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In conversation with…Colin Barrett

Colin Barrett played a vital role for Nottingham Forest between 1977 and 1980. In another exclusive interview, he talks to David Marples about his career.

Colin Barrett scans the table in search of some visual aids. He reaches for the salt pot, the pepper pot and the bottles that lay in front of him. These props are then re-arranged and tinkered with in order to illustrate his dissection of the evolution of formations and tactics.  His overall point though is that football, when it comes down to it, is a simple game.

Barrett was a shiny and integral cog in the legendary Nottingham Forest team that went 42 games unbeaten while claiming the club’s only top tier League Championship in 1978. He also played a vital role in the lifting of the European Cup in 1979 and played in the League Cup final against Southampton in the same year. Even though injury denied him two further cup final appearances for the club, he would still be a busy man were he asked by some young upstart to ‘put your medals on the table.’

There was life before Forest though. Hailing from Stockport, Barrett left school at 15 and signed for Manchester City at 17. Although his father initially wanted him to get a proper job, he relented after both father and son spoke to City’s manager, Joe Mercer, who offered the young lad £14 a week. Unsure at first but as is usually the case, his father had sage views on the matter: "If anyone’s daft enough to give you four weeks’ wages for one weeks’ work, sign."

Barrett did break into the first team and went on to make 53 appearances for City. Despite playing the League Cup semi-final defeat of Middlesbrough, he wasn’t selected to play in the victorious final of 1976 against Newcastle United. By this stage though, he was ‘in and out’ of the side and having experience five managers since Mercer, and the fifth, Tony Book, informed him that he’d had Brian Clough on the phone who wanted to take him on loan. Having already asked for a transfer at this point, a move away seemed to suit all parties but Barrett was initially reluctant. A loan deal wasn’t quite what he was looking for. "I wanted to make a fresh start, fresh break." Barrett relayed the message to Book to, ‘just tell him no.’

Brian Clough would not be deterred though. "Next minute I get a phone call and it’s Brian Clough: ‘I hear you don’t want to sign for me.’" Barrett explained to him that, ‘It’s not that I don’t want to sign, it’s just that I don’t want to come on loan.’ As everyone knows though, Clough could be a very persuasive and charming man and he appealed to Barrett’s rationality: ‘Obviously you don’t know me and I don’t know you. A loan period would be far better from your point of view, you wouldn’t be playing in Man City’s reserves, you’d be playing in my first team.’

The seeds were sown in the defender’s head and so he acquiesced to Clough’s request to meet and talk further. They met at Leek Town’s football ground, went to a pub and had a spot of lunch. Clough repeated the offer, requesting he come on loan for a month. By now, Barrett had been won over and after agreeing to do so, left with Clough’s parting ringing in his ears: ‘Great. I’ll see you at the City Ground on Saturday.’

Things moved on apace from there. The loan deal was then extended to three months and eventually, Barrett signed for Forest permanently. Clough would later describe this particular bit of business as, ‘the signing gave me the most satisfaction because he went straight into the Forest first team.’ The respect is reciprocated.; "He bought me. Peter Taylor wasn’t involved so he was the one that got hold of me and I thought I did a good job for him. I would have walked through a brick wall for him. No problem. I would have crashed down a brick wall for him but I wouldn’t have necessarily walked across the road to have a drink with him."

As he arrived at the City Ground, Clough had a question for him: ‘Col, fancy a drink?’  Wary, Barrett declined. After all, he wanted to make a good first impression: ‘Better not, hopefully I’ll be playing.’ As ever, Clough demonstrated that he had the perfect response for every situation: ‘Oh, you’re definitely playing but if it makes you play better, have a drink.’

As Barrett himself puts it: "That was my first introduction to Brian Clough the manager."

Forest were still plodding around in the second tier at this stage and initially, Barrett was used at right-back and centre-half while they trod water in his first season there. But the following season, the team gained promotion and then went on to win the First Division league title, in which Barrett made 41 first team appearances. Moreover, in doing so, Forest set a record by going 42 games unbeaten, a streak spanning from November 1977 to December 1978. Barrett recalls it well, notably Peter Shilton getting knocked out at Elland Road (by Ray Hankin) in the last game before they embarked on their invincible feat.

Such an achievement lasted until Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ broke the record by recording 49 unbeaten games, ultimately ending in October 2004.  As satisfying as the unbeaten run was, Barrett takes more pride from winning the title: "When you win the league, you are classed as the best team in the division – you are the best team and nobody can take that away from you."

Like most players who played under Brian Clough, Barrett talks about his job with startling clarity. "In those days, you supported the players that had the football. I get really annoyed with some of these commentators saying that everybody’s going to be out of position. He’s bound to be out of position at some stage because he’s covering for his teammate. The game evolves. In terms of attacking full back and attacking play, Robbo (John Robertson) would have the ball and I would always make myself available for a pass." This was famously epitomised in the crucial goal that Barrett scored against Liverpool in the First Round of the European Cup campaign in 1977, in which Forest recorded a 2-0 win over the reigning European champions and ultimately dumped them out of the Cup at the first hurdle and thus set the club on their way to European Cup glory.

