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In conversation with...John McGovern (II)

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

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In part II of this exclusive interview with legendary Nottingham Forest captain, John McGovern, tactics, formations and the role of the defensive midfielder were at the heart of the conversation.

John talks about how his role in the midfield evolved and how it was shaped not only by some words of wisdom from a certain Brian Clough but also how he took responsibility for defining his role in the all conquering Nottingham Forest side of the late 70s/early 80s.


Amongst other things, I’d like to talk to you about some of the goals that you scored throughout your career but I hear that you don’t necessarily like watching yourself on screen scoring goals.

No I just didn’t used to like watching myself because I had the strangest style of running that you’ll ever come across.

It was very effective though…

It’s because I had a muscle missing out of my back so my style was terrible. I used to be embarrassed watching myself; no wonder I was the most unpopular player at whatever club I played for.  Having said that, a guy called Brian Clough had faith in what I did when I was actually out there on the field and you’re always looking for an end product from any of the your players or any of your workers in any business. So he knew that I would give him an end product, which was either being creative or as a holding midfield player, disrupting the opposition.

He gave me the confidence to go out there and despite being embarrassed even watching myself playing football, I loved chasing a ball around. If you’re that passionate about it, you do become reasonably adept at doing it. I showed the dedication you need to become a professional footballer.

Not just dedication but also a very successful footballer. You mentioned there your defensive midfield role and I’ve given this a lot of thought: you were highly effective in what you did. One thing that really irritates me is that this chap by the name of Claude Makelele gets a whole position named after him and…

(laughs)…I was doing it for years before…

Exactly. This idea of a screening midfielder who sits in front of the back four and breaks up the play and passes it to somebody else - in South America, it’s called a volante de marca—a steering wheel. In Portugal, it’s a trinco—a lock. A water carrier if you like…

…well that was something thrown at (Didier) Deschamps by obviously somebody who is a striker and they think they’re the greatest because they score the goals.

You’re right – it was used as a derogatory term to diminish his skills but you were doing this for years. Is that how you saw your role: to break up play and pass it to someone else?

It evolved from having played as an outside right at Hartlepool for Clough and Taylor. They then took me to Derby and when I was playing in one of my first reserve games, Peter Taylor got a - not a scathing report - but a poor report about me in the match. Of course he questioned me about it. I said to him,  "Well look, I don’t know why I’ve got a bad report. I’ll admit I never got a kick because I’m an outside right and nobody could get the ball to me."

Immediately Peter Taylor said to me, "Well would you like to play in the centre – in midfield?" So even in my early reserve days at Derby, which didn’t last long because I got in the first team very very quickly. Then when I was promoted to the first team, I did a mixture of playing on the right hand side of midfield, in a semi-wide position, but then eventually, because I was doing so well when I was playing in the middle of midfield, that position remained but it was myself that actually man-marked Alan Ball in a game: Everton had won the League Championship the year before when Howard Kendall and Alan Ball were in the midfield. Ball was obviously one of their inspirations. I played against him at Derby and I decided, of my own volition, to take him out of the game because I thought that would help our cause.

After the game – which we won 2-1 – Clough pulled over and demanded, "Who the hell told you to mark Alan Ball the whole game?’

Obviously tagging one player was a bit unusual in those days. I said, "Nobody boss. I just thought…"

He said, "You did a great job for the team. He never got a kick. He’s a good player and you’re not."

It was kind of a backhanded compliment from him but then we played against Leeds and he said, "I want you to do the same thing against (Johnny) Giles that you did with Alan Ball."

So I did that with one or two players. I can remember going to play against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Clough said to me before the game, "Do you know who their best midfield player is?"

I said, "Yeah, Mike Bailey, the captain."  He was a very strong, uncompromising, physical player and Clough said to me, "If he gets a kick tonight, I’m personally going to come onto the pitch and kick you."

That must have given you some motivation.

