For this week’s Highbury Hero I’m going back to 1977. To talk about the only man who has the distinction of being loved on both sides of the great North London divide. A man who is not just one of Arsenal’s greatest goalkeepers. But also one of the finest goalkeepers of all time. The one and only legendary Pat Jennings.
Big Pat had a career of remarkable longevity spanning 22 years. During the course of it, he was the first player in English football to play a 1,000 senior games. Achieving this feat, when he typically kept a clean sheet for Arsenal against West Bromwich Albion in 1983. He won 119 International caps for Northern Ireland, which at the time was a world record. Was awarded an MBE, followed by an OBE after his retirement. He also won, both the Football Writers Footballer of the Year in 1972-73. Plus the PFA player of the year in 1975-76.
He started his league career at Watford. But after just season, signed for Spurs for £27,000 in 1964 and went on to play for them for 13 years. Earning a reputation as one of the top keepers in the World. He once famously saved two penalties, up at Anfield in the same game. He also scored for Spurs in the Charity Shield in 1967, against Manchester United at Old Trafford. When Pat hit a long kick down field which bounced once, before sailing over Alex Stepney’s head and into the empty net.
Despite all he’d done for Spurs. At the end of the 1976-77 season. A season when it has to be mentioned, Spurs were relegated, after finishing rock bottom of the table! Tottenham decided not to extend Pat’s contract and dispense of his services.
I think the fee for Jennings was about £40,000 or £50,000 and it looked like Pat may be heading to Portman Road to join Bobby Robson at Ipswich Town. But as Pat went back to Spurs one last time to say farewell to the Spurs players. The Spurs directors walked past him in the car park and completely blanked him. This made up his mind to go down the road and join The Arsenal.
Pat on why he left Spurs
It was probably the best bit of business Terry Neill ever did in his time as Arsenal manager, to bring Pat across North London to Highbury. Brought in to replace Jimmy Rimmer, who was a good and dependable keeper for us. But not in the same class as Pat.
Jennings made his league debut for Arsenal, ironically away at Ipswich Town. The club who’d fought hard to persuade Pat to join them. I was there to see Pat make his home league debut against Everton. I was both amazed and absolutely delighted to see Pat in the Arsenal goal, wearing the green keepers jersey, with the cannon on the front. It must have been a real dagger to the heart for the Tottenham fans.
Spurs thought that Big Pat was finished and never dreamt that he would go on to play another eight years at Arsenal. How Spurs thought that Barry Daines could fill Pat’s boots, when he wasn’t even fit to lace them is laughable. I remember the late Peter Cook, a Spurs fan, lamenting that every time Spurs played Arsenal, Jennings always stopped everything Spurs threw at him!
Jennings was far from finished. He also had the benefit of 13 years top flight experience to call upon as well. Pat was such a natural goalkeeper. I would say he was the the best of that era. Better than his contemporaries, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence, Team mates such as David O’Leary and George Best would agree with me.
He didn’t scream and shout at his defenders like Jens Lehmann. But was so calm and self assured. Just a few words of encouragement in his deep Irish brogue was all that was required. Pat had such an aura and presence about him. Only David Seaman of the keepers I’ve watched at Arsenal had a similar way with him. The defenders had complete faith in Pat and rightly so.
He had fantastic reflexes and was a master at cutting down an attackers angles, with his excellent positional sense. If a forward was bearing down on him, he’d make himself as big as possible by standing up till the last possible second, putting doubt in the attacker’s mind. He also had a knack of flicking out a leg to deflect a shot away from danger.
Pat has hands like shovels. I remember once there was a life size photo of one of Big Pat’s hands in a magazine and when I placed my own hand over it. My hand looked tiny, like a small child’s in comparison. Many a time Pat’s big frame would stretch acrobatically in the air and a massive paw would tip a shot over the bar, or round a post, that had looked a certain goal.
