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“I’m a blond footballer…ex-footballer” - an interview with Paul McGregor

In Part I of an exclusive interview with the former Forest star, McGregor discusses his career as a footballer and musician with our own David Marples.

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When it is put to Paul McGregor that he has been described as the ‘least bothered person I’ve ever met’, he laughs long and hard before politely offering, ‘I genuinely do not give a fuck.’

If that sounds like something of a contrary response, then maybe it is appropriate. After all, McGregor spent his career as a footballer challenging the lazy stereotype. Just as much as he loves his football, he loves music too and after playing Premiership football, most notably for Nottingham Forest, he is forging a successful career as a frontman for post-punk, rock and Goth-leaning band, Ulterior.  He is probably most renowned for slotting in the winning goal for Forest against Lyon in the 5th round of the UEFA Cup in 1996 after Stuart Pearce’s penalty was saved. That, or being described as a bona fide Britpop footballer, with his long, flowing blond locks as he scampered down the right wing in Nottingham Forest’s last great team which bustled up from the second tier to finish third in the Premier League in 1995. But it is not a dark glasses clad, swaggering, blinging arrogant bundle of attention that makes polite chit chat with the landlady about how extended members of his family are faring in a proper, old-fashioned spit and sawdust pub that greets me. It is in fact a thoughtful and engaging man who is only too happy to spend a whole afternoon discussing football, music and the difficulties of receiving and throwing a punch whilst ensuring that your shades remain perched neatly on top of your head.

Born in Liverpool but brought to Nottingham at the age of three due to family relocation, McGregor did and still does care very much about football. "I just loved playing and I didn’t care what team it was for. If we lost I genuinely didn’t care what team I’d played for because I’d been on a pitch running around. I had a genuine love for it – win or lose. Of course I wanted to win; you don’t get to play at that level unless you are bothered and want to win." This confidence stems from the words of a hero to the young McGregor, John Barnes. "He said if you don’t walk out on a pitch and you don’t think you’re the best player on that park, you’re in the wrong job." To make it to the Premier League and make 30 appearances, scoring three goals along the way in a very strong Nottingham Forest side, requires such confidence and faith in your own ability. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance but McGregor falls short of the latter; were this not the case, he wouldn’t extol the virtues of those to whom he is thankful for developing his career.

He was fortunate enough to be around when a certain Brian Clough was at the helm of the then Premier League club. It would be difficult for such a young man not to have been inspired and a little bit in awe of such a monolithic figure. He learned his trade under Clough and then from European Cup winner Frank Clark. He rates David Moyes as arguably the best coach he’s ever played under and speaks fondly about current Cambridge United manager, Richard Money, a coach at Forest under Clark. It was not only Money’s knowledge of the game that impressed him but how he spoke to him as a human being: "He had a different approach to Clough and (Archie) Gemmill: they had a presence and you wanted to please them so much. Money was an ‘arm around you’ type of coach. He’d say to you, ‘if you do this, or if you do that, this’ll happen. You can affect the game by doing this, this, that and that. What I want you to do is get the ball, be fearless and go this way or that way. He worked percentages and blew my mind. That was the first time I was coached really."

If that sounds a little disrespectful towards the quality of coaching on offer at Forest prior to Clark’s reign, it’s not meant to. He, like many others who have had the privilege of playing under the great man, speaks of him in a reverential tone, more of which in part II.

But football, like any other profession, is one of peaks and troughs. Not everyone pleases or inspires you and there are bumps along the way. The quality of coaching varies from club to club as he found out after leaving Forest. A football purist at heart, he found it difficult to adjust to the style of play he found once away from the City Ground: "You bite your tongue. Underneath you are wondering about what you’ve been told to do." He pauses, careful not to besmirch the reputation of others. Initially, he struggles for the right words and thinks deeply before articulating further. He remembers back to some piece of coaching advice with which he clearly disagreed: "That’s disappointing. So we’re not going to actually play football then with any kind of intelligence? We’re going to do a route one job? You just think, ‘stick some other goon in there then that’s going to run up and down, up and down all day’. There’s a bizarre myth that that’s how you get out of the lower leagues. It’s not how the game’s played."

Such principles were formed in part from growing up as a Liverpool fan, in awe of their late 80s all-conquering team but also honed at Forest. But once Clough retired and Clark’s tenure was brought to a halt, an era ended too. Clough recommended Clark, a highly respected left back who played in the European Cup winning Forest team of 1979 but after Clark, came Dave Bassett.

He would bounce Forest straight back up to the top tier after relegation under Clark but then came Ron Atkinson and McGregor’s face simply didn’t fit. Initially though, "I was delighted because he’d done a big thing in Match magazine a few months before about the best young players in the UK. There was six of us and I was one of them. So, he just walked on the training ground and I thought ‘brilliant, Dave Bassett’s gone’. I respect Dave Bassett by the way, he was completely honest and said ‘I’m bringing in these types of people; they’re probably not Forest types of people but we’re going to get promoted, which they did and he did do a job. Atkinson walked on and he went, ‘Right, let’s see what we’ve got here’ and out of youth team, reserve team, first team, he went (McGregor stands up and points directly at me) ‘I don’t want any fucking rock stars in my team’. You just sink. The blood drained out of me. I absolutely sunk. I mean, how to cut the legs from a footballer. So I asked to go on loan."

