An Afternoon with Billy Jennings Football Legend
In the most unlikely of surroundings, Football.com writer Brian Jeeves, caught up with a former Orient and West Ham star who had an eye for goal.
Pre-season mixes a whole host of footballing cocktails and often see’s great players turning up at some unlikely places. This season, Orient v New York Cosmos and Bournemouth v Real Madrid particularly caught my imagination, taking me back to the magical matches I would play out on my Subbuteo as a kid. Therefore, today it seems somewhat symbolic that here I am at Burroughs Park, home of Essex Senior Leaguer’s Great Wakering Rovers, talking to a former First Division striker while the villagers take on League 2 neighbours Southend United.
Billy Jennings now works as a football agent but he still remembers with some fondness at his time in the professional game. During a 12-year career, Jennings amassed 261 Football League appearances for Watford, West Ham, Orient and Luton Town, finding the onion bag an impressive 89 times along the way.
“As a youngster I played football whenever I could,” Billy said. This didn’t leave him with too many opportunities to watch games, although his father would occasionally take him to see Spurs. Jennings first opportunity in the professional game came with Watford. “I went there as a kid, learning a lot from the senior players,” he exclaimed. His first team debut came in unusual surroundings. Back then there used to be a 3rd and 4th place play-off in the FA Cup. Having been knocked out in the semi final, Watford would face Manchester United at Arsenal’s old home, Highbury. “United won 2-0, but facing all their big stars gave me the appetite to nail down a regular place in the team,” he said. During a four year stint at Vicarage Road, Jennings plundered 33 goals in 93 games, something which hadn’t gone unnoticed. West Ham United were looking to bolster their attacking options and saw the Hornets youngster as the perfect fit. In August 1974, the Hammers paid £110, 000 to secure his services.
“The first time I went to Upton Park was the day I signed for the club,” Billy told me. Nevertheless, he soon made an impact in his new surroundings, scoring on his debut although visitors Sheffield United would snatch victory by the odd goal in three. The elevation in class wasn’t lost on Jennings. “I’d gone from the Third Division to the First in the space of a week, with all due respect to Watford It was a real eye opener how different the gulf in standard was at West Ham,” he told me.
While at West Ham, Jennings established himself as a regular goal scorer in the top flight and appeared in several showpiece games along the way. Undoubtedly, the highlight was the 1975 FA Cup Final. At Wembley, West Ham would face a Fulham side that included the legendary Bobby Moore. He remembered the week leading up was quite intense, but come the day everything passed by very quickly. West Ham won 2-0, but it was far from a classic, Billy recalled. “I seem to remember more about the open top bus parade the following day,” he said. “It was a special occasion and seemed like the whole of the East End had come out to see the cup and welcome the team home.”
Jennings told me of a whole host of wonderful footballers he played alongside at West Ham, however, two stood out. “Trevor Brooking was a joy to work with; he pulled the strings and made things happen for the forwards.” As well as benefiting enormously from Brooking, he was quick to praise the role of skipper Billy Bonds. “Billy had lots of character and was inspirational.” He was also quick to point out that both players had earned their status as legends at Upton Park.
A passage of Billy’s career not so well documented was a three-month spell in the North American Soccer League, and a chance to rub shoulders with some of the game’s biggest stars.
It was at the end of the 1976/77 season. Soccer was largely an alien sport to the American people. Players were shipped in from all over the World in an attempt to give the games profile a lift. Billy joined Chicago Sting on a three-month loan from West Ham. It was an arrangement that suited both parties, the NASL clubs were keen to get First Division footballers over, it also gave English clubs an opportunity to get a player off the payroll for a short while. Although the standard was not as high as that in England, Billy believed an opportunity to see America was too good to turn down, and he soon settled in. “I didn’t know much about the League,” he confessed, and that included the fact most clubs played on astro turf as opposed to grass.
Billy linked up with an outfit that included a number of English players. Ronnie Moore was over from Rotherham and Willie Morgan from Manchester United. Together they made up a decent front line that plundered 17 goals between them, this, all under the guidance of Bill Foulke. “Foulke was a typical old school gaffer,” Jennings told me. “He was a former Busby Babe, and had survived the devastating Munich air crash, he was an interesting man, very straight talking,” he added.
Jennings recalled with a smile the moment he and Morgan first set foot in Chicago.