He was also so decisive when he came for crosses. Years of playing Gaelic football, in his younger days had toughened his body to take the buffeting keepers receive at corners and free kicks launched into the box. Uniquely Pat would come flying across his area to stretch out an arm and spectacularly snatch the ball in mid air one handed. Just as an opposition player was ready to head the ball into the net.
One of Pat’s finest games for us was in the 5th round of the FA Cup up at Nottingham Forest in 1978-79. Brian Clough’s Forest were at their peak then, current league champions, who went on that season to lift the European Cup. They were formidable opposition, particularly at the City Ground. Arsenal were under siege for virtually the whole game. They threw the proverbial kitchen sink at us. But Pat Jennings was awesome that night. He saved everything Forest slung at him. In a real smash and grab performance. Frank Stapleton scored with a great header to win the tie for us.
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That was also the season of the five match FA Cup marathon with Sheffield Wednesday and of course we went on to win the famous old trophy that season, in the Five Minute Final against Manchester United. This was the only trophy Pat won in his time at The Arsenal to add to the four he’d won with Spurs.
Although Pat only won one trophy with us. He played in three consecutive FA Cup Finals for us in 1978, 1979 and 1980, as well as the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1980. Jennings saved the first penalty in the shoot out from Mario Kempes. But Brady and Rix missed for us, so heartbreakingly Valencia won the penalty shoot out to lift the trophy. It meant we’d lost two finals in five days.
I remember a great night over at White Hart Lane, when we knocked Spurs out the League Cup, in the 1983-84 season. We won 2-1 with goals from Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nicholas. Big Pat got a surprise when Eamonn Andrews came onto the pitch immediately after the game. Walked up to Pat with his big red book, smiled then announced “Tonight Pat Jennings this is your life”.
Unfortunately time catches up with all of us. Even one of the all time greats like Pat Jennings. 1984-85 was Big Pat’s final season in his long and illustrious career. We played Oxford United away in the League Cup on Halloween night 1984 and Arsenal and Pat in particular, had a real horror show. We got beat 3-2 and I remember an Oxford player trying a shot from long range, that was meat and drink to Jennings. But incredibly and I couldn’t believe my own eyes, Pat fumbled it and it was in the back of the net and we were out the competition.
John Lukic played the next game. Before Pat returned to the side for three more games. The last being up at Hillsborough, against Sheffield Wednesday on 25th November 1984. John Lukic then returned to the side and Pat never played for us again.
Apart from returning for his own testimonial match, against Spurs on the 8th May 1985. Where I recall with fondness Liam Brady guesting for us and scoring a spectacular goal against the old enemy.
Pat aged 40, then had spells as back up at both Spurs and Everton. But never played a league game for either club. But what it did do for Big Pat was keep him fit for his last hurrah. Playing in the 1986 World Cup for Northern Ireland. At 41 years old, he was the oldest player to ever appear at the World Cup Finals up to that point. His final ever game, came at the World Cup, fittingly against Brazil. 22 years after Pat and George Best both made their international debuts together in 1964.
Where would I place Jennings on the list of great Arsenal goalkeepers. Of the ones I didn’t get the pleasure of watching. I think it’s widely acknowledged that Jack Kelsey was the finest amongst them. Of the keepers I’ve watched and there’s been quite a few over the last 51 years. I’d say that there wasn’t much between Pat and David Seaman. I’d put Seaman at number one. Simply because of David’s highly successful 13 years at Arsenal. But had Pat Jennings played his whole career at The Arsenal he may well have been rated the greatest Arsenal goalkeeper of all time. Above both Jack Kelsey and David Seaman.A selection of some of Pat’s great saves
Pat Jennings was not only a great keeper, a model professional and an ideal role model. But also a great man as well. Quiet, modest and unassuming. He is a gentleman. Not only loved by both sets of North London fans. But respected by all football supporters right across the country and all around the World. Big Pat remains at 71 years old, a perfect ambassador for the game.
As always, thanks for reading. I’ll be back next week with another Highbury Hero.