Is George Best or Pat Jennings the greatest Northern Irish footballer?

Is George Best or Pat Jennings the greatest Northern Irish footballer?

ON 15 APRIL 1964, two Northern Irish legends made their national team debuts. One was a supremely talented footballer, who many believed was the best player in his position during the 1970s. His unremitting commitment to his country would see him become the poster boy of Northern Irish football over the next two decades. Yet today, Pat Jennings is rarely held aloft as Northern Ireland’s footballing icon. Instead, that title falls to his international counterpart, who also made his debut that night in Swansea. A man who at times neglected to attend Northern Ireland matches and only showed fans in his homeland fleeting examples of his undeniable talent. That man is George Best.

It’s the truth that no one around Windsor Park wants to acknowledge, let alone admit, but Best’s international career rarely saw him reach the tumultuous heights he so often did when playing for Manchester United. Whilst Best was captivating audiences during the late 1960s at club level, many Northern Irish fans were often left underwhelmed at the Belfast boy’s contribution on the international stage.

With United, Best was a central part of the Holy Trinity alongside Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, who led their side to the First Division title in 1965 and 1967. A year after his second league triumph, Best and was voted as European Footballer of the Year in the same season that Manchester United won the European Cup.

At club level, the man from the Cregagh Estate was a paragon of footballing talent, elegance and ingenuity, coupled perfectly with an ability to entertain and enthral fans. However, Best appeared incapable of producing those virtuoso displays whilst wearing a green and white jersey, owing much to the fact that he was surrounded by players beneath his usual standard. During Best’s Northern Irish career, he only managed nine goals – three of which came in a single game against lowly Malta 0 yet in comparison, at club level he scored 28 league goals in the 1967/68 season alone.

The United star’s commitment to his country was often in the spotlight, with some claiming he found the Northern Ireland setup to be mundane. Between the 1966/67 and 1968/69 seasons, Best played only half of Northern Ireland’s matches, but missed just two of United’s 126 league games in that spell. Throughout his 13-year international career, the man dubbed the ‘Fifth Beatle’ only registered 37 caps, something which even Jennings has acknowledged was a disappointment. “Looking back that’s one of my regrets for George – that he only made those 37 appearances and never played in a World Cup,” the goalkeeper has remarked.

The 1970s saw Best’s Manchester United career begin to decline, as his social life began to trump his sporting vocation. Sir Matt Busby’s departure from the club had left a void that no man could fill and United’s performances plummeted. Best has since admitted he found it difficult to find motivation playing in an average team, and in his autobiography Blessed, he claimed: “It had become a bit like playing for Northern Ireland.” Consequently his international appearances became even less frequent.

In 1970, Best further angered fans from his homeland by failing to turn up for a crucial World Cup qualification game in Russia. Manchester United claimed the winger was injured, but he played for the club just a week later. The team lost against Russia and ultimately failed to qualify for the World Cup, which only amplified the animosity felt in Northern Ireland.

This hostility did not go unnoticed by Best, and in his autobiography he wrote: “I knew it (missing the Russia match) would cause uproar because whenever I missed games for Ireland, I got stick from the fans and a lot of bad publicity back home.” However, the incident did not appear to deter Best, who only a few years later decided to forgo an end of season Home Nations tournament, opting instead to spend a couple of weeks in Marbella.

Just three years after being crowned the best player in Europe, football had become a pastime for Best, rather than his full-time career. In its place, carousing and womanising had become Best’s chief vocations. He retired for the first time in 1972, and despite returning from his self-imposed sporting isolation soon after, he failed to produce the sort of magic shown in the late-60s. January 1, 1974, marked Best’s final appearance for Manchester United, and bar a few half-hearted and short-lived stints at resurrecting his career, the UK’s most talented footballer became little more than an exhibition player, used to generate revenue.

Many in Northern Ireland had begun to resent Best and believed he was a poor reflection of the province.  During the 1970s and 80s, Northern Ireland was living through The Troubles, which saw a low level, guerrilla war being fought in the nation’s streets. Many in the country – and particularly in Belfast where the trouble was at its height – viewed Best as an egotistical, self-indulged man who had wasted his talent, whilst his homeland was in ruin. Others felt anger towards a man from Northern Ireland who enjoyed a lavish lifestyle while their children were not safe to even play on the streets.

