EURO 2016 QUALIFIERS: Legendary Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings hopes Michael O’Neill’s boys can emulate World Cup heroes

Legendary Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings
Legendary Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings

Legendary Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings knows what it is like to grace a major football finals.

Not once, but twice.

Successive World Cup appearances sit proudly in Jennings’ stellar CV.

He fondly recalls memories of Northern Ireland’s giant-slaying of shell-shocked hosts Spain in 1982.

Four years later, an emotional Jennings took his bow on the biggest stage when he called time on his goalkeeping career in Mexico.

The venue was the Jalisco Stadium, Guadalajara, when he earned his 119th and final cap before retiring into the sunset at the foot of the Sierra Madre.

The date: June 12, 1986 – Jennings’ 41st birthday.

​Northern Ireland would go on to lose 3-0 to a star-studded Brazil side that day – ​but the result ​was a peripheral statistic.

Jennings’ international love affair had started 22 years earlier when he made his Northern Ireland debut along with a certain George Best against Wales at the Vetch Field, Swansea.

He admits he thought his chances of gracing a major tournament had faded by the time Billy Bingham’s squad qualified for Espana ‘82.

“I had been trying to qualify for a major tournament ever since I joined the Northern squad with Bestie in 1964. It was a long time coming,” ​said ​Jennings​, whose 119 caps remains a Northern Ireland record​.

“When Spain ‘82 came around I was 36, and you start thinking your chance had maybe gone.

“To qualify in 1982 was fantastic, but then to beat the hosts in their own back yard was unbelievable. What a night that was for the squad and fans.

“Everyone remembers Gerry’s (Armstrong) goal against Spain that night. We also had to do it with 10 men after Mal Donaghy was sent off.

“They were all great memories.”

Northern Ireland defied the odds when reaching the 1986 finals, qualifying from a daunting group which included England, Finland, Russia, Israel and Turkey.

They went on to finish second in the group, two points behind England.

Their qualification was sealed with a spirited 0-0 draw with England at Wembley, when an inspired Jennings help shut out Bobby Robson’s side with a wonderful exhibition of goalkeeping.

It paved the way for Jennings – who enjoyed a distinguished playing career with clubs including Watford, Tottenham and Arsenal – to take his final curtain call in Mexico.

“The 1986 World Cup in Mexico holds special memories too. I had actually been playing for Tottenham’s reserve team leading up to those finals,” he recalls.

“I was just trying to stay as sharp as I could so I would be ready when called upon.

“The night we drew at Wembley against England to secure our qualification was another great night. The spirit of the side shone through again.”

Northern Ireland drew 1-1 with Algeria in their opening group game in Mexico before losing 2-1 to Spain.

They completed Group D with a 3-0 defeat to Brazil, with goals from Careca (2) and Josimar.

“The finals in Mexico were special for me, especially the final game against Brazil. It was my last appearance before I retired and it was my 41st birthday,” Jennings said.

“We didn’t have the best team back then. We didn’t have the best players. But we had plenty of belief and spirit, a bit like the current squad under Michael O’Neill.

“The times playing for Northern Ireland were special. We were always up against it, always the underdog. But we always managed to beat the big teams.

“The pressure was always on but we always found a way to win, and the spirit and belief in the squad saw us over the line on many occasions.”

While misty-eyed fans continue to regale stories of those halcyon days of the Eighties, Jennings believes the Green and White Army will soon have new heroes to honour.

Michael O’Neill’s players sit on the cusp of qualification for a first-ever European Championship, and victory against Greece on Thursday night will guarantee Northern Ireland’s place at UEFA’s top table next summer in France.

“Michael has done a fantastic job. I had a nice chat with him recently at a PFA event at Woburn, and I praised him on the job he has done,” Jennings added.

“If this squad qualifies, they deserve to stand beside the World Cup squads of 1958, ‘82 and ‘86. They will go down in Northern Ireland’s football folklore.

“I hope they can finish the job and reach next summer’s Euro finals. Northern Ireland have never qualified for a European Championship so it really would be historic.

“Hopefully the key players can remain fit for the final two games and that we get the victory needed to guarantee qualification.”