiff. I'll never forget how sometimes one of those big logs, three or four tons' weight, would slip the chains when they were being hauled up on the cranes and come crashin' down." His visitor looks suitably grave at this evidence of a Dickensian childhood, but Big Pat gives a slow smile. "I think," he says, "me positional sense kept me out of trouble."
It could have, at that. Jennings has always had a fine one. In the last minutes of that torrid game against Spain in the '82 World Cup, with Northern Ireland a man short after defender Mal Donaghy had been expelled from the game, Jennings says he was more worried about the referee than the Spanish. "I was afraid he'd give a home-crowd penalty kick. In their two previous matches, Spain had got two goals from dubious penalty decisions. And I didn't want to be the next fall guy.
"And then with Spain making what had to be their last attack, the ball bounces a yard from me and their star striker, Juanito, is running in for the kill. I sensed that if there was any body contact at all between us, I'd be penalized. So I just tipped the ball over his head and dived past him to collect it."
The calm words belie the desperate gamble that Jennings took. For heart-stopping seconds, millions of TV viewers worldwide watched the loose ball bobbing in the goal mouth. "I promise you the situation was under control," says Pat. And you believe him, because for 30 years now, control and perfect timing are what have kept him going. He first displayed those skills as an 11-year-old in Newry, County Down, where he kept goal for a street team in a boys' league.
In the school Jennings attended—a Catholic school—Gaelic football, a game more similar to rugby, was the mandatory sport and soccer was forbidden. (In Northern Ireland, sectarianism reaches right down to the games little boys play.) And so, for a long while Pat was a double agent. His contemporaries say that at 14 he may have been the most promising young Gaelic footballer in the whole of Ireland. But in 1961 the reserve side of Newry United, an amateur soccer team, needed a goalie and cast the 16-year-old Jennings in the role.
After that, the story runs like a high-speed dream. The next season, Jennings found himself playing for Northern Ireland in the European Youth Championships. Overlooked as usual, the Irish swept by Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Bulgaria and lost only in the final to England. Jennings figured his international soccer career was over. He went home and reported to the timber-yard as usual, unaware that he would heft logs for only one more day. His big, clever hands would soon bring him membership in the exclusive group of master goalkeepers that includes Sepp Maier of West Germany, Dino Zoff of Italy, England's Gordon Banks and few others.
Awaiting Jennings when he returned home from work that evening was a scout from Watford, a less-than-glamorous English club that in 1962 was dwelling in the lower reaches of the Third Division. The fellow offered Jennings ¬£15 a week (about $36 at the time), three times as much as he had ever made before. He accepted. Suddenly he was rich—Newry rich! It soon turned out that he was also' too rich in talent for Watford to hold on to him for long. This is not surprising, considering the Watford coach's advice to Jennings: "You'll never be a goalie, son, until you've had your head kicked in a couple of times." Even then the kid had the sense to realize that, in fact, the reverse was true. Good goalies are the ones smart enough and fast enough never to have their heads kicked in. Thus, after just one full season with Watford, Jennings was snapped up by Tottenham Hotspur, one of the most famous clubs in soccer. He was 18 years old.
Through 21 straight seasons, then, he made more than 1,000 appearances in the toughest soccer league in the world, the English First Division. There was only one hitch: After 13 of those seasons—and Jennings still speaks of the event with bitterness—the Spurs sold him to rival Arsenal because, at 32, they considered him over the hill. He went for a knockdown price of $66,000, only to play better than ever before. In three successive years, 1978-80, Arsenal and Jennings reached the Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, English soccer's equivalent of the Super Bowl. He had been there before, of course, in 1967, wearing Spurs colors. Pat Jennings has done almost everything at least once before.
He has also done some things that hardly anyone else has done, as in August 1967, when he played for the Spurs at Manchester United. The field was bone hard from a summer drought, and as he went to kick the ball away from his goal, he saw that the Spurs' Alan Gilzean was lurking unnoticed just 25 yards from the Manchester goal. "I just punted it up-field," says Jennings. "It went past Alan, and Alex Stepney, the Manchester goalie, came out thinking to grab the loose ball. But it bounced high on the hard ground, over his head and into the back of the net. Everything went very quiet. Everybody was bewildered, including the referee. He hesitated for a minute, then signaled the goal. I never liked to bring the subject up with Alex. That couldn't have happened many times."