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As alcohol took a greater hold on Best’s life, a number of volatile incidents began to further tarnish his reputation in Ireland and the UK. These included his mini-barricade in Sinéad Cusack’s house in 1971 and a few years later, the incident when Best broke the nose of a female waitress. Best’s voyages after United saw him play in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Brisbane, but controversy followed him.  The former Manchester United star was often fined for missing training and was dismissed by Cork Celtic and Hibernian.

To add further insult to those in Northern Ireland, Best has revealed he was offered the chance to join Middlesbrough in 1981. For the Belfast boy it offered him one final chance to resurrect his career and possibly earn a place in Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland squad for the 1982 World Cup. However, Best rejected the offer and claimed in his autobiography: “If I had agreed and played for the last four months of the season, there is no doubt in my mind I would have gone to the World Cup finals in Spain.”

In 1982, rather than playing at a World Cup, Best’s life had descended into new levels of chaos as he was declared bankrupt. Two years later, he was charged with a drink driving offence, and after failing to appear in court, was arrested. Upon arrest, Best assaulted a police officer and consequently spent three months in jail. He was often accused of assaulting his numerous girlfriends and alcohol appeared to govern his life, invariably leaving him in disastrous situations, as most famously demonstrated in 1990 when he appeared drunk on a BBC talk show.

In 2000, Best was diagnosed with severe liver damage and two years later successfully received a transplant. To the public’s dismay, he was caught drinking in 2003, with many questioning whether he was deserving of a new liver. Just a few months later Best was once again convicted for drunk driving and in 2004 was divorced for the second time. On 25 November 2005, George Best finally lost his battle with alcoholism and passed away at the Cromwell Hospital in London.

The aim of this article is not to besmirch the name of George Best, nor is its’ intention to portray him as a villain. Best’s former teammates have often claimed he was a wonderful, humorous and compassionate man, and I do not contest this. However, it is undeniable that alcohol detrimentally altered Best’s persona – as it does with countless others. Sadly, he did not have the support structures that modern day footballers posses. His life was a tragic example of the devastating consequences that often come with addiction and stardom.

The purpose of this article is also not to claim that Best was disliked by all those in Northern Ireland. It would be incorrect to state that those in Ulster had less sympathy for the former United star’s plight than those in mainland Britain. However, it would also be misleading to suggest there was not an overriding sense of disappointment at how Best’s life had turned out and the choices he made. During his career, many in Northern Ireland felt as if he had turned his back on his homeland.

However, the late 1990s marked a distinct change for Best and his perception in Northern Ireland. Perhaps enough time had passed to absolve the former United man’s previous sins, or maybe those in his homeland simply chose to overlook the misdemeanours and focus instead on the moments of genius. Best was viewed more sympathetically due to his increasing age and the realisation that he may not have much longer to live. Perhaps a Northern Ireland that was beginning to move on from the Troubles collectively decided to disregard the past three decades, or maybe Best’s brief return to the Irish shores in 2001, when he relocated to Portagovie, demonstrated that he hadn’t forgotten his motherland.

Whatever the case, the end of the 2000s saw Northern Ireland as a whole exalt Best’s majestic talents, rather than denounce him. In 2001, he was awarded an honorary degree from Belfast’s prestigious Queen’s University, and the freedom of Castlereagh Borough, his hometown council area. Those in Northern Ireland began to overlook Best’s historical lack of affinity with Northern Ireland, and even dismiss its existence. In recent years, former teammate Gerry Armstrong has gone as far as to claim: “He was so proud to come from Northern Ireland and to wear that green shirt.”

In 2005, Best’s funeral was aired live on BBC as Northern Ireland came to a standstill. Thousands of mourners lined the streets of Belfast to pay their respects to their idol and hero, with one poignant banner adorning the now famous phrase of “Maradona good, Pelé better, George Best”. Belfast City Airport changed its name permanently to George Best City Airport, on what would have been Best’s 60th birthday in 2006. A few months later, Ulster Bank produced one million, £5 notes, each decorated with an illustration of the Irishman.

