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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Viv Anderson

18 July 11 interview: Scott Oliver

"People ask me to try and compare Brian with Fergie... it’s very, very close but I’d say that Cloughie just pips Sir Alex"

As part of a second wave of promotional events for his 2010 autobiography, First Among Unequals, former Forest and England legend Viv Anderson recently held a Q&A at Central Library. It attracted a smattering of hardcore Forest supporters of all ages who had hopped down there with their hardback copies and bestest biros, hoping to find out a little more about the man who took 96% of the vote for the right-back berth in the Forest All-Time XI and his role in the club’s halcyon days.

So, Viv, when did the book come out?
It’s been out about a year now and as you can imagine I’ve been everywhere publicising it. It was up to number 6 on Amazon at one stage; I don’t know where it is now, I’ll have to check…

Why the delay in getting it autobiography out there, given that you retired a while back now?
Well, it’s not just about playing football and winning a game here, a game there; it’s about life in general, you know. It’s about someone who played the game for nineteen years; it’s about marriages, about divorces, comedy, tragedy, all sorts of things. It was actually prompted by a friend of mine who travels quite a lot and he reads autobiographies and he was saying “You’ve got to have a better story to tell than some of these.” So we put this project together with ghost writer, Lynton Guest and here we are now.

Obviously, the title – First Among Unequals – refers to you being the first black player to wear the Three Lions. At the time, did you consider yourself a pioneer, a role model for black Brits, or were you more concerned about your own ambitions as a professional footballer?
Well, it was really always just about playing: being in the next team, the next squad, and the next everything else. I was always very focussed on the immediate battle because if you get carried away with the occasion and everything else, you don’t play as well as you’d like to play and then the next time you might not get picked. So, my focus was being fully committed to playing well on the night. It was nothing about being a pioneer – only now, 19 years on, people say to you ‘you did this’, ‘you did that’, and you look back on it and perhaps consider it. But at the time, no, it was all about playing football and doing well.

A friend of mine who has read the book tells me that he was a little surprised that you didn't make more being England’s first black footballer. Do you feel that people gabbing on about that symbolic milestone has maybe masked your other significant professional achievements?

Er, no, as I said earlier, the book was really about the life of a footballer who grew up in Nottingham, the pitfalls and the ups-and downs we’ve had over that period in time. So, playing for my country, which was a great honour for me, was just another chapter in the book for me. It’s important we treated it that way in the book. I know it’s high up there in my achievements, but it’s just one thing that goes along with all the others: you know, winning Championships, European Cups, League Cups… So, I was very fortunate to have a very good career in which I won a few things.

You’ve been in football a long time now. Did you suffer much racist abuse from supporters when you started out? And do you believe the situation regarding racist language from the stands is better today?
You’ve got to remember that I started in the early Seventies and there weren’t many black faces around, so you had to take a lot of flak, as I mention in the book. You know, Cloughie did things to help me in that period. But now I go to football quite often and people who chant that kind of stuff are very quickly ejected from grounds. I think it’s come a hell of a long way from when I started.

So, moving on to the Forest period, you joined them as a schoolboy, am I right?
No, I went to Man United as a schoolboy for a year. I travelled up and down in the school holidays, but they said to me “you’re not going to be good enough for Manchester United” and I came back to Nottingham and got a job as a silk-screen printer. I was there for about six weeks and then Forest said “come and play for us”; I played for the youth team one afternoon, went back again on the Saturday and signed for them. At 17 years old. I also made my debut at 17.

So, you were obviously there before Cloughie…
Yeah, there were a couple of managers. There was Dave Mackay then Allan Brown was there for a while...

Then Cloughie arrived. Did you feel a change of atmosphere at the club? Did he give you all a clear vision that you – this group – could achieve the sort of things you ultimately went on to achieve?

Not really. I remember his arrival well. We played Tottenham at home in an FA Cup tie and he burst into the room and said “I’m the new Nottingham Forest manager.” We didn’t really know much of him… I know one thing: he never took me to the replay – I came off with cramp with twenty minutes to go and he never took me to the replay! So, I was thinking the writing’s on the wall for me, but, no, I don’t think we ever thought ‘something’s going to happen here’ with this group of players; just slowly but surely he moulded the team and the players, bought well, and shaped us into something that was a major force for four or five years. We didn’t know at the time – me and the likes of Tony Woodcock and John Robertson were just young lads that were part of a snowball effect, really. It just gathered momentum until it got to the stage where we thought ‘I think I can play for England’ or ‘I think we can win this and that’. It was just a snowball effect. We never thought when he came through the door that day that he was going to take us to the greatness that he did. He was obviously one of the more colourful characters to have graced English football to say the least.