He had strange ways of doing it. He knew that I was, perhaps even as a younger player, capable of taking any kind of rollocking, listened to what he said, made my own thoughts on it and then put it into practice because he was an experienced person regarding football, and I wasn’t.

So we won 4-2 that night at Wolves and I scored two goals. That was one of my better nights – actually one of the best goals I scored where I actually tackled Mike Bailey, took the ball from him and smashed it in the top corner.

From there, I just grew into the role of midfield player. Now obviously with a lack of pace, the area in central midfield was ideal because it’s very tight and you don’t get a lot of time to think sometimes and so my ability to pass a ball and the vision that you gain with experience where you know where the ball’s going even before it arrives at your feet, stood me in good stead.

So was it as simple as you screening while the other midfielder pushed forward in an attacking role?

Yes. By the time…well there was the Leeds debacle for Clough and myself – probably worse for me as he ended up with £100,000 and a Mercedes car. I just got booed before I even made my home debut by the home fans which I found a little bit strange but then again Leeds…Leeds were Leeds and that’ll never change.

But then when I came to Nottingham Forest, he put me in that position again and he told me, "I don’t want you going anywhere else." While Forest fans will say, "Oh, you never scored any goals," the reason was I had to play a very disciplined and restricted role at times but it helped the side because common sense will tell you that if you attack straight down the middle of the field, you’re going to score more goals from right in front of goal than you are at an angle. So my job that I adopted was anyone that comes and gets in a position where they’re going to shoot from the edge of our box, if I get to them first or I stop the ball even getting to them, I can just literally stop them play.

But then again, with my ability to pass the ball, I could still start moves going. I’d hate to be remembered solely as kind of a defensive midfielder because I wanted to be creative and I wanted to score goals but I had to restrain myself and sometimes that’s not easy.

Of course. And being creative doesn’t just mean pinging a ball 50 yards to the front man. As you say, if you’ve got two feet, you can either pass left or right to either wing from that position.

A lot of players don’t realise that the quicker you get the ball to someone, the more time you give them to do their job in the team. If I ran the ball towards John Robertson, and then ran the ball towards him a little bit more and then eventually gave him the ball…Clough would say, "As soon as you get the ball, give it because he needs time to decide what he’s going to do so the quicker you get it to him, the better it is for him and the better it is for us as a team."

So he had wisdom but I helped to, in a sense, create that position that became part of my game to a large extent. It wasn’t just him simply saying, "Go and do this." I took it on myself, mainly because it suited the assets that I had and although as a young player when I first went into midfield - I wasn’t a good tackler – I never ended up the greatest of tacklers in the world, but I would put my foot in, I would never ever pull out of a tackle.

I’ve noticed that. There’s a clip in the film of Graeme Souness grabbing you by the throat and there were some – you’ve mentioned Johnny Giles – shall we say some tough characters in the middle of the park in those days.

Well the game was more physical and to be quite honest if we got frustrated, Clough would say, "You’re not in the game – go and kick somebody. That’ll get you in the game because it’ll provoke a reaction." Obviously, if you get frustrated yourself, and you got the opposition trying to kick you, which most opposing teams in that physical time had one or two players that would want to get involved in trying to kick you just for the fun of it. They would try and kick you to intimidate you, to try and put you off your game.

But again, that suited me down to the ground. You could try and kick me as much as you want because I’ll come straight back at you with as much as I’d got for the full 90 minutes.  So me moving into that position really helped the team and I think the other players did appreciate my contribution, perhaps more so than the supporters. Supporters like goal-scorers anyway better than any other players or the goalkeepers make saves but midfield players sometimes can be missing from a supporters’ appreciation of how we managed to beat this team today.

I wonder if these days, football fans on the whole are a more appreciative and knowledgeable bunch. Some days I think yes, others probably not. We’ve seen it down here at the City Ground with people like, for example, Paul McKenna didn’t always get the recognition that they probably deserved.

McKenna played a very similar role to myself.  The former chairman Nigel Doughty said to me, "We’ve found the new John McGovern." To which I replied, "Yeah, you wish."