Of course, like most aspects of football, the European Cup’s format has evolved since Barrett’s time but in his view, his team’s achievements not only stand the test of time but in some ways, have been elevated: "The way I’ve been brought up as a player and a fan of football – there have been two ways to win the European Cup: the hard way and the easy way. The hard way is to win your domestic league, straight knock out with no seeded teams. The easy way is to finish fourth in your league, go into a league to finish second in that league and then you play the knock out stage. And still (Arsene) Wenger is moaning about wanting to stop the away goal rule. He won’t be happy until he gets a bye to the final with a one goal lead with a minute to go!"

This view is perhaps borne out of the fact that along the way to European Cup glory in 1978, Forest disposed of teams like Grasshopper Zurich and Cologne – hardly modern day elite names. But it should be remembered that these teams were champions they weren’t just third or fourth teams: "They were champions of their own domestic leagues and they knocked out some really good sides along the way (Grasshoppers saw off a Real Madrid team featuring Uli Stielike, Vicente Del Bosque and Juanito) to get to wherever they were before we played them. It was hard then. Some teams struggle to get past the knock out stage these days."

Sadly, injury denied Barrett the chance to play in some of the finals for which he helped the team reach. The ultimately career threatening injury was sustained against Middlesbrough and he remembers it well: "I just let the ball overrun a little bit and I stretched and John Mahoney hit me from the side. He didn’t go in intentionally to do me but it’s one of those scenarios where he’s come in for the tackle and my leg is dangling. I went down in pain. I thought it was just a dead leg until I got up and started to run and then somebody played me the ball and I went from right foot to left foot and fell over. It was then that I realised there was something wrong."

No doubt that in the modern era, such an injury would surely be remedied. Nonetheless, there is no anger or remorse, more an acceptance that the world evolves, surgeons improve and treatments become more effective: "They can rebuild them (knees) now. I was six weeks in a pot but I don’t think they do that anymore. They do keyhole surgery whereas I had a massive scar down my leg. Those days they just opened it up, stitched it back together and hoped that you would be back playing on six or seven weeks."

Surely the PFA supported him both emotionally and financially? "I never asked for that type of thing." There is scepticism in his voice as he describes how they seem to focus on the higher profile players. "I didn’t get anything from that. I didn’t get any insurance. So basically, I was out of work and that was it." For a man who got paid to play the game he loves from 17 years of age, this must have been incredibly difficult to come to terms with: "It was. We’d just got a young family started: my daughter was born." This meant that some decisions needed to be made. Barrett and his family could either, "go back to Stockport where we were both from or we could go back to where the good times were, and the good times were in Nottingham. So we came back to Nottingham so we could make a life there. And that’s what we did."

Since then Barrett has settled in Nottinghamshire, carving out a successful career as a painter and decorator. What’s more, there are no regrets, even if his career was cut short while in his prime.  "No. No. No. It’s one of those things: it’s an occupational hazard, you could say. You accept that you could get injured but you don’t want it to be early on. You don’t mind at 35 or 36 but not at 29."

Eventually, his time was up at Forest as Clough arguably broke up the twice-European Cup winning team a shade prematurely. "I left after the second European Cup. I was given a free transfer, went to Swindon – that didn’t work out. I had a year but my knee gave way a couple of times and that was me finished really. Nobody wanted me and that was it: end of story. 28, 29 I think I was." His voice trails off. Nevertheless, he is philosophical about the cards that were dealt to him. Some major finals did pass him by but as he points out, he played against Southampton in the League Cup Final of 1979, even if he missed the final against Liverpool the previous year: "I played in every game up until the final and then I had a stress fracture so missed that one and the replay. I missed two League Cup Finals at Manchester City too. And then I missed the European Cup Final too." He wonderfully downplays the disappointment in his playful conclusion, spoken in jest: "I’ve had a bit of bad luck regarding Cup Finals!"

Yet Barrett’s contribution to what Nottingham Forest Football Club achieved should not be underestimated. Indeed, the glorious period between 1975 and 1980 is to be celebrated on celluloid in the form of Jonny Owen’s forthcoming feature length documentary, ‘I Believe In Miracles.’ In The Top One has been fortunate to see some rough cuts and footage of the project - Forest fans and fans of football are in for an absolute treat as fantastic memories are stirred from Owen’s stylised approach in fusing fascinating interview clips from all the major participants with previously unseen footage, all accompanied by some of the finest musical accompaniment you could imagine.

Barrett is proud to have played his part and expands upon why the narrative of the film is one for everybody: "It will show that you don’t necessarily have to have a team of superstars; you have to have a team. A team wins the European Cup." They knew their jobs and just as importantly, each other’s jobs. If they were struggling during a game, it wasn’t necessarily a case of doing something different in reaction; it was a case of doing their own jobs better. "It is a story to be told. It is a dream. It can come true now and again but whether or not it will happen again, we’ll have to wait and see."

It almost definitely won’t yet Colin Barrett can be proud of the major role that he played in a miraculous tale that shaped the history of not only Nottingham Forest, but also the city itself.

Coming soon: A special feature on the significance of that goal against Liverpool which arguably shaped the club's history.

David Marples