Did you ever get in his bad books?
[Laughs] Oh many, many, many times, yeah. Too many to mention. I mean, we won trophies but it wasn’t all rosy. But he was a really, really, really good manager. And people ask me to try and compare him with Fergie – because Sir Alex Ferguson bought me: I was his first signing – and I say it’s very difficult to actually compare them. They were both very driven in what they want to do and achieve, and very clear about how the team should play, but if I was forced to choose between them I’d have to just go for Brian Clough, only because the resources that Forest had were nothing like what Manchester United had. United had the best stadium, the best players – everything that you could possibly want to make a great football club. At Forest, we had to share the training ground with cows and had to get them off the field before we could train, things like that… So, it’s very, very close but I’d say that Cloughie just pips Sir Alex.

So tell us a bit about the characters at Forest. I’ve read somewhere that you were Justin Fashanu’s room-mate when he smashed a door in on tour. What was he like?
Yeah, he came to a pretty tragic end but he was a good lad, really. We didn’t know he was gay at the time but we had our suspicions. We’d ask him but he wouldn’t really say much. I remember John Robertson asking him in training one day and Justin replied “I’ll tell you the answer if you give me a kiss”. I had friends in Nottingham who I went out with; we took him along and he joined in with us. It’s just a sad end, really.

What about the time you and Mark Proctor were taken to Peter Taylor’s house by Cloughie, when the two of them were supposed not to be talking to each other?
I don’t know whether they weren’t talking to each other, but yeah, Peter had just gone to Derby and he wanted me and Mark Proctor to go there on loan. I refused and Mark refused, and Cloughie decided he was going to leave us at Mr Taylor’s house to find our own way back. It was over near Gunthorpe somewhere. This wasn’t the days of mobile phones. I left at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and made it back at 1 o’clock in the morning. It was one of the fruitier nights we had with Mr Clough…

You’re a Clifton boy, originally – which might well have helped you get back from Gunthorpe – but did you get a sense of having changed the city when Forest were lording it over Europe? Could you feel Nottingham develop a bit of a swagger, or at least have a spring in its step?
Erm, yeah, I think it’s inevitable. Whatever city it is, if the team’s successful then invariably people will be talking about it. So, I think it was the same with Nottingham at the time. I think we put it on the map. It had never done anything like what we achieved and clearly it was a big thing. If you ask people about Nottingham Forest, first and foremost they say Brian Clough and then they talk about the European Cups.

So, clearly it was up there in people’s thoughts and that’s what football does to a city’s profile if you’re successful. Did winning European Cup mean more than playing for England?
(Pauses) Erm, to play for my country was always a great honour… I don’t think you can put them in the same category. When you start off in your football career, you never think you’re going to get to these levels and when you do you’re overjoyed and then something else happens and you’re overjoyed about that. So, they were all great for different reasons at different times.

What about a non-footballing accolade like the MBE – where does that rank among your achievements?
Yeah, well that was given to me for services to football by my peers, so that was another great honour to go to the palace and get the medal from the Queen herself. It was a great, great day and it’s up there with all the rest of the things I’ve achieved.

Lastly on the Forest era, have you patched up your differences with the club after they didn’t allow you to play match commemorating the 30th anniversary of your England debut there?
Yeah, I’ve been back many times since then. Things move on. For whatever reason, they chose to do that and at the end of the day, everything moves on.

What’s the relationship between Forest players of that era and the club, and are you still in touch with many of your colleagues from those glory years?
Yeah, yeah. I was on the phone to Tony Woodcock only yesterday and John Robertson last week. Garry Birtles, too. So, yeah, it’s not every week, but I’ll speak to most of them over a six-month period. I see Kenny Burns from time to time. My parents still live in Nottingham so I come over at times and go out with different people, so yeah, I stay in touch and see them quite often.