“I flew over with Willie. Sting had already played four games, lost the lot and were bottom of the league. I guess Bill Foulke got in touch with our respective Clubs and asked us to come over as soon as the English league season was over. Part of our deal was accommodation and a car. Willie and I were looking forward to receiving a big American motor each, or so we thought. On arrival, we were presented a small Datsun each. As you can imagine we were somewhat disappointed, which we voiced to Foulke. He told us he couldn’t do anything because they had lost four games and he was under pressure”
Playing in the States also gave him the opportunity to play against some wonderful footballers including George Best, but it was an incident during a game with New York Cosmos that particularly stood out. He explained, “Twenty-one players trotted out on to the pitch, but then we had to wait for Pele to make a glitzy appearance. We stood there for about ten minutes while he lapped the pitch, the crowd went crazy.”
After all the razzmatazz surrounding the Brazilian legend had died down, the match got underway. “I received the ball and turned into one of the Cosmos players, we were both committed but I managed to flick the ball through his legs and wriggle away.” Caught up in the flow of the match, Billy hadn’t realised that he had just nutmegged Pele. I shouldn’t imagine too many players have that particular claim to fame, in fact I told him had it been me I’d have took my boots off and retired with immediate effect, how could it have got any better?
Jennings played only one season in the NASL with Chicago Sting. “I wasn’t tempted to go back, besides which the opportunity never arose,” he told me.
Of course, since the Seventies, football has changed drastically in America. The old NASL folded in 1984; it wasn’t until 1996 with the formation of the MLS (Major League Soccer) that a top class competitive form of the game returned. The new league has proved to be extremely popular with the American people, something that surprised Jennings. “We would only get around 4000 turn up at for home games in Chicago,” he said. “As you can imagine the crowd would look sparse as we played at the huge Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs Baseball team.”
Despite soccer’s resurgence, and indeed becoming one of the fastest growing sport across the pond, Bill doesn’t see the USA winning the World Cup in the near future, “At the moment, the standard of the league needs to improve and produce more home grown talent, that’s not to say they’ll never win it though,” he explained.
Once back in England, a snapped Achilles interrupted Jennings Upton Park career. During a lengthy spell on the sidelines, he could only look on as David Cross and Bryan “Pop” Robson were brought in and West Ham were relegated. Once fit again, he had to be content with a substitute’s role. “I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and a bit disillusioned,” he said. Billy heard of Orient’s interest and so after 99 league games and 34 goals for the Hammers, is was off to Brisbane Road. “I didn’t know too much about the O’s,” he confessed. “Manager Jimmy Bloomfield made me feel wanted, besides I knew Mervyn Day and Tommy Taylor from my time at West Ham.”
Although Billy didn’t enjoy as much in the way of honours at Orient, he was once again able to perform alongside some excellent footballers. One particular player stood head and shoulders above the rest; “Stan Bowles was a genius, possibly the most technical footballer I’ve ever seen,” he told me. “Had Stan been a slightly better athlete, and not had his well documented problems he could have been the best player this country has ever produced, the fans adored him.” At this point, this fledgling interviewer had to move things along. Both of us had great memories of watching Stan play, Billy had some terrific tales of him too. I believe we could have talked about him all afternoon and indeed most of the night given the chance. Finally, we moved on. Jennings was a popular figure with the Brisbane Road crowd and proved to be quite productive in front of goal, finding the net 21 times in 67 games between 1979 and 1982.
From Orient, he teamed up with Luton Town who were under the guidance of David Pleat. “I hadn’t really got over the injury from my West Ham days; I had lost my sharpness and went to Kenilworth Road simply to muck in from the bench.” Billy knew this would be his last season in the professional game. Although he only appeared from the dugout twice, he still managed to stick one in the onion bag and thus kept up his impressive ration of a goal in slightly less than every three Football League games, playing a small part in the Hatters march to the Second Division title.
After several seasons out of football, Billy was tempted to pull on the boots again. “I missed playing and the dressing room banter, and thought I could still do it,” he explained. However, it was a decision he was to regret. The level of expectation directed at him was not matched by his own fitness. After short stints with Dagenham, Bishops Stortford and Heybridge Swifts, he called time on playing once and for all.
These days, Bill loves his job as a player’s agent, and tells me, “It gives me the chance to go and watch plenty of games.” Personally, I’m delighted that someone from the generation I’d label “real footballers” still has a healthy appetite for the beautiful game. Of course, the multi-millionaire players who today grace the highest echelons of the English game probably won’t have to look for an alternative career once their boots are hung up. I for one wonder if they will ever have any tales worth passing on to those who once idolised them, or for that matter if they’ll ever experience the delights of watching football at Great Wakering!