Obviously no disrespect to Paul McKenna who was a very good player but I just happen to think I was a bit better than he was.

The Claude Makelele thing – that did annoy me a little bit, when he supposedly fashioned this new position

Currently, lots of teams deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation, looking to get between the lines and expand the pitch but essentially, unless I have misunderstood, you get two defensive midfielders. How does that sit with someone like yourself since this was a job that you single-handedly carried out?

My ability to be able to run forever was one reason that I could cover that central midfield area and obviously, with the record we had of winning trophies, that was partly due to the fact that people like Archie Gemmill and Martin O’Neill - on the other side - or Ian Bowyer, if there was a space, they went into it: they attacked it which makes the opposition commit a player and confront them. It leaves gaps. Had I played alongside somebody else and the two of us had sat in midfield, I’m not so sure we would have scored so many goals and won so many trophies. It’s quite an attacking formation if you think about it: take John Robertson – you would consider him our left-sided midfield player and Martin O’Neill – who didn’t really want to play on the right side of midfield because he thought he was better in the middle than me – he had a fair bit of success going that way. We know John Robertson was the greatest creator in the side but it left Martin that chance and either Ian Bowyer or Archie Gemmill so we had a loose 4-4-2 formation because everybody attacked and everybody defended.

The strange thing that people would see if they looked at some of the replays of the matches we played, even in open play, we’ve got our centre halves up in the opposition’s penalty area – and not just for set plays because everybody tried to contribute at both ends of the field if it was possible.

A modern equivalent might be 4-2-3-1 and you also had Viv Anderson bombing down the right hand side.

If there was a gap there and Viv could make us an extra man, he goes because he knows I’ll just move over a few yards and if he happens to lose it, I’m there.

In many ways, it’s a simple game, overcomplicated by tactics.

Formations to me….it’s like  what’s been said about the Dutch and the days of (Johan) Neeskens and (Johan) Cruyff. They said, "The Dutch play total football". I say, "No, they’re all good players." If one of their centre halves has got the ball, or say Ruud Krol, he’ll go forward and dribble in midfield but one of the midfield players will just slot in behind him so they don’t lose their shape and get picked off by the opposition.

‘Total Football’? It’s just common sense football.

It’s using the space in order to create space when you have the ball and deny space when the opposition have the ball.

It’s like if you take up the game of squash, which I took up when I finished playing football. Somebody says to me, "When you’ve played a shot, you go back to the T. If you are a novice, you ask, "Why should I go all the way back to the T if I’m at the other side of the court?" But then you play a little bit more and you realise that as soon as you play a shot, you go back to the T because you have more chance of covering the whole court. It’s like when you’re playing in midfield; the reason you stay there is because if it breaks down, you have to make the opposition go wide.

Cloughie said, "If you’re in the centre and you force them to go wide, they’ve then got to cross it. It’s like meat to the lions for Lloyd and Burnsy because they’re playing into our hands." He appreciated that because I did it before he was the one who used to say things like that.

If I got caught in the opposition’s corner flag supporting a player if we were all attacking at the time, he’d say, "With your pace, it takes you three weeks to get back. You can’t run. Lloydy can’t run and Burnsy can’t run but if there are three of you, they’ve got to go around you. And with those two, it’ll take them a quarter of an hour."

So the job I did fitted as part of a well-oiled machine.

A vital cog in the middle of the machine?

Well, we had great players: Shilton, Francis, Robertson, Burns, maybe even Archie in that at times (Let it be known that John is smiling broadly when he says this), and then you’ve got Ian Bowyer, myself, Martin O’Neill…while not being ‘great’ players, we played well in that system. We all respected each other and if the commitment and ability is there, you can’t fail.


In part III, talk turned to the here and now and more specifically, the achievements of Leicester City and Bournemouth, the difficulties facing a club operating under a transfer embargo and his thoughts on the current Forest manager, Dougie Freedman.

In case you missed it, part I is here.

Coming very soon.