It’s not often you get to share the spotlight with a proper football legend, 12,000 delirious Arsenal fans, a national treasure and a TV audience of a good few million. But I did. Oh, and did I mention all of this took place on the pitch at White Hart Lane after a glorious Gunners victory?
Pat Jennings is perhaps the most celebrated footballer who has played for both Arsenal and Tottenham and when in 1977 the deluded latter decided he had seen better days he was plucked from the Dark Side by Terry Neill and went on to play more than 300 games for us, winning the FA Cup in 1979.
Keeping goal so magnificently in that game (dramatic 3-2 last-minute win over United at Wembley) alone means he is one of only a few Tottenham players for whom I have the time of day.
Northern Ireland international Jennings endeared himself to the North Bank almost immediately and also the general public. He was and is a huge man with massive hands, gentle manner and lilting voice. His popularity even led him to be asked to front a dubious yet memorable TV advertising campaign (I am still not entirely at ease with him catching cabbage-like objects but we move on).
And such was the esteem in which this gentle giant was held by the nation he was chosen as a subject for the hugely popular Thames TV show This Is Your Life. For those of you not familiar with the programme, it consists of a celebrity guest of honour being surprised and presented with a ‘Red Book’ by the host, who conducts a biography of the guest with the help of family, friends, and assorted brown-nosers.
All of this conspired to allow me to be able to state my assorted so-called claims to fame in the intro (first paragraph).
How it came to pass I shall never really quite grasp. But it did. And I have video evidence to prove it. Almost*. Cast your minds back to November 11, 1983 and a League Cup third round tie against the Great Unwashed.
This was a massive game. The North London derby provided us with a chance to gain revenge over our nearest and dreariest after they’d beaten us in the same competition three years previously.
Arsenal followers (we weren’t Gooners yet) made the trip in their (our) thousands and those who couldn’t gain entry to the overcrowded Park Lane end started to head towards other areas. I just about got in to the Paxton but wasn’t keen on staying there so I used the age old and illegal method of transferring oneself into another part of the ground. I jumped over the fence.
So it came to be that having found a spare seat I watched the game from the then relatively new East Stand. This was to prove crucial in my fleeting role in a televisual feast later that night. Access to the pitch from the seats wasn’t hindered by fences (as it was with terraces, although not at Higbury) with those heading up security expecting fans who could afford seats not to be inclined to make a dash for the victors on conclusion of proceedings.
How wrong they would be.
There was a certain anticipation ahead of the game itself. Terry Neill had signed Charlie Nicholas from Celtic in the summer but it was generally agreed that the striker had still to live up to his billing. Yet memorably Champagne Charlie (so called by the Press for his voracious appetite and appreciation of London nightlife) came good with one of two goals that gave us a wonderful 2-1 win (Tony Woodcock netted the other).
Cue frantic scenes of jubilation from the Arsenal supporters on the final whistle. Indeed, such was the adrenaline rush that some fans even hurdled the advertising hoardings and ran on the pitch (back then this was almost a basic right for a football fan – these days you’d get hung, drawn and quartered…then banned).
One of the pitch invaders was yours truly. I was and remain ardent Arsenal and any victory over that lot is, to my mind, to be celebrated to the full. As a bullish 19-year-old I thought that meant dancing jigs of delight on the pitch with the victorious team was the very least I could do. I’d expected to dash around patting a few of my heroes on the back before dodging any stewards who could be arsed to nab anyone and then join the rest of the red throng dancing and singing down the High Road as they made their way home singing long into the night.
But genial Irishman Eamonn Andrews, host of the aforementioned Thames TV spectacular changed all that. As I galloped like a gazelle (yeah, right) across the dung heap that doubles as the home of the N17 ne’erdowells I noticed bright lights and a commotion. I’d pretty much done the rounds in terms of back-patting and was on my way to shake the hands of Big Pat.
But as I arrived, so did Eamonn. “Pat Jennings, this is your life,” he announced to a gobsmacked goalie as the show’s distinctive theme tune was played over the Tannoy system.
And there, on screens across the land, viewers witnessed Pat Jennings’ stunned reaction. Next to him sharing the frame was, albeit briefly, a grinning idiot. Me.
All that and we lost to Walsall at Highbury in the fourth round and Neill was sacked not long after.
*This footage shows me in orange-ish coat legging it around (2m, 37sec – you can hear theme tune being played) but not my big moment with Big Pat. The video recording exists in my loft but so do many other things and I am not sure it’ll ever be found.