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‘I Believe In Miracles’: In conversation with…Jonny Owen

'Everybody remembers the Nottingham Forest that won the European Cup. This will never be repeated. It can’t be repeated and what he did was – Brian Clough and Peter Taylor in five years – created one of the greatest domestic football teams ever.’ Back in March, David Marples met Jonny Owen to discuss his forthcoming feature length documentary on that legendary Nottingham Forest team.

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Jonny Owen is in love. His eyes sparkle when he speaks about his object of desire. Words tumble excitedly out of his mouth, emphasising his deep passion.  Once he gets started, he’s difficult to stop…not that you’d want him to.

The source of such affection? Actually, it’s difficult to be specific, but essentially the Nottingham Forest team that lifted the European Cup aloft in 1979 has been very much in Owen’s thoughts for a while now.

A tweet from Daniel Taylor on 12th February sent the community of Nottingham Forest supporters into a state of childish glee and incited ridiculous levels of excitement and anticipation as the chief football writer for the Guardian and Observer urged us to ‘Look out for Jonny Owen’s film later this year:

At the same time, a brief trailer appeared on the Internet offering a tantalising glimpse of Owen’s work. A montage of documentary footage, football, outstanding 70s tracksuits and enormous looking trophies being held aloft bombarded the collective wide-eyes of the Forest fanbase, all gloriously chivvied along by the seemingly grooviest funk ever committed to vinyl. Alas, it wasn’t to last; just as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared like a lonely and nostalgic tear in the rain.

It left a deep mark though. The buzz created is thanks to the work of the affable Jonny Owen. His impressive body of work is as varied as it is moving. As an actor, he has appeared in Torchwood, Shameless, Murphy’s Law and My Family. He won a Welsh Bafta for his documentary The Aberfan Disaster that he co-produced in 2006. Last year saw ‘Svengali’ hit movie screens, a film based on the cult Internet series written and starring Owen about an aspiring manager of a band looking to break the music industry, featuring Martin Freeman, Michael Smiley, Matt Berry and Vicky McClure. But it’s his latest project, a feature length documentary chronicling the achievements of the famous Nottingham Forest team between 1975 and 1980, which has created the stir.

The ball started rolling when Craig Chettle, chairman of Notts TV, mentioned to Owen that it was the anniversary of Nottingham Forest’s great European Cup winning team. He had seen Owen’s piece for the FA Cup Final day, when Cardiff City contested the cup with Portsmouth, and was impressed. Chettle approached Owen about doing something similar for Nottingham Forest.  Owen was more than interested: "In some subliminal way, I started finding things out. My father said to me when I went back to Wales recently that he remembers me watching the first European Cup Final – the Malmo game – and I must have been six or seven. So I remember that – a shimmery kit. I remember an Adidas kit. I remember obviously a great team. I especially remember a little Scottish winger called John Robertson. So they stayed with me and stayed in my memory. Nottingham Forest have longed lived off the legacy of what that team did. But what is remarkable about the story is that there are arguably as good stories in the history of sport – Muhammad Ali’s comeback against George Foreman, the Boston Red Sox – but what is not arguable is that this is the greatest story in the history of football."

The project is clearly a labour of love and Owen is keen to trumpet the remarkable achievements of this team: "They were everybody’s favourite second team, right across Europe. There was all these amazing stories where the stars aligned – Garry Birtles going from a non-league player to becoming a European Cup winner – astonishing story, this journeyman midfield Scotsman being put on the wing and becoming the best player in Europe. So there were all these things happening and I think they were greatly loved and I think there are a few teams that live in the conscience of football fans, certainly in Europe like the Real Madrid of the fifties and Celtic of the mid sixties and Barcelona recently. Forest are one of those teams. Everybody remembers the Nottingham Forest that won the the European Cup. This will never be repeated and what he did was - Brian Clough and Peter Taylor in five years - created one of the greatest domestic football teams ever."