Life after Forest, then – you went to a couple of small clubs in Arsenal and Man United. What were the highlights of your times there? And which was your favourite of the clubs you played for during your career?
They were all good. I mean, the time I had at Arsenal was a growing period – we had a lot of good players there that would have walked into any team in the country at that time, but we were a little bit inconsistent, you know. Great as individuals, but as a team we couldn’t really get it together. George Graham came in and finally we won a trophy, which they hadn’t done for a long while. The League Cup. So, yeah, fond memories of the Arsenal. And then I went to Man United and it was quite frustrating. Sir Alex inherited a lot of young players who they thought were going to be good players but didn’t really turn out to be as good as they thought. We managed to win the FA Cup in my last year [1990] and then the Beckhams, Scholes, Giggs, Butts all came through after that. I was a Man United fan from a young lad and to go and play for that club was a great honour but I wouldn’t say it was any less of an honour to have played for the Arsenal when I did. The club had a great tradition, a double- winning team, and even Sheffield Wednesday, who I ended up playing for, was a big club with a great tradition there. So, all of them were great, I think. I enjoyed them all.

Who was the best player you came up against that you were responsible for marking?
They were all difficult for me [laughs]. Erm, I had good tussles with John Barnes. Willy Morgan who used to play for Man United, and Preston when I was younger. Peter Barnes. I mean, they were all difficult. But on the day you’ve just got to do your best and combat the threat.

You won thirty caps for England. There were Phil Neal and Mick Mills around at that time…
That’s right, yeah. Mick Mills was the captain when I went to the World Cup in Spain, 1982, and Phil was in the squad too. And Phil had played a lot up until that point, part of the great Liverpool team. 

Thirty caps by most people’s reckoning would be a good career. Do you feel like you’ve underachieved or overachieved, given that you made your debut quite young? And did you get a fair crack of the whip?
I think that if you’d said at the start of my career that I’d get thirty caps I’d have been delighted. To get one I was absolutely delighted. So, looking in the cold light of day now, to get thirty I’m more than happy. More than delighted.

After you finished playing you had a year as Barnsley’s manager, then went off to Middlesbrough to be Bryan Robson’s Number Two. Do you have any regrets over the managerial side of things? Were there any posts you applied for?
No, no, I never applied for any jobs, really. I knew Bryan was going to play, so I was virtually doing the managing job anyway at first. We were there for eight years. It was a perfect time to leave Barnsley anyway. I’d had a crack at it for a year and Bryan and me had always said that if an opportunity came up to go into it together, we would do, and I thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Subsequently, when Bryan left – when we both left – and Bryan went to Bradford not long afterwards, he asked if I wanted to come and I said I didn’t because I thought it was doomed from the word go. So, at the end of the day, it was a decision I took not to go back into it. I’m still involved in football; I do games as a pundit for MUTV, so I still see a lot.

Sounds like you and Robbo were – or are – good mates. Were you ever part of his drinking club with McGrath, Whiteside and those boys?
Not at all. Couldn’t match them!!

Your website says you’re busy with things outside of football, too. Most of the work is as an ambassador or as a consultant. What does that mean, concretely? 
Just that people use my name to promote things. I’m going to Boston and Vegas next week to do a similar sort of thing. So, I’m a brand ambassador for a few people and it keeps the wolf from the door, as they say.

What about your old club, Forest, then? What do you think Steve McClaren should do to improve upon the fairly decent job that Billy Davies did there?
Yeah, I think he did a very good job there. Trying to get out of that league has always been notoriously difficult. He’s had two cracks at it, Billy, and got to the play-offs twice and just missed out. I think he has to buy wisely, Steve McClaren; hopefully he’ll have a bit to spend and I hope the board back him now they’ve got him at the club.

Finally, any advice for budding young 14-year-old footballers with big dreams out there in the suburbs of Nottingham?
Well, I think they should really listen to whoever coaches them or looks after them. Take on those good bits of advice and work hard on your game. I think a lot of young  lads today get into things for a little while, then they get bored and move on to the next thing. I think if you want to be successful – David Beckham is a great example; he was one who wasn’t gifted, really – I mean he was a talented footballer, but with things like his free kicks, he practised and practised and practised to the nth degree. He’d come in earlier than anybody else, he’d stay out longer than anybody else, and it eventually becomes a natural thing to him. So, I’d say the youngsters should really work with that sort of dedication.

Viv Anderson's website
 

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