A couple of months ago during the 40th anniversary week of Nottingham Forest’s second European Cup victory I spoke with the very man that lifted the trophy, the legendary John McGovern.
Despite jumping at the opportunity to interview one so coveted perhaps my opening gambit could have set me up for instant failure, I asked John if he ever got bored of talking about his time at Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough? “Not really” he replied, “because it’s such a memorable highlight in your life. Nottingham Forest were not a big city club like the ones in London or Manchester, we did something unusual in not only winning the European Cup but retaining it also, breaking a few records along the way.”
I alluded to the fact that Brian Clough took John McGovern with him to most of the clubs he managed, I asked John if his confidence in Clough lessened after the experience at Leeds United? “Not at all, because it was the players at Leeds United who were responsible for Brian’s departure. Unfortunately, I was left behind for a couple of months at a club that didn’t want me and with fans that hated me, they actually booed me when I ran out to make my debut! Teammates like Gordon McQueen, Eddie Gray, Frank Gray and Joe Jordan were good to me, but the senior players wanted nothing to do with me.” John chuckled as he went on to say, “I’m sure you’re aware of how much pleasure I take in wearing my European Cup winners tie when I go back to Elland Road.”
As the interview progressed, I detected real humility form John McGovern, given all that he’s achieved in the world of football, not once did show signs of an ego or arrogance. My own nervousness and inferiority diminished as we chatted like two blokes over a pint in their local.
The next topic of conversation revolved around the deployment of holding midfielders and whether the man himself perceived himself as one all those years ago? “I did become a holding midfielder” said John, “primarily because I had no pace and couldn’t go past people.” He went on to describe how a fateful match against Everton, whilst playing for Derby, paved the way for that very style of play. “I started that match on the right but took it upon myself to mark Alan Ball out of the game, I did it well and we beat Everton that night, they went on to win the title that season too. At full time I was really pleased with myself but Cloughie soon brought me back to earth, he said “Alan Ball never got a kick but don’t think you did anything special for our side!”
Brian Clough used McGovern’s new tactic to their advantage from that day onwards, John explained how the manager would earmark certain players for the Scotsman to negate. “Brian would say to me, make sure you take Liam Brady out of the game, and if he gets a kick, I’m going to be kicking you!”
We began talking about the contrast between the modern game and that of yesteryear. I brought up the York City match played in thick snow at the City Ground, John was delighted by this and was quick to point out that both he and Larry Lloyd were on the scoresheet that day. It was from here that he provided me with a fascinating story regarding a frozen pitch at Luton’s Kenilworth Road. John said “I put on a pair of pair of Stan Smith tennis trainers much to the apprehension of Brian Clough, the rest of the boys had rubbers on but couldn’t stay on their feet. I was fine and performed really well, so much so that Cloughie paid me a rare compliment by saying that he’d never question my choice of footwear again. John explained that he wears Stan Smith to this day, “I still think they’re the best ever tennis shoes, but I would because I’m an old fart!”
One of the very few trophies that John McGovern failed to lift at Forest was the Intercontinental cup, being ruled out through injury as Nacional of Uruguay lifted the cup after a 1-0 victory in 1981. I asked John how much importance Clough and Taylor placed on the game between European and South American Champions? “They took it very seriously, as they did with any game we played, they wanted to win it” said John. “Us players were equally as gutted about the car that we missed out on; the man of the match was to be awarded a brand new car so we’d already agreed to sell it and split the cash if Robbo was successful!”
John then explained how Peter Taylor had given the Forest team sleeping tablets to beat the jet lag of the journey to and from Japan. “We were literally knocked out” he said, “we arrived in Tokyo about 1am but Pete kept us all up and forced us to stay on Greenwich Mean Time. Although we lost the Intercontinental Cup, unlike most European sides who made the same journey, we returned to winning ways on the Saturday afterwards, so It worked in a sense.”
Perhaps the most sensitive line of questioning that I broached was John McGovern’s exclusion from the Scotland national side throughout his career. By the tone of his voice I could instantly tell it had been a heavy cross to bear. I asked what may have been the catalyst for such an exile? In a sombre voice John explained as follows; “When playing for the Scotland Under 23 side myself and Sandy Jardine of Rangers had been selected out of position, I made a change and switched Sandy into his familiar right back role whilst I sat in the centre of the park. Tommy Docherty, who was managing the side, wasn’t too impressed and dragged me off soon afterwards.”
John also highlighted the famous photograph of the Nottingham Forest players in kilts following the demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1977, titled “Brian Clough’s flying Scotsmen.” As many will know, then Scotland manager Ally MacLeod claimed he wasn’t aware John McGovern was even Scottish, this after declaring that all of Forest’s Scotsmen would be selected for the 1978 World Cup.
John said “That really did rankle me, I’d love to have played just once for Scotland, I left Scotland when I was about 6 years old. It’s my birth right and I’m very proud to be Scottish!” Although he was sombre, John wasn’t upset or emotional, he spoke with a great degree of pragmatism and grace which is indicative of the man we all know and love. Ironically, John McGovern was inducted into the Scottish Hall of Fame a couple of years back, a story with a touch of hilarity to it. John explained how he received a phone call from a young lady, bearing the great news about his inclusion. Again, he laughed hysterically as he explained the encounter to me; “I said to the lady on the phone, very good, has Kenny Burns put you up to this? Before hanging up on her! Only when she rang back did I believe it to be true.”
Wearing an armband doesn’t constitute being a captain, having the courage of your convictions to make tactical changes on the field, orchestrating your own defensive midfield role, and influencing the great Brian Clough in the process most certainly does. I’m sure you’ve heard experts and pundits alike use this example many times before, “the manager is rendered powerless to control the game once those players step over the white line.” Not entirely gospel but there’s an element of truth within that rhetoric, exactly the reason why John McGovern was so intrinsic to the most successful side in the history of Nottingham Forest Football Club. His account of wearing the Stan Smith’s may have sounded a little slapstick but it was another fine example of self-assurance and professionalism, I doubt many modern footballers can manage their footwear as well as their social media accounts.
As interviews go, for me personally they don’t come much bigger than Nottingham Forest’s legendary skipper. Listening back to the dictation was surreal, for a man like John McGovern to offer me so much of his time was just wonderful. I owe a huge dept of gratitude to Alan March also, without whom, this opportunity would not have been possible.
*Article provided by Steve Corry (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
Main image @NFFC McGovern lifting the European Cup something only a few club captains have done more than once.