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.
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.