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In conversation with...John McGovern (i)

Miracle Man, club ambassador and living legend, John McGovern was kind enough to speak to us about a range of issues. Here's part i of an exclusive interview with In The Top One.

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Between the years of 1977 and 1980, it was someone’s job to actually lift all of those trophies that Nottingham Forest won in this period. That man was John McGovern.

Signed by Brian Clough on four different occasions, McGovern is now ambassador at the club for whom he made 253 appearances between 1975 and 1982.

In part i of our conversation, which took place in the boardroom at the City Ground, we talked about some of his favourite memories from his illustrious career, the disappointment and anger of Derby County’s exit at the semi-final stage of the European Cup in 1973 in rather acrimonious circumstances, the pace of the game now compared to back then and mud…glorious mud.

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We’re in a post-‘I Believe In Miracles’ world now: that’s been a hugely exciting time. I wonder if you’re relieved that it’s out there for people to enjoy.

It’s a tremendous compliment that somebody remembers how good it was thirty-five years ago, before the advent of Sky television.

Apparently football didn’t exist before then…

Well in some ways, commercially…there was activity but it was very limited. The amounts of money now are ridiculous. But, if you can imagine the first meeting between Sky television and Rupert Murdoch when they said to him, "Look Rupert, you put a satellite in outer-space and you’ll rule sport worldwide."

First of all, he’d have asked, "How much?"

"£450m"

Now if I had been Rupert Murdoch, my first question would have been, "What if something hits the satellite?" That would have been my second question and my third question to them. But he did it and now you kick off when he says you kick off: Thursday night, Sunday afternoon, Saturday morning, you kick off when he says. Since it’s a global game, the players earn millions of pounds. That’s the only reason. They’re not better; in fact they’re not as good as they used to be – records prove that.

It’s often said that the pace of the game is so much quicker now…

…it’s because of the surfaces. They have a perfect surface. They don’t play on six inches of mud like we used to at the Baseball Ground. Even my mam was round watching ‘I Believe In Miracles’ at Christmas. She watched the whole film and the only comment she made was when it covers the match against Cologne down here in the semi-final of the European Cup. She just turned to me and said, "Son, where’s the grass?"

Regarding that game, you said in the film that it was the best atmosphere you’ve ever played in. That’s some claim to make.

The nature of the match; the fluctuation of fortunes. We started with our usual ‘attack, attack, attack’ system but go two down! It should have been three. (Roger) Van Gool clipped the post – he beat (Peter) Shilton but it went just past the post. That would have been 3-0. But then we showed the kind of spirit that typified us as a side by being dogged and determined. We get back in the game and the Germans get probably the luckiest break they’ve ever had that night: Peter Shilton dives over one. Everybody who was in the ground – their hearts stopped: ‘Shilton’s made a mistake.’ It was once in a blue moon that Shilton made a mistake’ he was so consistent, as goalkeepers need to be.

The ground was full and the atmosphere was tremendous that night. The night matches are always better because under the floodlights, it’s even more romantic and certainly more enjoyable because of the intensity of the atmosphere. It’s only the pitch that’s highlighted. It’s a great feeling to play in floodlit matches. I’ll almost guarantee that I didn’t have a bad game under the floodlights.

I’d like to say that the green of the grass shone under the floodlights against Cologne but not in that match – just mud. But it didn’t stop the football.

No, no. We would still play football. That is the only abnormality about the people’s opinions on the game being quicker now. Take Trevor Francis – who’s the quickest in the modern game? Theo Walcott? I’d back Trevor Francis to beat Theo Walcott over fifteen yards. I’d back Viv Anderson too over Walcott and he’s supposed to be one of the quickest.

Viv would just stretch a leg out and be there in one stride….

Sure. And Walcott doesn’t start regularly for Arsenal so as much pace as you’ve got, it’s no benefit to you if you can’t control a ball.

In addition, in the modern game of rotation, a player like Walcott gets rested whereas you guys played something like 70 games in a season.

I think the first two seasons in the first division, when we won the league and then the European Cup and played three consecutive League Cup finals, and then we had a replay against Liverpool anyway, we played over 70 games. (*A spot of post interview research suggests 71 games in the season 1978-79)

But Liverpool and ourselves were probably the only two teams in the country that did very little training. The managers were wise enough to understand that they can’t do any stamina work during the season because the games are going to take care of the stamina and you need every single ounce of energy to play in a match on six inches of mud for a third of the season. Clough and (Bill) Shankly understood that; they were probably the two best managers that ever existed in this country.