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Today, the great winger claims an almost celestial position in Northern Irish society. There are countless murals of Best throughout the country, especially surrounding the Windsor Park area. In this particular part of South Belfast, there is even talk of building a statue of Best outside the redeveloped national stadium.

In February 2017, it was confirmed that a George Best themed hotel would be built in Belfast, the same month as the movie George Best: All By Myself aired in UK cinemas. The former United man’s many flaws are often overlooked by football fans in Ulster, and the ‘Going on the Piss With Georgie Best’ chant sang at Old Trafford and Windsor Park even exonerates his deadly addiction. In many ways, Best’s legacy today lives on through famous quotes and anecdotes, as much as through his footballing talent.

Although Best is considered a hero today by Northern Irish fans, during his playing days, another was heralded by those at Windsor Park as their icon. Pat Jennings and George Best could not have enjoyed more starkly contrasting international careers, and have somewhat swapped places in the hierarchy of Northern Irish footballing legends. In fact, the only similarity between the duo is the origin of their national team careers, which began on that night in 1964.

The game itself marked a watershed moment for Northern Irish football. Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg had been his country’s stopper for the past decade, but conceding eight against England in the previous game signalled the end his international career. In replacement, an 18-year-old Pat Jennings took to the stage. Jennings had only a year prior signed for Watford, having moved from his hometown side, Newry Town. Despite conceding three goals on that night in Swansea, the goalkeeper impressed Northern Ireland manager Bertie Peacock and continued between the sticks.

At club level, Jennings moved to Tottenham just months after making his international debut. He represented the club for 13 years, winning the 1967 FA Cup, the League Cup in 1971 and 1973, and was part of the side that claimed the UEFA Cup, in its maiden season in 1972. Jennings was a vital part of Spurs’ team in that era and was renowned for his unorthodox saving technique, which often saw him use any part of his body to save the ball. The man from Newry was nominated as the FWA Player of the Year in 1973, and three years later was crowned as the PFA Players’ Player of the Year – one of only two goalkeepers to have ever received the award, alongside Gordon Banks.

In 1977, Jennings’ career was adjudged to be on the decline and he was put up for sale by Tottenham. It proved to be a foolhardy decision, as the goalkeeper crossed the divide in north London and continued to produce the same outstanding performances for Arsenal. Bob Wilson, the Gunners’ goalkeeping coach at the time, has claimed in recent years: “I think I knew from day one that I could never coach Pat Jennings anything. I could never teach him anything. He was a far greater goalkeeper than myself.” Arsenal qualified for the FA Cup final in each of Jennings’ first three years at Highbury, however they only managed to win one, in 1979.

Despite his controversial transfer, few Tottenham fans felt any ill will towards the Irishman. Jennings was a universally popular figure in the First Division during this time, due to his superb level of performance and unequivocal commitment. This was never more highlighted than in February 1983, when Jennings became the first player in English football history to play a thousand senior matches. He retired from club football in 1985 and is still regarded today as one of the finest goalkeepers the UK has ever produced.

Jennings’ consistent club performances were matched on the international stage. Unlike Best, the goalkeeper readily made himself available for selection and won a staggering 119 caps. Jennings played in two World Cups, the first of which saw him produce an outstanding display as Northern Ireland famously defeated the tournament’s host side, Spain, in 1982.

Four years later marked his swansong appearance in Mexico, over two decades after his international debut. Even at 40, Jennings was still demonstrating his commitment and high levels of performance by playing in the 1986 World Cup, a year after retiring from club football. The stopper had trained with Everton to ensure he maintained his impeccable levels of fitness. Jennings’ final game came against Brazil no less, on his 41st birthday.

Jennings is still remembered today in England and Northern Ireland as a giant of the game and has been bestowed the honour of lounges named after him at both White Hart Lane and Windsor Park. In his hometown of Newry, Jennings Park was opened in recognition of the ‘keeper during his playing days, and Jennings has been preserved immortally on a painted mural outside Windsor Park. In 2003 he was inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame and, probably most impressively, Jennings has been honoured with an OBE and MBE.

