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“I don’t feel like I’m done. I don’t feel like I’ve closed a chapter in my life yet” - Paul McGregor (Part II)

Paul McGregor was fortunate enough to play for Nottingham Forest. Not only that, but he played in what is now regarded as the club’s last ‘great team’, alongside Stuart Pearce, Steve Stone, Colin Cooper and Stan Collymore whilst rising through the ranks under Brian Clough and then Frank Clark. In Part II of this interview with David Marples, he focuses on his time at Forest.

Pete Norton/Getty Images

It wasn’t all winning goals in UEFA Cup games all the time though. Like any footballer, there were times that tested his resolve: "I was always a centre-forward. I’d scored 49 goals in 51 games for Forest’s Youth team. That’s what I did – I scored goals. But then I looked at Forest’s First team: Stan Collymore, Brian Roy…but they really rated me and Frank Clark was of the opinion that he had to get me in the team.

"The sad thing was, looking back, obviously no regrets, but Steve Stone was the England right-winger at the time and he got told he was going to be playing in the centre of the park. They were going to move the England right-winger off the right wing to accommodate me. And I snapped my knee in the last two minutes of the last pre-season match on a cow field of a pitch at Arnold Town. I’d just turned down a £2million offer from Everton and my dad’s a Toffee. So that was a tough time."

Indeed, hailing from Liverpool made a performance at Anfield all the more sweeter: "We (Forest) went 2-0 up at Anfield in Collymore’s first game against us since leaving. We battered them in the first half. I think I played the best half of my life. I tore them to shreds. Mind you, I came out for the second half and within 15 minutes, I had full-on cramp. I was playing against the Kop as a Liverpool fan and it was incredible - one of the greatest moments of my life." His memory serves him well as Forest went two up after inside 17 minutes, thanks to goals from Ian Woan and Stone but eventually succumbed, losing 4-2, including an inevitable goal from Collymore. McGregor was indeed withdrawn on 73 minutes for Roy.

Another moment that he is rightly proud of is scoring a goal that was voted European goal of the month at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday in a 3-1 victory. Stephen (Bobby) Howe opened the scoring with a stunning volley but McGregor was not to be outdone. As the ball pinballed around in the penalty area, he rose to execute a stunning overhead scissor kick that saw the ball sail into the top corner of the Wednesday net. He asks me who the goalkeeper was that day. I clutch at straws and plump for Kevin Pressman. It’s not the answer he was looking for. Steve Nicol, the former Liverpool defender, was actually given the gloves midway through the game. ‘Ah’ I utter. I sound distinctly unimpressed. A deathly silence follows. I retrieve the situation by reassuring him that even Peter Shilton wouldn’t have got near it. His love for the Toffees and for a kindred spirit in the shape of Neville Southall leads him to claim that the goal could only have been bettered if it were Big Nev himself that was in goal that day.

He cites ex-Ipswich Town player Steve McCall as one of the best players he’s played with, after working with him at Plymouth Argyle. "I love a natural player – baller’s ballers.  Scot Gemmill was incredible with the ball – he just never gave it away. He was brave in different ways: you look at someone like Stuart Pearce who was brave going into the challenge but it’s a lot braver to want the ball under pressure constantly." The spirit of Brian Clough and his ways is engrained into any player who has passed through the doors of the City Ground. Indeed, these words could actually be Clough speaking about John McGovern or even ‘The Number Nine’ as he often waxed lyrical about such bravery.

Of course though, there are others who he holds in high regard. "There are players who are great and there are those that have to work hard at it and for me, that’s the difference between Gerrard and Lampard: Gerrard’s just fluid. Lampard is first on the training ground and laughed off – sorry, last off! But Lampard, with due all respect to him, earned that ability; he went and worked at it but Gerrard’s just naturally got it." Collymore is remembered for different reasons though: "I can remember a game that we were losing 2-0 and around the 78th minute, I can remember him yelling, ‘Give me the ball’. He got the ball and bang, 2-1. They kicked off. ‘Give me the ball’. Bang. 2-2. And again. Bang. He walked off the pitch and went for a pint. I can clearly remember him just shouting, ‘Give me the fucking ball".

Music and football collided in a perfect storm for McGregor when Frank Clark took the reigns at the City Ground: "I remember standing at the airport going out to Auxerre surrounded by Press and he put his bag down and there was Danny Sugarman’s book on The Doors, ‘No One Here Gets Out Alive’ sticking out of his bag. Gaffer, I love The Doors, so we had a chat about them for ten minutes". I ask if Clark will always be ‘gaffer’ and of course, this is indeed the case: always will be. And just for the record, Pearce will always be skipper.

He is reluctant to share Clough stories out of genuine respect for the legend; certainly the less savoury ones anyway. But like so many people when talking about Clough, they simply can’t help themselves and his memories of the great man are touching. He recalls a lap of honour with the youth team after winning the league and cup. His words grow slow at this point as he becomes misty eyed with clearly happy memories: "He walked with us and we got a standing ovation. He stood us in the centre circle and he gave every single one of us a big hug and a big kiss and he was crying. He was so proud of us and you felt it. If you took a bollocking, you took a bollocking but you felt loved too. Other clubs didn’t have that, didn’t have this icon. It felt special at the time. He was such a presence." Again, close your eyes and it could be John Robertson talking about how desperate he was to get a ‘thumbs up’ or an ‘OK’ sign from Clough and how when he did, he felt on top of the world.

