Nicky Jennings: The Big Interview revisited

Former Pompey winger and Hall-of-famer Nicky Jennings
Former Pompey winger and Hall-of-famer Nicky Jennings
Matty Kennedy. Picture: Joe Pepler

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Following the sad news of the death of Pompey Hall-of-famer Nicky Jennings, The News would like to share a big interview with the popular winger from December 2013.

In 1960, Nicky Jennings was a 14-year-old sports enthusiast who had not yet played football ‘seriously’.

From a fanatical rugby family, the talented Somerset teenager would show early promise with both cricket bat and oval ball, representing his county at cricket and playing his beloved ‘rugger’ whenever time allowed.

But Jennings was a natural – if undiscovered–footballer.

And fast-forward a decade, Fratton Park had crowned a new hero, after witnessing the diminutive winger fulfil his undoubted potential.

The coveted 1970 player-of-the year trophy arrived for the speedy wide man who had established himself as a firm fans’ favourite ever since his memorable arrival from hometown club Plymouth Argyle three years previously.

Now aged 67, Jennings, candidly looks back on an eight-year spell at the Blues that is to be commemorated with last month’s special announcement that he is to join the prestigious Pompey Hall of Fame in April, 2014.

He recalls: ‘I played a lot of rugby, I really liked rugger.

‘I also really liked my cricket.

‘I played for the county schoolboys at cricket and I played a number of rugby matches.

‘I always played football for my school but I just wasn’t very serious about it until about 14.

‘I went to Plymouth when I was 17 and when I made my debut for Argyle, I was under nine stone!

‘I was never over 10 stone when I was playing –I was always around 9’13, I was never really big.’

A standing height of 5ft 6ins ensured Jennings would never be an intimidating physical presence, but the little winger was certainly growing in both stature and reputation.

And after making a century of appearances at Home Park, divisional rivals Pompey pounced on January 18,1967, to sign their man on his 21st birthday–for a fee believed to be around £25,000.

Three days later, Jennings set about repaying his price tag by firing the Blues’ second goal in a 3-2 victory over Rotherham at a packed Fratton Park.

But while Jennings’ goalscoring arrival indebted him to both fans and manager George Smith, the triumphant debutant admitted he had been enjoying his new-found surroundings – before he had set foot on the hallowed Fratton turf.

‘I signed on my 21st birthday and scored on my debut against Rotherham,’ revealed Jennings.

‘I’ll always remember that.

‘But I’ll also never forget when I arrived at the club that first time.

‘It was quite extraordinary – they used to get people to park your cars for you!

‘It was a big club, everything about it was big-time, even though it was only in the second division.’

Having given Blues fans a taster of his ability, Jennings would come to the fore the following season as Pompey chased promotion to the first division.

But it proved to be an ultimately frustrating campaign that largely hinged on the pacy winger’s own unfortunate injury problems.

Having led the second division table into December, Jennings – who had netted seven goals in his first nine matches – suffered a horrific broken leg in a top-of-the-table 3-1 victory against Blackpool.

It was an injury that would keep him out of action for two months.

Pompey’s form slumped, and despite Jennings’ return to action, the dream of promotion to English football’s top flight had slipped from the club’s grasp as they ended the season in fifth place.

That would prove to be the high point for the Blues in a solid, if unspectacular, eight-year stay for Jennings, which lasted entirely in the second division.

He reflected: ‘All my time at the club we were pretty average, really.

‘We never really looked like going down and only once appeared to have a real chance of winning promotion (1967-68).

‘Ray Pointer and I scored quite a few goals and we had a good run before I had my leg broken in a very bad tackle.

‘I was 5ft 6ins and in those days they kicked anything that moved.

‘I often think, and I think I can say with some justification that I would’ve been a much better player today.

‘I was quick and I went by people down the line.

‘The right-backs used to queue up to kick you and eventually, if they got a name taken, which was rare, the left-back would swap and do the same thing.

‘In truth, my era wasn’t a very exciting time for football – it was rather dull.

‘England won the World Cup playing without wingers, it was really quite defensive.’

Despite his own brutally honest account of his time at the club and football in general, many Blues fans will testify to the excitement provided by Jennings’ own inimitable style of play.

It’s not every day a teenager who hasn’t kicked a ball seriously until his mid-teens winds up in a football club’s hall of fame.

Jennings said: ‘I had a really good time at Fratton Park.

‘I was quick and I used to go by people.

‘I like to think that I took a lot of stick but I always got up.

‘And I never had anything – from the time I signed – but support from the fans.

‘I can’t ever remember the crowd getting on to me at Fratton.

‘Obviously, I used to have bad games and get a bit of criticism but I never – even when I left the club – heard a bad word from the fans.

‘That’s why this place is always going to be special to me.’

Having battled with injuries throughout his time at the club, Jennings was to miss the memorable 1971 FA Cup 1-1 draw with Arsenal, but did score twice upon his return from a broken collarbone in a televised 6-3 drubbing of Fulham.

But Jennings’ Blues career was then effectively brought to an end in unusual circumstances, with the unexpected signing of Peter Marinello in the summer of 1973.

‘I left when John Deacon took over,’ explained Jennings.

‘I was told that I could go to America to play for pre-season.

‘I remember saying to the manager (John Mortimore): ‘That’s unusual, I don’t think the club’s ever let anyone else go.

‘The comment I got was more or less along the lines: “You’ve done well for us coming back from injury and can play out there”.

‘So I went to America to play for Dallas Tornado in pre-season.

‘I’d been in America for two days when I picked up a Daily Express newspaper – when it was a big paper and not a tabloid! – and the back page was “Marinello signs for Portsmouth”.

‘I suspect I was just replaced.

‘I was pretty popular with the crowd and I think there was an element of thought that it (allowing Jennings to go on pre-season in America) was a good way of doing it.

‘The management went out and bought lots of players – Marinello, Paul Went, Ron Davies – I was pretty much on my way out then.’

A year and four appearances later, fans’ favourite Jennings was indeed on his way out the door with exactly 50 goals to his name, joining Exeter on a free transfer.

A four-year spell at the Grecians followed, before one of the game’s good guys – who gave up his spare time to help out the Samaritans and handicapped while at Pompey – pursued pastures new at the relatively young age of 32.

He said: ‘When I left Exeter, I was offered a contract but I decided I wanted to see if I could get a career elsewhere.

‘I ended up going to Plymouth University and did a social science course.

‘The first job I had was as a probation officer for 15 years or so and then I switched slightly and became what they call a court welfare advisor.

‘I worked for various judges around the area doing their enquiries into childcare cases.

‘I retired when I was 63.’

Upon his retirement, Jennings retained close links with the Blues and was delighted to learn that his eight years of service would

be remembered with a special position in the club’s hall of fame.

He added: ‘Frankly, I’m absolutely delighted.

‘I was there quite a long time, and although I thoroughly enjoyed playing at my other clubs, Pompey was always special to me .

‘I’m just really sad that it has ended up where it has ended up.

‘When I think in terms of when I was there playing in front of 45,000 and they are now facing the possibility of going out of the league, it genuinely makes me sad.

‘It was and it is a brilliant club.’