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Waterfront Festival

Interview: John Robertson

15 December 10 interview: Al Needham

John Robertson was your archetypal terrace favourite for over a decade at Forest. In part it was because he obviously liked his pies, pints and fags, but mainly for providing the cross that Trevor Francis got on the end of in 1979, the goal that beat Hamburg in 1980, and all those photos of kids holding up the European Cup in Nottingham pubs thirty years ago.

What are your memories of the pre-Clough era?
Well, I was doing really well under Dave McKay in the old Second Division, but then I got a bad injury and he left to take over at Derby after Clough and Taylor. The new manager Allan Brown called me ‘Jimmy’ on his first day, which I was not fond of. We didn’t get on at all. My whole attitude changed; I didn’t particularly live right at the time. I was in a phase that a lot of players get into, where they blame everything else but themselves for what’s going wrong. And then Clough and Taylor took over.

Five years later, you were scoring the winner in the European Cup Final. What did Clough do to turn you and Forest around?
He was like a whirlwind. You immediately got the impression that he meant business. What he and Peter Taylor brought to the club in general and me in particular was confidence; the fact that they could take me to one side and tell me what was wrong with me - but that they believed in me - was brilliant.

Peter Taylor is still a criminally undervalued part of the story even now, isn’t he?
Well, the best times at Forest were always under the both of them, weren’t they? I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a statue for Pete as well.

Was there a day, or a game, or a moment of truth when you finally realised that Forest were actually going to do what they did?
Everyone points to the day when we beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford in the championship season, but that was in December, when we’d been top of the league for a while. For the players, it was long before that - I’d say it was 20 minutes into the first game of that season, when we beat Everton 3-1 away, and thinking; “Hey, we’re not actually too bad, here.” 

How did you get away with not being a typically conditioned athlete - even by seventies standards - and still being a genius player?
Well, thank you very much for calling me a genius. Do you know what, I’ve always found the game of football to come very easily to me, as far as what my brain decided I was going to do on the pitch. It was just something that I never particularly had to work hard at, as far as ability was concerned – I just had to work hard at the workrate side of things. I was never particularly a good runner, so I always found training difficult. I was always out of breath and I never enjoyed it.

One of the great stories about you is when you were warming up at Anfield before a Liverpool game and miming the penalty kick that won the League Cup in front of the Kop. Is that true?
It was actually with a tennis ball. And it wasn’t the League Cup final penalty; it was the first away game in the league since we knocked them out of the League Cup semi-final in 1980. I’d scored a penalty in both legs and then we had to play them in the league the week after. The Kop were giving it the usual. I could hear them shouting abuse at me, so I took the tennis ball, put it on the spot and rolled it in. Your basic wind-up.
To people of a certain generation, you’re the icon of that era. Why do you think you’re remembered so fondly?
Well, people get remembered for scoring the goals that matter, but I dunno – I was there since I was a boy, Nottingham Forest were my only real team. I was a good player, I’m not going to say I wasn’t, but I was fortunate to be there during the most successful period of the club’s history, and I’m very flattered to have been a part of that. I’m sorry to say that I can’t see it being done again; the Big Four are the Big Four and football is not the level playing field it was in my day.


Illustration by Judit Ferencz

You were always seen by Forest supporters as one of us...
Yeah. I don’t think I ever changed. I was always that boy from a council house background. I’ve always been one of the boys, I’ve never had delusions of grandeur, I liked my pint…I was just an ordinary Joe who was good at what he did.

Talking of pints, what pubs did you hit up on a night out?
When we were in our pomp, we’d get a right good turn-out at a little place called McKay’s Café in West Bridgford for chip butties, and then on to Uriah Heep’s wine bar on Byard Lane, next door to the Cross Keys. What’s it called now? Dogma.

