When Brian Clough blustered his way into Nottingham on the 6th January 1975, a young Scot by the name of John Robertson was flailing around in the reserves after leaving his native Scotland in the summer of 1968 at the age of 15. Just five years later, that young Scotsman had won pretty much everything there is to win in the game. Brian Clough recognised a genius when he saw one.
Once Clough and Peter Taylor had picked him up, shook him down and turned him into something new, there was no stopping him - he was on his way to being voted number one in Nottingham Forest's top 50 players of all time.
It was in the European Cup Final of 1979 that Robertson would make the most telling of contributions. As Barry Davies famously said in commentary after he swung across a sumptuous cross for Trevor Francis to head into the roof of the net before scraping his knees on a Bavarian discus circle, "That’s what I’ve wanted to see him do". But it’s not as if Robertson was stood around on the left wing indulging himself in some chin stroking whilst deep in existentialist thought and smoking a Gitanes up until that point.
Each time he received the ball, he found two sky blue shirts swarm around him. Nowhere is this more evident than in the build up for the goal. He receives the ball still relatively deep and as he makes inroads into the Malmo half, two defenders converge on him. They know what he’s capable of delivering. Cutting inside is not an option – he’s going to have to go outside. He shapes to do exactly this and for one split second, he seems to get the ball stuck under his feet but just as quickly, he pokes it further down the line. One touch, two touches and he’s gone. The Swedish defenders had him but somehow, they’ve been beaten for pace by the lad with the chip-fat smile. But the cross…oh, the cross. There’s really only one space into which he can deliver the ball in order to give Francis a chance. No matter, he does exactly that.
Francis himself is happy to acknowledge Robertson's contribution to this iconic goal: "It was always my responsibility to get to the back post whenever John Robertson was in possession because John was - I use the term genius with regard to Brian Clough – and John wasn’t far behind that, he was an exceptionally talented left sided player who didn’t quite receive the acclaim that he merited. He was our best player and whenever had had possession, nine times out of ten he would get past the full back and deliver balls from the byline so I had to get there because I knew that that ball was coming."
A year later, Robertson surpassed this and went and scored the winner in a European Cup final. Take that in for a minute. In consecutive European Cup finals, he created the winner and then scored the winner. That’s some achievement. One that has gone largely unnoticed beyond Nottingham. No awards. No Ballon d’Or (Kevin Keegan won it in 1979 and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in 1980). The football world largely shrugged its shoulders while Brian Clough and Peter Taylor's collection of rag-tag and bobtails were crowned Kings of Europe.
It is precisely this collective yawn and looking the other way at the achievement of this Nottingham Forest team that inspired actor and director Jonny Owen to set about recalibrating the balance by making his feature length film 'I Believe In Miracles': "This is very important to me. John Robertson won something like, out of 17 games, he won 15 man of the match awards, scored the winner in one cup final, produced the assist in the other. He wasn’t even shortlisted for European Player of the Year. And he was the star player in a back-to-back European Cup winning team."
But anyone who might have suggested to Robertson that he would produce such magic a mere four years ago would have been dragged through the nettles and dog muck that littered the banks of the River Trent and chucked into the murky water before being unceremoniously bundled back out again and carted off to the type of building in which Brad Pitt's character in 'Twelve Monkeys' resides when introduced to Bruce Willis' James Cole.
When Clough first breezed into Nottingham, Robertson wasn't pulling up any trees. He spoke to the Herald Scotland in this excellent interview back in 2012: "When he first came, I wasn't doing the best for myself. I was languishing, feeling sorry for myself. Then when Peter [Taylor] came, he pulled me apart when we were in Germany. The gaffer said Pete was going to have a word. The first thing he [Taylor] said was 'You!' I wasn't sure if he was pointing at me or not. But I soon found out. 'You eff off back to the hotel!' I was dumfounded. He said he'd speak to me later. I was to wait by the pool. So I just got up and worried my way back to the hotel. Later, he asked me what my problem was. I said I didn't know what he meant. He said: 'I watched you last night in the warm-up and you did three stretches of one groin and three of the other. You stood around. You're overweight, you're scruffy, so again: 'What's your problem'?"
In short, his problem was that nobody had really believed in him until Clough and Taylor lapped their eyes on him. From then on, he started to blossom and the trademark Robertson movement started to surface - stride around nonchalantly out on the left wing, allow one or two defenders to close him down, somehow squirm away from them before planting the ball into the net. Simple really. Here he is in January 1978 scoring a rarely seen goal against Manchester City in the 4th round of the FA Cup:
Such movement was becoming a bit of a trademark by now. Here he is in November 1978 with a classic Robbo goal - a "virtuoso piece of wing play" according to the rightly venerated Brian Moore:
Poor old Terry Naylor. It's really no wonder that Malmo tried to shackle and bind him to the touchline in the final but all he needed was one tiny syphole of an opening.