And Shankly came into your dressing room at Everton after a game didn’t he? That must have been quite a moment.

The first game – it was unbelievable: bizarre, in some ways. Shankly stood there (John chuckles to himself) and Brian said, "You better tell them Bill." He gave us a talk and he was as mesmerising as Clough was. So they were very similar characters.

It must have been odd for you to see almost your professional life played out in a series of montages on a big screen.

Well I’m glad they did the interviews in the modern day as if they’d have done them at the time we were playing, I don’t think they’d have made much sense. At least we’re experienced and mature people now and you get a much better reflection and description of what happened in the day.

The film throws up small moments. It must be strange seeing your professional career played out in front of you and reduced to ‘moments’ - those green tracksuits when you collected the League Title trophy at home against Birmingham City and the assorted policemen in the photos…to me, looking back at photos and footage, it seems your life can be measured in key and iconic moments but I wouldn’t imagine it’s the same for you, that is, I imagine there are specific moments in your life that are obviously not captured on film. Do you have still images or moments in your mind that you don’t need photos to remind you that they happened?

Well you’ve got certain memories of matches and obviously if it’s an elated moment when you’ve been presented with a cup but there are other moments at the other end of the scale when I was at Derby County and we lost to Juventus 3-1 in Turin in the European Cup. We were cheated. It was so blatant that I was almost in tears, as I couldn’t believe that this could happen to a televised match with UEFA officials watching and every single decision went to Juventus. The only two players that got booked in the first fifteen minutes were Archie Gemmill and Roy McFarland who’d had bookings in a previous round which meant that they would both miss the return leg. It was so obvious; it was embarrassing.

After, I wondered, ‘How can this happen?’ So blatant and so obvious. I was really annoyed because even in the home match against Juventus in which Alan Hinton missed a penalty with about fifteen minutes to go which would have made it 3-2. I bet you any money that in the last fifteen minutes, we’d have squeezed another chance out of the game.

But then there are moments when you lift European Cups. The League Championship trophy was more important to me as captain of the side. I’m glad I got fit for that one as I was injured just before that. Kenny Burns had lifted the League Cup at Old Trafford so I’d missed out on that one so it looked like it was going to be a terrible let down for me to miss being presented with the League Cup and then the title but I actually got fit for the Birmingham game down here.

Drawing Liverpool in the first round – that was the biggest disappointment. Not from our point of view that we were afraid of Liverpool but more so that we thought, ‘We’re in Europe and we don’t even get to leave the country’.

It wouldn’t be allowed to happen in the current game. They should swap the names around: ours was the Champions League because every team was champions of their countries. Now it’s the European Cup – they should swap names. You can be fourth in your country and win it now – that’s not Champions League so they should call it the European Cup and the Champions League is what we played in.

You famously disposed of Liverpool in the first round of the European Cup and then it was AEK Athens. Ferenc Puskas was their manager at the time wasn’t he?

He was. I’ve got a photograph of him with Peter Taylor and me. They weren’t one of the strongest sides.  The problem we had when we first went in was that we draw Liverpool so we knock them out. But we still don’t know what the opposition is like – the top teams in Europe. We have the second round and play AEK Athens and we know that they’re not the strongest side so you’re only tested out when you get to the semi-finals against Cologne. No disrespect to the Romanian sides of this world but until you’ve hit the Germans or the Italians, you don’t know who the strongest sides are so we found out how tough Cologne were but to go over there and win and go through, that showed the whole football world just how strong a team of characters we had when we walked out there.

That moment when you were walking out into that open bowl of a stadium…

…Yeah. They are horrible to play in with running tracks around them and everything. There’s no atmosphere. Here (The City Ground) and the Baseball Ground were best of all. The spectators were so close to the pitch.

It’s like playing at Wembley. It’s fantastic to play at Wembley but the actual fans are that far away that it doesn’t have the same impact as playing Liverpool at Anfield. In those days, when we went out to look at the pitch an hour before kick off, the Kop is full and the doors are locked. You can’t get in. That’s what you call football fans.

And that creates adrenaline and excitement  - not nerves - that as a player, you want to experience.

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In part ii, we talk about the evolution of tactics, the concept of total football and the role of the defensive midfielder.

Coming very soon.