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TODAY COULD BE FINALE FOR LONGTIME GOALKEEPER : Though 41, Pat Jennings May Be a Tough Nut for Brazil to Crack

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Times Staff Writer

Pat Jennings turns 41 today.

In and of itself, that doesn’t mean much. After all, it’s just another birthday, just another year gone by.

But today could signify far more than that. For Jennings and for Northern Ireland, it could mark the end of an era.

Twenty-two years ago, in the spring of 1964, two players made their debuts for Northern Ireland’s national team in a match against Wales. One was Patrick Anthony Jennings, and the other was George Best.

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Best’s brilliant but troubled career ended some time ago, but in more than two decades since that April afternoon, no one has been able to replace Jennings in the nets for Northern Ireland.

When Coach Billy Bingham pencils in his lineup for an international game, the very first name he jots down is that of the goalkeeper they call the Gentle Giant.

This morning, Bingham will once again turn to that familiar task, but this time it will be with the sad realization that the lineup he produces will probably become a historic document.

No other player in the history of soccer has represented his country as often as Jennings has, but today’s match could well be Jennings’ last.

At noon in the vast bowl that is Guadalajara’s Jalisco Stadium, Northern Ireland will play Brazil in a World Cup game that the Irish cannot afford to lose. If they do lose, they will have nothing to look forward to but the long flight home to Belfast.

And so Jennings, on his 41st birthday, will be carrying the hopes of his country, and probably those of a great many other people in the world who recognize his many contributions to the sport.

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Crouched there in the nets, a powerfully built figure with longish dark hair and an intense, almost hawk-like gaze, he will be facing some of the world’s most dangerous players, youngsters half his age and twice as quick.

What will help equalize the odds is Jennings’ vast experience. That, and the confidence that comes with having seen almost all there is to see. Brazil’s forwards and midfielders may find a way to beat him, but they are not likely to catch Jennings by surprise.

His matchless positional sense, the agility that allows him to recover ground almost instantly and a fierce determination to succeed are just a few of the characteristics that have carried Jennings to the top of his profession.

He has been called the Methuselah of soccer, but somehow the description does not seem to fit. Jennings neither looks nor acts the part of an old man. Of course, at 41, he is not, but it does seem he has been around forever. And he is the oldest of the 521 players at the Cup.

Born in the Northern Ireland town of Newry, Jennings was working in a lumber yard and playing soccer on the side when he came to the attention of a scout for Watford, then nothing more than a third-division team. He was not to last long in the lower divisions of England’s Football League.

His skill soon earned him a transfer into the first division, and he spent the rest of his career, one in which he has played more than 1,000 league and cup games, with two London clubs, first Tottenham Hotspur and then Arsenal. With them, he won virtually every honor the English game can bestow.

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He retired from the rigors of league soccer more than a year ago but stayed fit by playing for Tottenham’s reserve team. Then, too, there were the eight qualifying games that Northern Ireland had to play just to get to Mexico.

Things looked bleak in early October when the Irish were faced with the prospect of having to get three of a possible four points from their last two qualifying games or be eliminated. The fact that both games were on the road made it doubly difficult.

But, as he had done so often in the past, Jennings rose to the occasion. On October 10th at Bucharest, he shut out Romania as Northern Ireland won, 1-0, earning two of the points. Then, on November 13th at London, he turned in a phenomenal performance, time and again denying the English forwards, as the Irish tied England, 0-0, to earn their ticket to Mexico.

At first, Jennings did not want to go, feeling that a younger player would do better given the conditions in Mexico, where the heat and high altitude can sap the strength. Bingham had to persuade him that his presence was vital to Northern Ireland’s chances.

Jennings agreed and not long thereafter--during Northern Ireland’s warmup matches--established his world record for international appearances.

First, he passed one of his own heroes, Dino Zoff, the goalkeeping captain of Italy’s 1982 World Cup championship team, who had played 112 times for his country. A little later he first tied, then surpassed, the world record of 115 held by Sweden’s Bjorn Nordqvist.

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Today’s match will be Jennings’ 119th for Northern Ireland.

British sportswriter Adam Coates, writing in the Daily Mail earlier this year, described Jennings as “a quiet, sometimes brooding presence” who, despite his 22 years in his country’s colors, is “neither imperious nor swaggering.”

Continued Coates: “His influence on those around him is immense.”

Jennings’ fellow players are quick to agree. “When you look back there and see Pat in the goal, you haven’t a worry in the world,” Irish defender Alan McDonald said.

Still, Jennings was worried as he looked ahead to this World Cup.

“I hope I don’t make a fool of myself in Mexico,” he said before leaving.

He has not, Northern Ireland’s troubles having derived more from an inability to score goals than the problem of yielding them. The Irish were tied by Algeria in their opening game, 1-1, then were beaten by Spain, 2-1.

The latter game gave Jennings to opportunity to recall his most memorable achievement--shutting out Spain, the World Cup host nation, in Valencia in 1982.

Now, the task confronting him and the rest of Northern Ireland’s players is even greater. They must beat the 1986 favorite, Brazil.

“I’d like Ireland to win the World Cup,” he told another English soccer writer, Michael Hart of the London Evening Standard. “But if we don’t, then I’d like one of the other British teams to win. But if they don’t, there’s only one other team I’d really care about winning--and that’s Brazil.

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“They play a different type of football from the rest of us. They have a glamour about them, don’t they?”

It is this type of attitude, this type of love for the game as much as the outcome, that has set Pat Jennings apart for all these years.

When he walks off the Jalisco Stadium field this afternoon, it may be for the final time in an illustrious career but, win or lose, his place in the history of the game is secure.

“This will definitely be the end,” he told Hart. “It’s ridiculous the way it’s all worked out, but this will really be the end. There’s no way I’ll be playing next season.

“I’d love to be starting out again. I haven’t always enjoyed the pressures, but I’d do the same all over again.”

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