But his crowning glory and defining moment is surely the goal that retained the European Cup in 1980 - a feat shared only by Real Madrid, Liverpool and a bunch of chancers from the East Midlands.
It starts as most John Robertson goals do - wide out left. He ambles slowly but menacingly, closely tracked by Manfred Kaltz. The German, who made 581 appearances for Hamburg - the second highest number in Bundesliga history - was no mug. He denies Robertson the opportunity to go down the outside like he did against Malmo a year previously. No way is he going to fall for that one. Not today. Not on his watch. So Robertson - genuinely two -footed - heads inside towards the goal. He lays the ball in to Garry Birtles but he's crowded out and so nearly loses possession. Just when it seems that the ball is lost, Birtles scoops the ball back to Robertson in a move that Mario Balotelli would emulate 32 years later for one of the most dramatic goals scored on English soil. Nothing too remarkable about this apart from the fact that Birtles is on his arse when he does so. Meanwhile, Robertson has continued to move on forward. With his team mate languishing on the Spanish soil, he's checked his run but when Birtles' leg telescopes out to retrieve the ball, he's off again. He smuggles ball away from the feet of Kevin Keegan - a most satisfying element in the build up to this goal - and finds himself on the edge of the penalty box. In that very moment though, he is unaware that Keegan is close by, only realising this when he saw it back on television.
It seems like space for a shot is at a premium. Three defenders bear down on him and team mate Gary Mills is shaping to steal the ball for a shot of his own. Besides, Robertson is still 14 yards or so out so any shot is going to have to be taken quickly and accurately if it is to evade the grasp of Rudolf Kargus. Robertson doesn't seem composed or set for his shot at the moment of release. It is low and carefully struck rather than blasted with hope and a prayer. But it's enough, especially since Kargus has taken a step to set himself at just the wrong moment. Rarely has a ball nestled so sweetly into the corner of a net.
The details are still very much lodged in the great man's mind: "Gary Mills picked up in the middle of the field and tried to play a ball and it broke back to me about half way inside their half. Mannie Kaltz was the right back and he tried to come and confront me. I took it inside of him, played the ball to Birtles - who did unbelievably well because it wasn't the best ball I gave to him - he worked a miracle to get it back to me. I took a touch and fired in and fortunately it went into the net."
He stands, both arms aloft and remains so while mobbed by his mates. And they are his mates. He drinks with them. He goes on to remain close friends with them - most notably Martin O'Neill and Larry Lloyd. He doesn't know it but he's only gone and scored the goal that will secure him and his mates another European Cup. Rather beautifully, Viv Anderson simply gives him a brief pat on the head as if to indicate that it's just another Robbo goal - it's just what he does. In many ways, Viv is right - this is just what Robbo does: he provides assists for European Cup winning goals and scores European Cup winning girls. Robbo's own thoughts? A very understated, "It was great - a fantastic feeling."
With so many achievements to choose from, rather predictably, Robertson finds it difficult to specify one thing that gives him the most pleasure. As befitting such a humble gentleman, he takes special pride in winning the league and going 42 games unbeaten. The influence of Clough and Taylor is deep with this one. See how Taylor pulls him closer to him in an act of both gratitude and protection from the brickbats regarding the awarding of the decisive penalty that secured Forest the League Cup in 1978 after a replay against Liverpool. Notice how the young Robbo skulks around in the background like a naughty schoolboy having been caught with a fag in his hand behind the bike sheds before being brought forward by the paternal arm of Taylor:
His contribution to this golden period in the history of Nottingham Forest cannot be underestimated. His captain, John McGovern told The Guardian: "When I try to tell people how good he was it can be difficult because it was over 30 years ago. So what I generally say is: ‘You know a few years ago there was a guy called Ryan Giggs who played until he was 40 and was regarded as one of the best left-wingers of all time? Well, John Robertson was like Ryan Giggs but with two good feet, not one.’"
As far as the modern game goes, Robertson rates the snake-hipped Lionel Messi highly and naturally, loves the way he can unpick even the tightest defence, even when opposition teams tend to line up in an ultra defensive formation against Barcelona. An aspect of football that clearly irks Robertson is the nitpicking nature of modern punditry that focuses on defensive frailties. From his perspective, a goal is generally the consequence of a piece of creativity, rather than a defensive error. It is all too easy to reprimand a defender for not being in the right place or getting dragged out of position: more often than not, this is borne out of the necessity to react to the opposite number’s movement or piece of skill. It’s fair to say that the fast forward icon on the remote control is no longer visible due to being particularly well-thumbed, reaching peak use around 10.45 on Saturday night. And don’t even get him started on the modern player’s inability to ride a tackle.
Brian Clough and Peter Taylor built their miracle team around this short, unfit and scruffy lad who lacked pace and strength. But the composition of genus is a complicated business and whatever he lacked, John Robertson was a genius with the ball. Of all the Nottingham Forest History Boys, John Robertson remains the most significant and artistic of them all.