Of course, at the heart of such a story is the monolith that is Brian Clough. Such a story simply cannot ignore a character and monumental man and as in most Forest-related stories, Clough is at the heart of the narrative for Owen: "I started with that famous TV interview with Austin Mitchell putting it to Clough that he had left Derby under a cloud, had been unsuccessful at Brighton and lasted 44 days at Leeds; who’s going to touch you with a bargepole? And they’re the opening lines of the film. It was what they called at the time a ‘corner shop’ second division club". Pleasingly, Owen has nailed the Brian Clough impersonation, momentarily losing his strong Welsh lilt when he steps into character. Comparisons with Jose Mourinho are considered but dismissed given that Clough achieved what he did with a team treading water in the second tier. He likens his achievements to taking Barnsley or Huddersfield Town to glory. But the admiration isn’t confined to his achievements on the field: "Brian Clough was the closest we’ve ever had to Muhammad Ali because he was not just a great sporting genius but he was also political and like Ali, anti-establishment. He was a man of huge principles. Sure he had a dark side but he was a human being. He had the answer for everything."

But it isn’t all about one man. Owen has fallen head over heels in love with the players too. He’s spent weeks talking to all of them. Each has left an imprint on Owen and he speaks lovingly about the characteristics, mannerisms and foibles of each one: "All these certain personalities made up this great team. (Martin) O’Neill says, ‘I was a pouter.’ What’s the English word for it? A petted lip? If you’re unhappy with something? Sulk?" The word Owen is reaching for is ‘mardy’. "Yes, that’s it. So Martin O’Neill says he was a sulker – a mardy arse. John (Robertson) was a moaner. Larry Lloyd was a big head. Kenny (Burns) was a hard man. What he did was he put together almost the perfect side: a side where the personalities fitted." There’s no stopping his passion for the characters who constituted this all conquering team now: "One myth I wanted to dispel very quickly is this idea that they were a rag tag bunch who couldn’t play football. They were extraordinary footballers. You just see the way that Colin Barrett played  - just a brilliant footballer. Some of the older players like Larry (Lloyd) and Archie (Gemmill) who came to play with them later and he said, ‘I couldn’t believe how good they were, even compared to us – they could make a ball stick and they could lay it off. So I wanted to get rid of this idea he made this team and it was all about Clough when actually, they were all very good players."

Owen happily admits that his job in piecing together the narrative was pretty easy given the nature of his subjects: "Another thing about those players that is very interesting is footballers are segregated now; they live in gated communities, and not just where they live but where they train too. These men, because they earned the same as plumbers, lived in Wollaton and drank in the same pubs, they are used to interacting with fans. These blokes are very comfortable around people and are used to telling stories."

Indeed they are. The talking heads scenes from the film are a particular delight as they reveal each of the players’ personalities. At one point, Archie Gemmill beams an impish grin in recollection of a moment that makes him look like the very definition of a naughty schoolboy who has flicked a rubber band at the back of the teacher’s head and escaped censure. The reverence in which they hold Brian Clough is apparent from each word that comes forth. Perhaps the most striking impression though is that this was a group of mates who just happened to be outstanding footballers working with an outstanding management team in Brian Clough, Peter Taylor and the often overlooked Jimmy Gordon.

Of all the players though, there is one that stands out. John Neilson Robertson was shambling about in the Nottingham Forest reserves when Brian Clough strode into the City Ground, picked him up, shook him down and turned him into something new: "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.

"John Robertson, without exaggeration, is a god in Glasgow. Some Glaswegians tell me they had Nottingham Forest kits because of John Robertson. He was a bit rock n roll too because he liked a pint and a fag. John Robertson was loved by women but loved by blokes also. Alan Hansen has this great line: there was three world-class players playing for Scotland in the 80s: Graham Souness, Kenny Dalglish and John Robertson."

