Few can lay claim to making their final bow from football at the FIFA World Cup™ as a record-breaker, but goalkeeping great Pat Jennings can. The 119-time Northern Ireland international bid farewell to the beautiful game at Mexico 1986 on his 41st birthday, establishing himself as the then-oldest player to feature at the tournament and bringing an end to a 22-year international career that saw him compete in a staggering six World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Despite being in his 40s in Mexico, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal star boasted the zest of a shot-stopper half his age, pulling off a number of acrobatic saves in his final match against a Brazil side armed with Socrates, Zico and Careca. After a loss against the skilful Brazilians, Northern Ireland bowed out at the group stage and have yet to return to the World Cup, while the game also closed the curtain on Jennings’ distinguished career.
“It was a nice way to go out,” Jennings told FIFA.com. “I could have still played on after that, I wasn’t carrying any injuries but it was a good time to go. For the 1985/86 season, I had been playing for Tottenham Hotspur reserves. I had more or less retired at that stage and I only went back to help them out and hopefully play in the Northern Ireland games leading up to the World Cup.
“I didn’t actually think we would qualify for Mexico but what took us to the finals was the four clean sheets in our final four qualifiers. Our success was built on keeping a clean sheet and hopefully nicking one at the other end. Qualification came down to the last game, which was England at Wembley. We needed a draw and we knew if we gave a goal away that it was goodnight, Vienna. But we got another clean sheet and that’s what took us to the finals.”
Race against time
While Jennings admits securing qualification to the 1986 World Cup at Wembley was undoubtedly one of his international highlights, it was an historic result that came at Spain 1982 that stands above the rest. Northern Ireland pulled off one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history when they defeated the host nation, with the plucky minnows defeating Jose Santamaria’s La Roja 1-0.
It was a victory savoured even more by the then 37-year-old, who at one stage feared the opportunity to play at his first World Cup had passed him by.
“I really didn’t think I was going to make it to that tournament,” Jennings said. “After picking up a groin injury in January, I kept breaking down and I only played about three or four games right the way through to the World Cup. My worry was that I wasn’t getting games in and that it had been so long since we last qualified – nearly 25 years – and then thinking I wasn’t going to make it. I struggled right through that season, breaking down every seven to eight weeks through to May but I managed to make the finals.
“Then, of course, we went on to beat the host nation. Nobody expected that of us. It was a fantastic feeling. We even spent the last 30 minutes with ten men as Mal Donaghy had been sent off. In terms of my international career, that was definitely the highlight.”
30 years have passed since Northern Ireland last reached a World Cup but they enter qualification for Russia 2018 with a spring in their step. After getting their first taste of a major tournament in three decades, Michael O’Neill’s side continued the country’s legacy of upsetting the odds at a finals by reaching the knockout stages of UEFA EURO 2016.
In World Cup qualifying, they face familiar opposition in the form of world champions Germany in October after coming up against Die Mannschaft at the EURO. Northern Ireland will hope goalkeeper Michael McGovern can produce another heroic performance against the Germans after stealing the show with save after save in their encounter in France, and where O’Neill’s men progressed to the Round of 16 at EURO 2016 after a narrow 1-0 loss against Joachim Low’s charges.
“The crowd were chanting: ‘Are you Pat Jennings in disguise?'” smiled Jennings, in reference to McGovern’s stand-out showing. “I would have been proud of the performance he gave. He was brave, put his body on the line, made all sorts of saves on the night – and against the reigning world champions. There’s no doubt that his contribution kept the score down and, in the end, enabled Northern Ireland to progress.”
Jennings will be watching the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign from the Pat Jennings Lounge, a new corporate suite named in his honour at the recently-renovated Windsor Park, where he has been serving as the matchday host. “It’s something I’m very proud of. It turns the clock back a number of years from me being involved as a player and my father taking me to Windsor Park when I was ten years old.”
When not hosting guests at the corporate lounge, the two-time World Cup veteran is involved in the Irish FA’s grassroots programme, playing a part in helping shape Northern Ireland’s stars of tomorrow.
"It’s a privilege to be involved. There is no football without grassroots and it’s brilliant to see the great work that’s being done. Everyone is doing a brilliant job," said the 74-year-old. “We’ve got the small-sided games going now which has been introduced the last few years. Years ago it would have been 22 kids chasing a ball around a massive pitch but now they’re getting more touches, better control of the ball, more shots - and there’s more saves for the goalkeeper to make."
And who knows? Maybe this goalkeeping great will stumble upon the next Pat Jennings.