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Jennings and Best both enjoyed outstanding yet utterly incomparable careers. The perception of the two in Northern Ireland is somewhat similar to the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. The fable depicts the story of two brothers, the younger of whom wastes his inheritance, and the elder, who responsibly and loyally remains with his father. By the end of the tale, the younger brother returns home and is the gleefully received by his father. The younger brother’s return causes a euphoric celebration, the like of which the elder and more loyal brother has never received.

In many ways, Best represents the younger brother, who – literally in this case – squandered all his money. In contrast, Jennings remained committed and loyal to both his country and his club. Whilst Best spent much of the 1970s and 80s in bars, casinos and on the beach, Jennings spent that era on the training ground and the football pitch. The goalkeeper was viewed as the champion of Northern Irish football during his career but has never received the same level of admiration as his former teammate.

It is peculiar that today Best is glorified through song and folklore amongst Northern Irish fans, more so than Jennings, who certainly had a more successful international career. Today, every child in Northern Ireland knows the name George Best, however, the same cannot be said for Pat Jennings. Therefore, it does raise the question, is it right that a man who wasted his superb talent is exalted above one whose commitment and hard work resulted in such a long lasting career? Should Best be adored and revered after his indifferent and indolent international career? Why do British and Irish societies tend to glorify talent above hard work and endeavour? Finally, and simply put, should Best be remembered by Northern Irish fans more fondly than Jennings?

For Best, there is no doubt he was unfortunate to play in the 60s and 70s. His supreme talent made him football’s first celebrity, which unsurprisingly had a negative impact on his career. Today, managers and agents would ensure that a player’s social life and external commitments did not trump their profession. Best was at times mismanaged by Manchester United and was allowed to do as he pleased due to his preeminent performances. It would be incorrect to say that Best was faultless in his demise – something he often admitted himself – but to claim he was solely responsible is unfair.

While Jennings’ career is commendable, it is mundane compared to Best’s exploits. Films and books are sold because of entertaining and riveting stories, and although Jennings is not necessarily boring, anyone would be cast as dull in comparison to Best. The former United man’s charisma, charm and good looks also made him likeable to the public, as well as the numerous anecdotes surrounding his life on and off the field.

It should also be remembered that despite his short career, Best achieved feats that Jennings did not in over 20 years in the game. Winning the First Division title and European Cup with Manchester United – incidentally the most popular side in Ulster – enhanced his status in Northern Ireland. There is also immense pride that a country the size of Northern Ireland, with roughly three percent of the population of England, managed to produce a Ballon d’Or winner. In many ways, Best is synonymous with Northern Ireland and Belfast. Throughout the world, when people hear either the country or the city’s name, their first thought is George Best.

Best’s worldwide fame means he has transcended his sport. His celebrity status helped to put Northern Ireland on the map and perhaps explains why he has featured on at least 10 murals throughout the country, whilst Jennings has only ever appeared in one. It should also be noted that Best is from Belfast, where the country’s national stadium is based. If Jennings had come from Northern Ireland’s capital city, he may well have been referred to as the Belfast Boy’ and could have claimed the naming rights to Belfast City Airport.

Quite possibly the most disappointing aspect of Best’s international career, in the eyes of Northern Ireland fans, was his regular absence from matches. However, it may be unfair to place the entire blame on Best for this. The club versus country debate, which is a divisive issue today, was also present in Best’s era, and the Manchester United man was often encouraged to miss international trips. Best said in a 2001 interview, “That [missing Northern Ireland games] was down to Manchester United more than anything. Northern Ireland’s games used to clash with United and I was withdrawn a lot of the time.”

Best’s decision to reject an offer from Middlesbrough in 1981 has often been used to highlight his lack of commitment to Northern Ireland, as it ruled out any possibility of him ever playing at a World Cup. By this stage, Best was 36, and even supremely professional players such as Jennings may begin to struggle with the physical demands of the game at that age, let alone a man who had lived such an unhealthy lifestyle over the past decade. Best’s skills were also dulled by 1981 and it is unlikely that he could have produced the talent that he was once capable of.

As an attacking player, Best played in a much more glamorous and celebrated position compared to Jennings’ role as a goalkeeper. The highest individual awards are rarely won by defensive players; this again highlights Best’s ability to provide excitement and entertainment.

