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.