All the great Clough stories though leave the participants and the reader with a sense of genuine wonder and McGregor’s is no different: "We were playing against Derby for the youth team. My dad always used to stand on the right hand side. Derby broke down the wing and the ball came into the box. I think we were drawing 1-1 in the semi-final of the Midlands Cup. The ball came down the left wing and was bouncing around at the edge of the box. We were scrambling around trying to get it in. The next thing I hear is Cloughie bellowing at me (adopts a Cloughie impersonation Robertson would be proud of) ‘BLONDIE! STAND STILL.’ I’m not sure what to do. I’m still trying to reach for the ball but again I hear him loud and clear, ‘FUCKING STAND STILL.’ So I stop and stand bolt upright, because you did it. At this point, my dad chirps up (adopts thick Scouse accent): ‘What you doin’ lad?’

"Brian Clough’s screaming at me. My dad’s screaming at me. Do this. Do that. So I’m stood still, in a bit of a huff. The ball got cleared and went down our right hand side and into our box yet I’m still stood where I was told to on the edge of their box. Everyone’s laughing. Around 2,000 people congregated around the touchline, all laughing.

"They hit the post and then our left-winger surged forward and I became onside again. He crossed the ball and in I’m thinking, ‘it’s coming, it’s going to land right for me’ and it did. I struck it right in the top corner. Cloughie came running down the touchline: ‘ARCHIE! I FUCKING TOLD HIM!’ in joyous celebration.

"Talk me through that? I’m not into any otherworldly superstitious bollocks but how do you logically explain that?"

I can’t and neither can he. He probably still wakes up once in a while trying to figure it all out, such is his wide-eyed wonder at the sheer genius of it all.

He doesn’t claim to be a fan of the club but clearly still takes an interest and grows increasingly animated at recent events and goings on. Indeed, the only point at which he gets quite serious - angry even  - and speaks like a true Forest fan is regarding the appointment and subsequent sacking of his old team-mate, Stuart Pearce, which he feels was disrespectful to Forest fans: "You appoint Stuart Pearce as gaffer of Nottingham Forest when you know you are in a position to stick with him for ten years. To have him as part of your conveyor belt bullshit is disrespectful to Pearce’s legacy and to every single Forest fan on this planet. To bring in Pearce and boot him out is not on."

He continues, but before doing so, looks me in the eye and pleads, no, commands me to hear him out. I dare not interrupt. "The second he got Pearce in; he had to stick with him. But now he’s the guy who sacked Pearce – it could be a nail in his coffin. If you bring Pearce in, you give him time. This is Stuart Pearce!"

What then follows is as good a description as I have ever heard of what it feels like to be a Forest fan:

"When Clough was there, he stood for something. Frank Clark stood for the same things. For a long time, Nottingham Forest were everybody’s favourite club, everybody had respect for Forest, for the way they played. If you said you were a Nottingham Forest supporter, it stood for something: it meant a certain moral structure, a certain moral DNA, you stood for what was right. It was almost like saying, ‘I’m a socialist. I’m one of the good people in the world. I support a team that tries to play football the right way and I call out cheats.’ As a player, you felt that and you represented Nottingham Forest Football Club. Forest stood for something. If you supported them, that’s who you were. That’s what this club stands for, and is."

He laments this loss. He seems to have well and truly lost that loving feeling.

Despite turning down invitations as a match day guest and admitting to not going as a punter to see Forest, he clearly feels it – the club and its values remain in his heart and he uses a Bruce Springsteen line from Highway Patrol Man to neatly encapsulate the pull and lure of the football club for a dedicated fan: ‘Man turns his back on his family, he ain’t no friend of mine’. He is as excited as any fan would be at the prospect of Jonny Owen’s film, ‘I Believe in Miracles’ which promises to document Nottingham Forest’s rise from second tier football to Champions of Europe. Twice. He sees it as a universal story and likens it to Huddersfield Town winning two Champions Leagues. We agree that no, of course it won’t happen again. It can’t and won’t.

As the conversation winds down and Sunday roasts beckon us both home, he reflects upon his image as a footballer, which was always slightly ‘different’ from the norm, or at least, what was expected in such circles: "I was in Forest’s youth team coming to the ground in spray-on white jeans. I’d get ‘bender’. But I fought my corner. I invited them to come out with me, to the places I went to. They respected how many women you’d pull. They were receptive to my scene since they knew I was a decent lad, even though I’d got ‘gay clothes on’. Alright. ‘Gay clothes."

It strikes me how even though he may well have bucked the trend a little, he was clearly a very confident man who not only survived in such situations but also prospered and stayed loyal to his own interests and beliefs. What’s more, he’s still doing exactly that. He’s fully aware of his own standing amongst Forest fans and although briefly considers whether he has a longer story to tell in the form of a book, he dismisses it, claiming, "I don’t want to be one of those sad anoraks that tells bad anecdotes. Yeah, I played for Carlisle…who cares?"

He finishes by expressing frustration at the modern football pundit; frustration that they don’t appear able, or in some cases, allowed to give any true insight: "There are times when you just want them to stop talking." At that comes perhaps the most surprising revelation when he leaves with a line not from Richey Edwards, Albert Camus, Sylvia Plath, Nick Cave or any other such icon of cool but Boyzone’s very own Ronan Keating: ‘You say it best, when you say nothing at all."

And with that, he exits.

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ITTO would like to offer a genuine, heartfelt 'thank you' (note use of inverted commas, Paul) to Paul for being so generous with his time and unfailingly polite and forthcoming.

You really should listen to Ulterior too. Here are some links that you might want to pursue:

Ulterior Bandcamp

Review of 'The Bleach Room'

In NME