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Finally, and maybe most importantly in this debate, Best is arguably seen now as the hero, simply due to the fact he was a footballing genius. Every country can, and has, produced a committed and hard working individual, but few countries throughout the world have produced a talent such as Best. The likes of Peter Shilton, Peter Schmeichel and Gianluigi Buffon have demonstrated that as phenomenal as Jennings was, he was not unique. He was not one of a kind, and nor is he an icon, as Best is. As aptly summed up by the current Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill: “I don’t think Northern Ireland will ever produce another George Best and possibly the world of football might not.”

The question remains, however, what should be celebrated more – talent, in this case wasted, or hard work? Perhaps those devoted Northern Ireland fans in the 1970s and 80s would argue the latter. By earning 119 caps, Jennings could rightly state that he should be remembered as Northern Ireland’s greatest ever player. As Best lost his affinity with his homeland, Jennings maintained his association with Northern Ireland. The fact that he opted to spend a year training in order to retain his place as his country’s number one speaks volume for both his desire and ability.

It should not be forgotten that Jennings was a hugely talented goalkeeper, as highlighted by his former international colleague Martin O’Neill, who claimed: “Pat would have been a fantastic goalkeeper in any era.” Unfortunately for Jennings, his abilities pale into significance in this article, compared to Best’s superlative skillset.

While Best struggled to play with less talented players at Manchester United and Northern Ireland, Jennings excelled and became the leader on the international stage. His performances helped Northern Ireland gain a place at two World Cup finals, something Best cannot boast. While Jennings was elevating his reputation in the 1980s, Best was making headway off the field. The man from the Cregagh Estate often retold the anecdote when he was once asked, “Where did it all go wrong George?” He responded by saying, “Whilst lying in bed with Miss World.”

Two leading scholars – Mark Garnett and Richard Weight – claim about best: “The British like their heroes to be tragic ones: possessed of enough glamour and talent for stardom to be lived vicariously through them; yet flawed and vulnerable enough for the public not to be threatened by their success.” Much like Paul Gascoigne and Tony Adams, who followed in a similar vein as Best during the preceding succeeding decades, the British public is obsessed with flawed geniuses. Arguably, a celebrity’s deep flaws appear to make them more relatable, and perhaps even more likeable. There is a case to say that Best’s coverage in the media has altered his opinion in the UK and Ireland.

In comparison, Jennings’ only controversy was moving between Tottenham and Arsenal, something Spurs clearly overlooked, owing to the fact they named a suite at White Hart Lane in honour of the goalkeeper. Although he has never publicly admitted it, there may be a small part of Jennings who is disappointed that Best holds an almost God-like status in Northern Irish society, when the man from Newry was adored by Northern Ireland fans during his career.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Sadly, Best is history, and his legacy undoubtedly lives on in Belfast, Manchester and throughout the world. He was certainly remembered more fondly in the latter years of his life, and patently so in death. His early passing due to alcoholism makes him even more cherished in the eyes of many. Individuals are often remembered more fondly in death, and perhaps in 50 years Northern Ireland’s most famous keeper will be remembered on a par with Best.

To compare Best and Jennings is somewhat similar to the ceaseless comparisons between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The two are supremely talented and may well be remembered in history as the greatest footballers ever. Both are unique, perfect in their own distinctive ways, and both have achieved almost impossible milestones. Messi and Ronaldo have dominated the last decade of football and comparisons have naturally been made between the two. However, to compare the two is similar to contrasting the difference between an apple and an orange.

Messi and Ronaldo will rightly go down as two of the greatest footballers ever to play the game, just as Best and Jennings will be remembered in the analogues of Northern Irish football. Maybe Best should remain the standalone hero of his country, or perhaps Jennings should be exalted on a higher level than his former international teammate, but ultimately it does not matter. 

George Best is the most naturally talented footballer to ever emerge from Northern Ireland, whilst Pat Jennings was the perfect blend of ability and commitment. Much like Messi and Ronaldo and apples and oranges, Best and Jennings are incomparable. The only thing that matters is that they both brought joy to thousands in Northern Ireland and throughout the world, and that in their own unique ways they helped make the beautiful game a bit more beautiful 

By Michael Plant    @MichaelPlant82

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