In the history of the English First Division, only one other goalie ever scored: Peter Shilton against Southampton in 1967. Not that Jennings is much concerned about offense. "Some people get their kicks from scoring goals," he says, "but I get the same input from throwing myself around on the grass."
As a matter of fact, Big Pat throws himself around very little. That's not necessary when one is a brilliant reader of the game. Jennings knows what a forward will do before the forward himself does; he cuts off passes before a goal movement develops and collects corners and high balls without extravagance. Just as the happiest nation is the one without a history, so the finest goalies are those you hardly notice. And even when you think you've figured out something about them, it's a fair bet you'll be wrong.
As in the matter of Jennings's hands, widely billed as the biggest in soccer. "Look at them," he says. "They're big, but they aren't the biggest. Sure I can hold the ball in one hand. Anybody can. But people think I catch it one-handed. I don't. I take the ball with one hand when I have to. My hand just stays with the ball, travels with it, slows it down, just as if I was controlling it with my foot. It's the exact same skill. My hand is traveling at the same pace as the ball." The maneuver has little to do with big hands but everything to do with educated, subtle ones and extraordinary reflexes.
Those reflexes seem unaffected by the years. Officially, the big fella quit soccer in May 1985, going out, as he had always wanted to, at the top. But by August, half a dozen club managers were calling, including, ironically, Peter Shreeve of Tottenham Hotspur. And in Northern Ireland, where world-class goalies do not grow on the blackberry bushes, Billy Bingham, the national coach, needed Jennings for the World Cup qualifying rounds. So, principally to keep in training for his national side, Jennings signed with the Spurs as a reserve goalie.
For the Northern Irish team, the trail to Mexico began shakily in the spring of 1984 with a loss to Finland; England, Romania and Turkey comprised the rest of the group from which two teams would qualify. Later in the year, Northern Ireland got a revenge win against Finland and beat Romania 3-2. But in Belfast the team lost 1-0 to England when Mark Hateley, the winner's principal striker, scored in the 75th minute.
Astonishingly, it would be the last goal anybody put past Jennings for the rest of the qualifying round. In four successive games, the last three on opponents' soil, Northern Ireland shut out Turkey (twice), Romania and England. Since then, Jennings has extended this extraordinary run to six international games without conceding a goal.
And now, in a country hotel near Belfast on the eve of the Denmark game, there will be some recognition of all this—not for Jennings alone, but for his teammates also. Says John Carson, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, "The name of our little province is going round the world—for the right reasons for once." And he begins handing to each player a ceremonial velvet cap bearing the crest of the Irish Football Association. Instead of saying Jennings represented his country or played for his national side, an Englishman or Irishman would say that he was "capped" or, as of this evening, had "won 115 caps for Northern Ireland."
The next morning, match day, icy rain volleys in; coach Bingham hopes the rain will turn the Windsor Park turf into ground suitable for trench warfare, which the Irish relish. "Uh, we play a kind of committed game," Bingham says. The Irish break fast, and by halftime they are up 1-0. Big Pat knows what that means. For him the second half will be spent in the trenches, under siege again as the Irish fall back in defense to hold the lead. They almost succeed. But 12 minutes before the end, Flemming Christensen heads home the tying goal from close in. The 1-1 result is fine for Northern Ireland, but it means the end of Jennings's streak. Still, he has played 10 hours, 33 minutes of soccer without conceding a goal in international competition. As ever with Pat, a naive question after the game gets a dusty answer: Was it, uh, a relief when that goal went in and took the pressure off? "Nah," says the big fella. "I feel terrible about it."
A couple of hours later, though, he can laugh again. In the hotel lounge he says, "It's take-your-coat-off time," and somebody starts singing a dreadful ditty the team recorded, called Who's Gonna Win? Bingham's Boys!—a sort of soccer equivalent of The Super Bowl Shuffle. The minute he has the chance, he gets the company going on the old songs, Sweet Rose of All and ale and The Boys of the County Armagh.
Old songs, indeed, that may puzzle the citizens of Guadalajara when they hear them on June 12. And hear them from Pat and the boys they certainly will. Win, lose or tie.