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In conversation...with John Robertson and Trevor Francis

...and with a little Jonny Owen thrown in too. In The Top One just about held it together in the presence of the blokes who scored the winners in two European Cup finals...

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Trevor Francis is making a quick call to his wife. It's in the middle of a press junket to promote the DVD release of 'I Believe In Miracles', and he's been sitting there for most of the afternoon when the latest lunk with a notebook comes to sit down in front of him. John Robertson is there too, and asks to have a quick word. Francis passes the phone over and Robertson has a brief but warm-sounding conversation with Mrs Francis, who recognises his voice straight away.

It's worth noting that Francis and Robertson were together at Nottingham Forest for only two-and-a-half years, a third of a century ago, hardly a lifetime in which to create such a friendship. But, then again, when you're the two players who were central to the two most significant and glorious moments in the club's history, and you were part of the most unlikely achievement in English football, that sort of bond will inevitably form that will probably form as long as they will both live.

That sort of thing was relatively obvious to anyone who was at the premiere of the film at the City Ground in October, this collection of old mates who did something absolutely extraordinary back together again and enjoying the whole thing enormously. "It was great," says Francis. "I mean, we were looking forward to seeing the film but it was great to get everybody together and just a wonderful day."

"It’s great to see everybody because, I don’t want to make it sound overdramatic, but it was like going into war with these boys, you know," says Robertson. "And we all had a common goal to be the best we possibly could, and we were guided by a genius. It’s a remarkable story but Jonny Owen is the only one that’s actually seen enough to go and make a picture of it. Which is brilliant for us because the events happened about 35 years ago, and to be returning to the limelight is special to us."

It's gratifying to know that the film, and the stories in it, are just as special to the players as they are to us fans. The thought does occur that this was just a couple of years in their careers, that this was just their job, and given that both men have done plenty since 1980, it's plausible that they might be sick of talking about it all by now. Seemingly not.

"What I’m going to say now, it sounds a little strange," says Francis, "but at the time success became part of the norm at Nottingham Forest, and every time we went onto that field we expected to win. For many reasons, because we had great respect for one another as footballers, but also because Brian Clough was sat in that dug out, you felt invincible when he was there and you just go along, your career goes along, you’re winning, you’re winning.

"I think to many three or four weeks ago, when we were at the premiere, it probably meant more that day, than actually when we were there playing.

"You know as a professional footballer, not literally but you never think your career is going to end, you just think you’re going to play forever. At Nottingham Forest you just think well this success is going to go on forever and of course it doesn’t, but all of a sudden it stops. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been involved in football, but you know for many it was like ‘cor, this is like back in the big time.’"

"I don’t think there was a team loved by the fans like that Nottingham Forest side," says Owen, sitting between the two like a man who still can't quite believe his luck. "John felt that perhaps Celtic in 1967 was very close, but genuinely I think that they are loved in a way unique to football. I say that as a Cardiff fan, it’s beautiful to watch. Tony Woodcock said to me, we went out the night before with Trevor and Viv, it was like being a Beatle. When I met John off the train today, there was a load of people round him going ‘All the best John’ almost like seeing him to the gate, it was lovely, it was a gorgeous thing to watch."

The sense that, even as they were winning the league and two European Cups and going 42 games unbeaten, Forest didn't get quite enough credit at the time, a theme that runs through Danny Taylor's brilliant accompanying book,  is something that still remains even now.

"I don’t want to put the club down," says Francis, with a slight sadness rather than bitterness, "but I just think this is recognition that is so merited to these boys. With respect to Nottingham, is not a huge city, not a huge footballing city, that’s what makes this achievement so much greater."

And, mercifully, as you probably already know by now, it's not just that this team has received their due recognition, but so brilliantly as well. "I was just thinking 'I’m going to this film, I just hope that it lives up to expectations', says Francis, "and it sure did. It’s so nice to be associated with something that has got class written all over it. And we’re part of it – because it could have been a bag of shit!"

Robertson chimes in: "The thing Jonny spotted more than anything I think was, is when I asked him ‘Well what did you see in it?’ and he told me that he thought it was the tallying of the stories, how close together what everyone had to say." Owen confirms this: "What I discovered was it was the same story with five, six different talking heads, and [I could] piece it together line by line beautifully. So I can show Gary Birtles talking about a story where Clough told him to shave [before the European Cup final], then Tony Woodcock and Trevor would be right in the middle telling the same story. Somebody described the Beatles as a four headed monster - this was a sixteen headed monster, one person but sixteen of them, that’s how close they were as a team."

Of course, you can't spend any time with these two extraordinary players without at least one Brian Clough anecdote, so here's one from Francis, about his Forest debut.

"It was at Portman Road against a very good Ipswich side, an uneventful kind of game, 0-0. I was hammered from the first to the 90th minute for that from home supporters – you know, 'What a waste of money', and all that. I was keen to score, and I think it was Martin O’Neill that played a ball in from the right and I was inches away from getting my head to it, but I punched it in with about six minutes of the game to go.

"The referee gave a free-kick, rightly so. The game finished 0-0 and I thought that was the end of it. But when we went to the dressing room he left me in no uncertain terms that 'this is Nottingham Forest, not Birmingham City and you don’t do that kind of thing here and don’t ever do it again'. It was very much to the point, it wasn’t like a five or ten minute rant, it was like 30 seconds, 45 seconds that I knew straight away that that’s the last time.

"He was a great believer in playing the game correctly, he always wanted to try and make the game as enjoyable as possible for the referee. He always felt was that if you were not antagonizing the referee and making it difficult for him, referees are only human and if it comes to the 89th minute and there’s a borderline decision, that could be the difference between us getting a penalty and winning the game.

"Whenever anyone came to the City Ground, he always used to go out and shake the hand of the referee. I overheard a conversation where he said like ‘Listen, you know my players are instructed never to back answer, you won’t have any problems today, you know, any form of dissent. Just let me know if there is any problems at all, come and see me at the end of the game and I will deal with them personally.’ Clever, eh?"

And the interesting thing is that, even after all this time, even after playing under Clough for eight years, and even though that's the first question most people ask him, there are still things about his old manager that surprise Robertson. "I didn’t know that," he says, about Clough's old trick with the referees.

One of the things that has occurred many times around this wonderful film is that Forest fans are living in the past, that our nostalgia has become too much and it's all we have. Successive Forest managers have said before that the club's history weighs too heavily on them, exemplified by Joe Kinnear's quip about there being no photos of any of the relegated teams around the place.

But, in the end, why not celebrate it? Obviously, unless something extraordinary happens to the structure of football in the next few years, Forest are never going to climb from the depths of the second tier to being European champions again. But it was an astonishing enough story back then, so we should all appreciate Forest's great history, even if, essentially that's all we might have for the moment.

"That team that we played in was a one off," says Robertson. There’s going to be arguments about who was the best Manchester United team, the team of 68, the team of 99, the 2008 team. Liverpool is the same, different teams winning different cups, but it was just us. So we quite rightly are not going to be outdone because its not going to happen again."

Perhaps not, but we're grateful it did.


I Believe In Miracles is out on DVD and Blu-ray now. As is Danny Taylor's book. Buy them both.