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Pat Jennings - 40 years, two Bills... and Watford

Big Pat's journey to become the world's best - via Vicarage Road

Thu 16 January 2020, 17:50|Tottenham Hotspur

Pat Jennings has clocked up 40 years at Spurs. The best goalkeeper in the world in his pomp, Pat joined us from Watford in 1964, played until 1977, returned briefly in 1985 and has been a coach and goalkeeping consultant since 1993, still on the training pitches here at Hotspur Way today, at the age of 74.

It all started when another Spurs legend, Ron Burgess, skipper of our famous 'push and run' team that won the title in 1951, brought Pat over to Watford from Newry, Northern Ireland, in 1963. A year later, he got the call from Bill Nicholson... and the rest is history.

Third behind Steve Perryman (854) and Gary Mabbutt (611) in our list of all-time appearances with 590 between 1964-1977, Pat helped us win the FA Cup in 1967, the League Cup in 1971 and 1973 and the UEFA Cup in 1972. He also scored against Manchester United in the 1967 Charity Shield, was named Football Writers Footballer of the Year in 1973, PFA Player of the Year in 1976 and won a then world-record 119 caps for Northern Ireland between 1964-86. How apt that his last competitive appearance was against Brazil at the World Cup Finals in 1986.

As we prepare to face Watford in the Premier League on Saturday (12.30pm), we return to 1963 and 1964 with Pat, who recalls how his move to England and subsequent switch to Spurs came about...

Early days

What was it like growing up in Northern Ireland in the 50s?
 “It was brilliant. My dad took me to all the sporting events - gaelic football, boxing, internationals - that’s what we all looked forward to. We all looked up to Peter McParland, who lived on the same street as us in Newry. We followed his career at Aston Villa, he scored two goals in the 1957 FA Cup Final against Manchester United and made it into the 1958 World Cup squad. Back then, we went to a house that had a television to watch the FA Cup Final and all crowded around. That’s how it was and that’s why the FA Cup Final meant to much.”

Who were your sporting heroes?
 “I would say Peter McParland and then the players in the gaelic games. My team was County Down. My grandfather played for County Armagh, his name was Barney Cunningham, my mother’s father.”

When did you first play in goal?
 “As youngsters, we just went to a field and threw our jumpers down. There were no proper pitches. There were five or six of us and they would all take shots at the goalkeeper, and that was me! That was my introduction to goalkeeping and I enjoyed throwing myself around. I got picked to play for an Under-19 team when I was 11. That was my first introduction to a league and we had 900 fans there watching the games! Where I started playing football is now called ‘Jennings Park’.”

What was it like going from gaelic football to 'soccer'?
 “I didn’t realise at the time how beneficial playing gaelic football was going to be to me. I played in midfield, the position where you were most involved. It was a great upbringing for me in terms of doing everything with your hands. You had to take a few knocks as well. When I first played football, crosses used to come into the box with snow on them, people were trying to head it but I was three feet above them!”

How did you progress?
 “I played for Newry United for a couple of months, we won the Irish Junior Cup and that was my first real introduction to football. I then played for Newry Town and I was soon selected for trials for the Northern Ireland youth team. We played against the South to see who would represent Ireland and 10 days later I was playing against England at Wembley! I’d never really dreamt of playing professional football but once I got in amongst those boys, I thought ‘I can do this’.”

Moving to England

How tough was it to come over to England so young?
 “It was difficult for me because I’d never been away from home aged 17 but I was getting paid to play football and I couldn’t believe my luck! I went from earning four, five pounds a week working in a timber gang on a mountain to getting 23, 25 at Watford, plus bonuses. Twenty-five pounds a week to play football? I would have played for nothing!”

Did you get homesick?
 “No, not really. Ron Burgess, the Spurs legend, initially signed me and then Bill McGarry took over. He was hard as nails, Bill, but three or four times during my one season with him he came to me on Friday morning and gave me an air ticket back home. He’d say ‘there you go son, go and see the family’. If he’d given me £1,000, it couldn’t be better than that. Time at home meant so much.”

What did you miss most?
 “Apart from family, nothing really. I used to get calls from my mum two or three times a week but training every day, the time just flew by. I had a mate, Terry Mancini, who was in the Watford team when I arrived. He would come back to Vicarage Road, ask what I was up to - and I was no-one then - and invite me to Hammersmith, where he had a pub. I used to sit upstairs watching the TV. I'll never forget him for that.”

How did you settle into Watford on the pitch?
 “I was a real learning process. When I joined, they had four games left and were in danger of being relegated from the Third to the Fourth Division. They escaped that threat with two games left and I played the last two that season and every game the next season. I was reading in the paper every week that I was doing well, we just missed promotion and all of a sudden, I was reading that one or two of the bigger clubs were looking at me.”

Meeting Bill Nicholson...

What was it like getting call from Spurs?
 “Amazing. Bill McGarry, the Watford manager, told me he wanted me to come back to do some extra training. I got to the airport and he said ‘you know why you’re here?’ and I said ‘to do extra training’ and he said ‘no, not really, Bill Nicholson is waiting for you at Vicarage Road! I remember going into the room to meet Bill Nicholson for the first time. Bill introduced himself and I referred to him as ‘Mr Nicholson’. He said to me straight away ‘forget the Mr, just call me Bill’. Straight away that barrier was broken and I was on first name terms with the great man. All the years I was at Tottenham, no-one ever called him Mr Nicholson, just Bill. Everyone had the utmost respect for him."

What was it like walking into a changing room full of 'double' winners in 1964?
 “I’d read and seen so much about that team, so you can imagine what it was like. In those days, everyone changed together – Bill Nick, Eddie Baily, all the players - but the great thing was that everyone made me feel welcome, and that was the important thing.”

What was Danny Blanchflower’s influence, the skipper and Northern Ireland legend?
 “Danny was facing retirement with his knee problems at the time. He would always encourage me and that was all I needed. I never knew what was required at the highest level. Any mistake you made, you got punished. But that was the great thing about Danny and Jimmy Greaves, he would always say ‘keep going Pat, you’re going to be the greatest’ and I never forgot that.

Can you remember your debut?
 “Yes, Sheffield United at White Hart Lane (August 22, 1964). We won 2-0. I remember coming out and catching a cross with one hand and the crowd went ‘yes’. That was nice, to get a good win under my belt. But I struggled in the first season and shared with Bill Brown. In the second half of the second season I got in again and then stayed there for 13 years."