As we approach another iteration of the North London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, rival supporters could perhaps be forgiven for spewing forth a bit extra vitriol to relieve the increased feelings of tension. Each club has seen its own recent failures laid bare for international football media to critique, new ownership issues making Arsenal fans nervous as to what the future holds, and Spurs fans wondering where current ownership is headed with legal wranglings over the Olympic Stadium at Stratford. Even the freshly-pressed PFA awards for Young Footballer and Footballer of the Year are topics ripe for abuse, with it being said Jack Wilshere of Arsenal deserved his for Young Footballer whilst Gareth Bale of Tottenham most assuredly did not deserve his distinction.
While it can be said that until recently, this derby has meant little to the fortunes of either side bar North London bragging rights, Harry Redknapp and Arsene Wenger each lead their squads into White Hart Lane Wednesday evening with a considerable amount at stake. Thus far denied for another season in their attempts at restocking the trophy cabinet, Arsenal still have faint hopes remaining to pip Manchester United for the league title and will be looking for full points to keep that final dream alive. Having pushed all their chips to the center of the Champions League bet only to fold, Spurs find themselves in a bit of a year-end scramble to acquire as many points as remaining to overtake Manchester City for the final Champions League spot for next season. To say that the atmosphere Wednesday evening surrounding the Lane will be as thick and heavy as a French cream sauce would be an understatement.
Throughout the history of this derby, there has been scarce middle ground and individuals who have had either the intestinal fortitude or a sufficiently massive ego to switch from one club to another have typically had scorn heaped upon them by both sets of supporters. From Spurs fans wanting George Graham out the door before he even managed a match for Tottenham, Sol Campbell being labelled “Judas” by Tottenham supporters for switching to Arsenal, to former Arsenal captain William Gallas taking the armband for Spurs against his old club in the most recent North London derby, anyone who has gone from red to white or vice versa have done so with a fair bit of stick and no amount of time will allow them to return to the club from whence they came.
Except for Patrick Anthony Jennings.
The Northern Irish keeper holds a unique place in the history of both Tottenham and Arsenal and is reportedly the only man who can receive a standing ovation at either home ground. After having made 472 appearances over thirteen years for the Lillywhites, helping them win the FA Cup, two League Cups, and the 1972 UEFA Cup over Wolverhampton, Jennings departed a recently-relegated Tottenham side in 1977 to shockingly join arch-rivals Arsenal. Despite being courted by Manchester United and Aston Villa at the time, by his own word Jennings opted to move “just across the street” to assist the Gunners in getting back in the silverware. While at Highbury, Jennings racked up 272 appearances in eight years for the old enemy and his 1967 FA Cup win with Spurs was matched in 1979 after helping Arsenal finally win it during a period when the Highbury side frustratingly always fell just out of the medals. As Jennings put it later, that 1979 final against Manchester United all came down to four minutes–not five–where a 2-0 Arsenal lead quickly dissolved at 2-2 before Alan Sunderland and his spectacular afro scored the match winner for the 3-2 victory.
Grandly successful on both sides of the divide, the 1973 Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year and the 1976 PFA Player of the Year participated in thirty-two North London derbies overall, turning out for Arsenal for his final nine. Using his slightly unorthodox yet highly effective one-handed swipe to make saves time and again, the Northern Irish international slapped away any and all would be detractors to his legacy either at White Hart Lane or Highbury. Having been named to Tottenham’s Hall of Fame as well as being listed as one of Arsenal’s top ten players of all time, Jennings returned to the Lane in 1985 but only to train for his final competitive matches with the Northern Irish squad ahead of the 1986 World Cup. Since retirement, he has largely remained with Spurs, serving as a goalkeeping coach at times along with hosting fans at a lounge that bears his name at the Lane.
Now, while much of this is regurgitated history, the greatest question has always remained: Why on earth would Tottenham’s directors part with Pat Jennings in the first place? Granted, thirteen years is a lifetime with one club in the football world, but when the 1977 season was set to begin, he was only 32 years old–even then a prime age for keepers. The established story is that Tottenham’s management thought he was quite past it, which is odd considering he had just picked up that 1976 PFA award before departing. Another is that Pat was denied a regular club car, thus prompting his disenchantment with Spurs management.
From Jennings himself, he explained in a later interview he just grew tired of walking up and down those concrete steps, in front of club directors who looked past him with blank eyes, going out to train for a club that just didn’t want him anymore. Jennings intimated he made the move to Arsenal to show his only true love what they would be missing by not retaining him as the Number 1. If that was indeed the case, he certainly proved his point.
In an odd twist to the rivalry, perhaps the very bridge Jennings used to cross over the troubled waters from White Hart Lane to Highbury had been built by two Gunners. First, when former Arsenal player and later Spurs manager Terry Neill left Tottenham in 1976 to manage the club where he spent most of his career, he jumped at the chance to bring Jennings to Highbury when his successor Keith Burkinshaw began shopping him. Having managed Jennings at Tottenham and with his Northern Ireland squads, Neill knew there were still more saves in Big Pat’s paw. Having previously made a move from rival to rival, Neill also demonstrated first-hand to Jennings that as long as he was still a winner, all emnity would be forgotten.
At the club by 1977, he was coached by his old nemesis Bob Wilson, who had opposed Jennings in several of those North London derbies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On the training pitch is where much could have been undone, as Wilson–a keeper legend from his own work with Arsenal–could have chosen to employ the cold shoulder with the Tottenham import rather than bringing him into the Gooner family. Wilson decided to welcome Big Pat openly, admitting later he could teach his contemporary and former adversary nothing more when it came to the art of keeping, that he was superior in nearly every way. Wilson further endeared himself to the Northern Irishman by openly applauding the move from the outset, calling his signing a gift to Arsenal. The friendship between the two continues to this very day, with Jennings being one of the notables on hand recently to cheer Wilson on as he began his charity bike ride for cancer research.
So, when the upcoming North London derby kicks off, Mr. Jennings will take his seat at a table reserved for one but where fans of red and white are invited to join him. For while Jennings today claims to be “Tottenham through and through” neither he nor Spurs can deny his unique place in the history of their rivals–particularly as Jennings himself put up several clean sheets for Arsenal against Tottenham in those North London derbies of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
And to think: if only Keith Burkinshaw would have let Pat Jennings keep his club car, Spurs might have won a few more of those…