Of course, things are somewhat different for Nottingham Forest now, having spent 15 years out of the top league, three of them in the third tier too. Owen makes the point that such barren times put the achievements of the club in the late 70s into context. A third place in the Premier League in 1995 and a UEFA Cup run to the Quarter Finals in 1996 are the club’s most notable achievements since the fall from the top league: "Paul McGregor was playing against Lyon in the UEFA Cup but that’s a long way from where the club is now. We were astonished in South Wales when they sacked Frank Clark for coming eighth in the Premier League and sacking a great manager and breaking up a great team. But in the period between 1975 and 1980, the stars aligned."

It should not be forgotten that Jonny Owen is a Cardiff City fan. Nonetheless, Forest have worked their way into the very core of his being: "At Forest, when you come over the Trent and see one of football’s great stadiums, it’s because of the European Cup winning team that should be preserved. When you strip away colours and history, it’s not there anymore. They’ve won it more times than London, Moscow, Berlin and Rome put together." This is a mightily impressive statistic of which the club and its fans remain fiercely proud.

On the trailer that surfaced in February, Owen is keen to point out that it wasn’t a deliberate leak – it was indeed stolen. In retrospect though, such a crime hasn’t caused the project much harm. In fact, it has arguably helped raise the profile of the pending feature length documentary. Distributors are lined up for a national release sometime in the late summer.

When asked to describe what he has in store for viewers, he is enthusiastically forthcoming: "Very stylized. Very considered. Lots of soul and funk music and it seems to suit them playing. If you play Baby Huey to Nottingham Forest Football Club at that time, it just works. I don’t know why that is. There are split screens, it looks 70s but with a modern sensibility." He’s tested it on his partner (Nottingham’s own acclaimed actor Vicky McClure) to see how it plays to the non-partisan audience. "When I cut them running on the side of the Trent in their training gear, which looks like the stuff you’d get from the cupboard if you forgot your PE kit at school – I got them jogging on the Trent, John Robertson at the front, Larry Lloyd, they’re all running and I’ve cut it to ‘Groovin’ by The Young Rascals. She welled up. She said they look like a team that you fall in love with."

If that’s not enough to make you more excited than a kid with a Scalextric that actually works, there’s previously unseen footage too, transferred from film 35 years old: "I’ve got John Robertson making a Norwich defender, and I’m not exaggerating, fall over he beats him so many times. The bloke actually falls over on his arse. For purists, there’s stuff they might not have seen before. For the layman, it’s a great story about a bunch of blokes who literally get together a team and win everything. Everything in five years." Put simply then, something for everyone.

The time is ripe for this story. The European Cup winning team are all coming up to 60 now, some older. According to Owen, "they’re ready now. They’re ready to talk. It’s the right time to tell the story. Outside of Nottingham, the reaction is ‘I loved that team'".  It’s time for Nottingham and beyond to celebrate the remarkable achievements of this club that defined a glorious era.

The interview spills over into the evening and we are joined by others. Eventually, it concludes with Owen shuffling one way down West Bridgford High Street while John Robertson and Tony Woodcock causally amble in the opposite direction - two living legends walking amongst us mere mortals, seemingly oblivious to their godlike status.

I put it to Owen that after such an intense period of working on this project, he must have fallen hard for that that side and cultivated a soft spot for Nottingham Forest.

"Of course! They are my friends now and Forest fans have treated me fantastically well."

Enough to go as far as supporting Forest when it comes to a showdown between them and Cardiff City? Owen suddenly laughs:

'Listen, I know everything there is to know about that side. I've watched and studied them in detail and I've made the definitive film. But I'm a football fan and your first love is always the one. I'm Cardiff. That will never change but it's been a hot passionate steamy affair with a stunning mistress for sure. I'll always head home to the wife at the end of the day because that's what we do."

Forest fans loved that team. The public loved that team. Jonny Owen clearly loves this team. Let’s remind the world how much we loved and still love that team - the Miracle Men.