This meant leaving Nottingham and the club that had nurtured him from a young boy to a man. What made it even tougher to take was that this came directly after he had fought his way back from injury and back into the first team squad. But it wasn’t the end. In fact, a loan move to Carlisle United, struggling in the third tier, initially provided him with a much needed confidence boost, even though he was at first, a little circumspect. "I went into the digs there and it was a bit of a culture slap for a young Premier League footballer who’d done Europe and all that kind of stuff. It was stinky curtains and proper 70s décor. I walked into the dressing room and it was a completely different story. I’ve got a full Paul Weller hairstyle and ‘Modded’ up to the max and the big centre half was there and he looked at me and suggested that I needed to go and sit with him – Scott Paterson (currently Assistant manager at Partick Thistle and at the time, seriously rocking the Mod look) and I was alright from then on. We talked about The Small Faces, Weller and Northern Soul. They were just a great bunch of lads. Forest had completely changed – the ethos had changed and it was back to what felt like my era. It was good camaraderie and I was first name on the team sheet."

Three goals in ten appearances was a reasonable return but it was a culture shock, nonetheless: "I’d been playing Premier League and everyone saw me as ‘the lad who did the goal’. I felt like every time I got the ball I could go round people and score but it was a bit of a learning curve because people didn’t pass the ball. Coming from Forest, through Clough, playing 5-a-side playing pass, move, pass, pass, pass, tick-tock, tick-tock." This sounds much like a fusion of the feted Liverpool way and Barcelona’s famed rondo drill. It might not have been sophisticated under Clough and his subsequent coaches at Forest but simplicity has always been at the heart of his success, and goes to remind all involved in the game that at heart, it’s a very simple one, based upon keeping the ball and passing it to a team mate.

From the northernmost reaches of England, McGregor found himself packing his bags and heading for Plymouth after a brief loan spell at Preston North End. It was in the South-West that he enjoyed a resurgence. First though, there was the business of negotiating the dark waters of leaving one club permanently for another:  "Michael Knighton (then Carlisle chairman) tried to sign me permanently.  A most bizarre moment: he sat the big end of the boardroom – really big table as you can imagine – and he hadn’t put any of the lights on. It was really dark. ‘Right. We want to sign you. I know what you are earning right now but we can’t afford that so you’ll have to take a drop.’ The offer though was short of what he had been earning as a Youth at Forest. "But he did it like this: He wrote it on a piece of paper, folded it up and slid it down the table towards me like a Bond villain. So, I’m trying to check for his third nipple and I had to walk down to the end of the table and take it off him. I looked at it and thought ‘that’s not going to happen’. But then Plymouth just pursued me like mad. They really made me feel special. Chris Hargreaves was there; we were a couple of long hairs."

Hargreaves’ account of his time as a player spent mostly in the lower leagues (‘Where’s Your Caravan?’) is a revealing story of the highs and lows of such a career, in which McGregor features from time to time. Both players at Plymouth Argyle enjoyed good times, where McGregor bagged 19 goals in 77 appearances, along with a Player of the Year Award. An unhappy spell at Northampton Town followed and for the first time, McGregor is only too keen to let rip. "Dreadful club." He leans into the dictaphone and repeats the description again. Loudly. "Dreadful club."

Perhaps by now, McGregor was growing weary of slumming it in the lower leagues and Northampton gets the full-blown treatment: "The most horrible place, it’s like it has real identity problems – existential problems. It’s neither here nor there. Half of them have got northern accents, the other half have Cockney accents. The town-centre can be quite pretty…and then…just…no identity. The club had that atmosphere too – it didn’t seem to know what it was doing. Shit, cold ground. Just awful." Even the most ardent Cobblers fan would find it difficult to defend their home, Sixfields, against such accusations, surrounded as it is by a soulless retail park, featuring a cinema and a Frankie & Benny’s. At the foot of a small knoll, you can see a good section of the pitch and watch the action without paying, as so many Coventry City fans did in protest as their own club was forced to play their games at Sixfields, away from their own Ricoh Arena.

Unsurprisingly, retirement from the game was around the corner. But this wasn’t the tragic turning point in his life that it might have been and is for some footballers. "If I want to do something, I’ll go and do it. I just don’t see any barriers." Retirement from the game was simply a new chapter in his life: "I got offered a contract by Grimsby: some other provincial seaside hell hole and I thought, why the fuck do I want to go and live in Grimsby? I was single at the time and 28; my band’s name had just been put of the cover of the NME (Ulterior) so the reason I retired was the band got good. I just thought, I’m 28 and I’ve had eleven years at this and I was looking at…I’d had a tough time coming from such a great stock under Clough from playing the game properly."

