A few years back I asked Roy Keane at a press conference if he thought it was inconceivable in the modern game that a team might ever emulate what his old club Nottingham Forest achieved between 1977 and 1980 when, having confounded all predictions by winning the First Division title as a newly promoted side, they then they proceeded to stun the whole world of football by claiming back to back European Cups.
“Never say never,” Keane replied, hardly convincingly, before adding the crucial kicker, “but don’t forget that Brian Clough was a genius.”
Just how much of peculiar kind of genius he was, is imprinted on virtually every frame and every page of I Believe In Miracles, the film and companion book of the same name which, between them, relate the ultimate football fairytale of ugly ducklings turned into swans — the improbable transformation of a mid-table Second Division provincial side into the crowned heads of European football.
If you still have a gift token or two to spare after Christmas, then look no further for the most uplifting way to kick off the new year.
As you would expect of a story in which Brian Clough is front and centre-stage, I Believe In Miracles is full of glorious, hilarious, inspiring and betimes mind-boggling detail about how he seemed to break almost every rule of football management, as he alternately cajoled, bullied, charmed, bemused and educated his players into playing the game of their lives, week after week after week.
(His caustic wit could cut like a knife. When Martin O’Neill once angrily questioned why he was playing for the second team, Clough simply replied: “Because you’re too good to play for the third team.”)
Here was a manager who would sometimes take training sessions on the banks of the Trent, ordering his players to run bare-legged through stinging nettles; who would order up bevvies for everyone on the eve of a League Cup final; who would fine players if he caught them training instead of taking a day off; and who would occasionally disappear for a mid-season break in the sun, leaving his trusted side-kick Peter Taylor in charge.
But he also knew football inside out, was committed to a style of play that ranked entertainment almost as high as winning, and had such an abundance of charisma and self-belief that there was plenty left over with which to imbue and inspire his players.
And the Forest players, let’s not forget, were more than decent too.
Clough it was who, having signed ex-Liverpool centre-half Larry Lloyd, asked him if there was anything he needed sorting out on the home front.
As it happened, Lloyd’s washing machine had broken down that morning; the manager told him not to worry, he’d take care of it. Sure enough, a couple of hours later, two workmen showed up at Lloyd’s house with a replacement.
But the next morning, when the club’s big new signing showed up at the City Ground, he was angrily confronted by one of the laundry women: “Larry Lloyd? You nicked our washing machine...”
If there was one player who, more than any other at Forest, epitomised the miraculous transformation at the club under Clough, it was John Robertson.
At just 22, he was overweight and already, it seemed, over the hill. Too partial to a smoke and a drink and chronically lacking in self-belief, he was on the brink of being sold off to Partick Thistle when Clough fetched up at the City Ground. He began taking a closer look at a player he was initially tempted to dismiss as a “scruffy, uninterested waste if time”.
Before very long, Peter Taylor was charged with giving the Scot the rollicking of his life: He was a “disgrace”, everything was “wrong with him as an athlete”, he had “fallen in the gutter socially and professionally”.
Robertson admits that he briefly contemplated telling Taylor to fuck off but the realisation that what he was hearing was the brutal, unvarnished truth stopped his tongue.
Then, having given the player the full weight of the stick, Taylor concluded his tirade with the carrot: “The thing is, we think you can play...”
The ‘we’ did it for Robertson: It meant the great Brian Clough must still rate him. And so he decided to knuckle down, after his own fashion. He might never reach a point where he could be described as lean, and he still liked to nip off for a sneaky fag at half-time but, converted into a touchline-hugging outside left, he was soon doing justice to his innate talent and developing into one of the greatest wingers of his era and the X-factor ingredient in Forest’s increasingly stylish side.
The tributes of his fellow players say it best.
John McGovern: “John Robertson was like Ryan Giggs — but with two good feet.”
Archie Gemmill: “He had no pace whatsoever, couldn’t tackle a fish supper but, left foot, right foot — genius.”
Martin O’Neill: “The fulcrum of a team you think normally would be central midfield or maybe a big centre-back or a centre-forward. The fulcrum of our team was outside-left — it went there.”
As for how highly the man they called ‘Robbo’ rated in Clough’s estimation, it’s enough to know that, more often than not, the manager’s main tactical advice to his players consisted solely of the instruction to get the ball out to “the little fat bastard on the wing”.
It was a rare headed goal by Robertson which helped Forest to a 3-3 share of the spoils with Cologne in a pulsating European Cup semi-final first leg at the City Ground, a feat made even more remarkable and also desperately poignant by the revelation in Daniel Taylor’s book that, just a few days before the game, the winger had lost his brother Hughie and Hughie’s wife in a car crash in Glasgow.
It was the family’s wish that, if he felt up to it, Robertson should play in the game because, they all agreed, it was what his beloved brother would have wanted.
In the second leg in Cologne, Forest once more defied the odds to secure the 1-0 win which put them into the 1979 European Cup final against Malmo where, yet again, Robertson would have a big say, setting up the first one million pound player, Trevor Francis, to head the winning goal and put the supreme finishing touch to one of the most spectacular and unlikely success stories in the football history. (Until the following year, that is, when they only went and won it again).
The thing is, that Brian Clough not only believed in miracles, he convinced his players to believe in them too. And then they duly went out and performed them.
The last word must, of course, go to the main man: “When I sit in my garden and close my eyes,” Clough later reflected, “I can still see that moment in Munich when John Robertson suddenly took control and made his move by the left touchline. The anticipation, that strange sense that something special is about to happen, caused Peter Taylor to stiffen and grab my arm. Robertson is not far from the corner flag. There are half a dozen or more Malmo players in the box, Trevor Francis is hurtling towards the far post and Robbo sends in the perfect cross.
“One-nil, pass me the European Cup. Thank you very much.”
Watch it, read it and smile.
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