Didn’t you go to the Beer Keller opposite the train station as well, that was panelled on the front to look like a massive beer barrel and had an Oom-Pah-Pah band?
That was before the Clough era. The younger lads like me and Viv Anderson used to go to places like that, as well as the King John and The Bodega. But as soon as Forest started to go places, we got a bit upmarket - even me! The great thing about that side was that once a week, on a Wednesday if there was no midweek game, we’d all meet up and have a social evening. There’d be a great turnout - even people like Archie Gemmell, who didn’t drink and lived in Derby. There was a great team spirit amongst the lads.

You must have felt like kings when you went out in town…
Nottingham was buzzing at the time. Before we got going, it was all Robin Hood. Even now, it’s a toss-up between him and Brian Clough as to who the real legend is round here.

Scoring the winner for Forest against Hamburg SV in 1980 or scoring the winner for Scotland against England in 1981: what means more to you?
Scoring against England at Wembley is a really big thing to me. When I was a little boy, I only thought the European Cup was for the Di Stefanos and the Puskases of the world - it was a different planet. But Scotland v England was once a year, and a hugely important game. You’d dream about playing for your country and scoring against England, so to actually achieve it? (clenches fist). But I saw that as an attainable goal, however difficult. It never crossed my mind that I could score in a European Cup final, because I felt it would be totally outside my realm. When I think about it, I have to say that I’m a lucky boy to have done both.

You were part of the Scotland 1978 World Cup squad. Did you and that squad really think you were going to win the World Cup, or were you shocked at the expectations that were foisted upon you?
Ally McLeod raised the expectations of the nation, for sure, but why not be optimistic? It was a great team of players. I only got my first cap at the Home Internationals, when McLeod announced the World Cup squad, and I think that if he’d waited until after the Home Internationals, I wouldn’t have gone. I had an awful debut against Northern Ireland; Martin O’ Neill was on the other side and knew my game inside out, and told Bryan Hamilton how to play me. I remember coming off and telling my Dad; “Well, at least I’ve played for my country.” Argentina wasn’t a great experience for me. I didn’t enjoy it.

What was Ally McLeod really like?
I don’t really know. I never really spoke to him very often. I don’t know why he picked me - maybe there was some pressure on him to pick me, as Forest had won the league. I look back on it now and think I probably shouldn’t have gone.

There’s the famous news footage of the Scotland squad stranded on the coach after the 1-1 draw with Iran, with supporters outside going mental. What was that like?
It was dreadful. But those supporters had a right to vent their anger, because we’d disappointed them. The thing is, there’s no-one more upset in situations like that than the players. I played in that game - we were awful.

What happened to Scottish football? There seemed to be a constant stream of world-class players that dried up in the early eighties…
I really don’t know. I don’t seem to see so many great Scottish players these days. But even with the great players that they had – Denis Law, Jim Baxter, Kenny Dalglish – Scotland didn’t
particularly do much better. So while people wax on about those great days of yore, they forget that there weren’t that many in the first place.

Do you think there was too much importance put on beating England?
No, because I think it is important to beat England. Any way you can (laughs).

Practically every book on Brian Clough states that your transfer from Forest to Derby in 1983 was the incident that destroyed the friendship of Clough and Taylor. How do you feel about that?
I don’t agree at all and never have. I think Peter had had enough of football and Brian Clough sorted him a deal to leave. Then the Derby job came up, and I think Brian was disappointed when Peter took it. As for me, my contract was running out at Forest. Yes, I chose to go to Derby - I remember my wife saying to me on the day I went in there; ‘whatever you do, don’t sign’, but I did. I knew after a month that I wasn’t going to enjoy it there. I was having an awful time with my daughter’s health problems, so my mind wasn’t on football. I thought it was time for a change, but looking back it was a mistake. Nothing to do with Derby or anyone anyone there did. But it’s the only mistake I made in my career.

Did you enjoy living in Nottingham?
I still do. Apart from the five years with Martin O’Neill at Celtic, I’ve been here since 1968. I love it.

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