Slightly saddened but certainly not daunted by the thought of not lacing up his football boots again, he is though keenly aware of the gaping hole that such a move can create in a footballer’s life: "Football is perpetual youth; the same as being in a band and when it all stops, stuff comes crashing down on you that you’ve not had to consider. You go from getting good money for essentially doing stuff you did on the playground. You don’t even have to think about things beyond the game really and then suddenly, it’s gone. And you’re grasping and you’re falling and you’re Alice down the hole, grasping at anything you possibly can, be they drugs or alcohol."

I put it to him that this is why he’s stayed sane since he’s always had two loves in his life: football and music. Indeed, music is and always has competed with football for McGregor’s affection. Whilst at Forest, he had fronted the extraordinarily short-lived indie band Merc and played Nottingham’s Rock City, but that was never anything serious. Ulterior though would rev into life and assault the music landscape. They played London’s Astoria alongside The Horrors and These New Puritans. They looked around and saw Peaches Geldof, Douglas Hart and Bobby Gillespie. "I came out of football and thought that if we were going to do this, we were going to do this properly. It wasn’t pretend – we went at it and gave it everything – full on at 200mph. We were this beautiful bubble of nihilism. We’d play a pub and it would be like Suicide on crack with Mary Chain feedback; none of us moving, head to toe leather just standing there as if to say, ‘we don’t care, you’re having this." But in some ways, they were victims of their own hard forged reputation. Offers were made from record companies but were rejected out of hand. Indeed, such was their perceived nastiness that other bands (Ipso Facto) were strongly advised to stay away from those nasty Ulterior boys or risk losing their own recording contract.

Nonetheless, being asked to support The Sisters Of Mercy on their extensive ‘Merchandised’ European tour of 2009 indicates that beyond the mess of eye liner, spray paint and general rock n roll demeanor, there was a good deal of substance beyond the style. Of course, in typical Ulterior style, the tour was not without its initial problems, prompted by bassist Karl Januskevicius almost bringing the whole thing crashing down: "Karl bailed out hours before the tour (adopts Lithuanian accent): ‘Mate, I can’t do the tour. Mate, I’m not feeling it. I don’t feel like it’s right for the band." The phone went down, words were exchanged and urgent phone calls were made. Bass lines were learned on the tour bus whilst travelling through the Alps and all went swimmingly.

He’s not done with Ulterior yet though and he still has things he wants to achieve. Following on from last year’s ‘The Bleach Room’, a new album has just been recorded in Amsterdam and it promises to be a busy year for McGregor.

Music is clearly an integral part of his life and punctuates much of our conversation, even when football is the topic. At one point, he pauses mid sentence to claim that Blur’s ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ period is their best one as ‘For Tomorrow’ softly emanates from the jukebox. This prompts an extensive discussion of the chronology of early Blur singles, working out where ‘She’s So High’ and ‘Popscene’ slot in between albums and a dissection of the relative merits of the eternal Blur V Oasis debate. "Maybe I gave Oasis too much time," he admits upon reflection. He was lucky enough to be in attendance when The Stone Roses played their secret comeback gig in Warrington, thanks to a friendship with Shane Meadows who married an old school friend of his. Richard Ashcroft of The Verve (initially just ‘Verve’) was a huge influence on him as a kid, after seeing them supporting Ride in Derby. After witnessing Ashcroft overcome a microphone failure by screaming the lyrics regardless at the audience for the first three songs, McGregor decided, "I want to do that!" Do that, he did.

Indeed, he and Scott Gemmill spent a period where they would plan their summer holidays around The Verve’s world tours, culminating in a holiday to Rio. The best debut albums of all time are briefly considered (The Stone Roses, The Strokes and The Velvet Underground, in case you were wondering), The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’ is treated with as much reverence as suggested by the title but beneath it all is a pure desire and love of music of all kinds. He can’t resist singing along to Martha Reeves and the Vandella’s ‘Jimmy Mack’ at one point as I leave him unattended at the table. A surprise for such a Goth rocker? Not really. He realises the ridiculousness of it all: "Music can change your life and be incredible but at the same time, it’s fun, it’s entertainment." Perhaps most endearingly, he tells of a soft spot for early Simple Minds, especially ‘Belfast Child’ and early U2. He was once asked if he was wearing a Black Flag T shirt by some hipster but was proud to admit that it was actually a ‘Joshua Tree’ T shirt and, invoking the spirit of John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, proudly informed said hipster that he was wearing the aforementioned shirt without irony.

Perhaps he really doesn’t care and is one of the least bothered people on the planet. But his unfailing politeness and disarming honesty in explaining and discussing his music taste and football career at great length suggest that he is perhaps a more caring and thoughtful man than some give him credit for.

Coming soon: Part II, in which Paul discusses his time at Nottingham Forest, the team-mates he played alongside, his highs and lows and how he sees the current situation at the club.

David Marples can be followed on Twitter, if you so wish, by clicking here.