As an actor, you might know Jonny Owen from his roles in Shameless, Murphy’s Law or Svengali. But it was moving behind the camera for his hugely successful 2015 documentary I Believe in Miracles – which charted the rise of Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor to European Cup winners in 1979 – that started Owen on a path to becoming a director at the club he has grown to love...
Was I Believe in Miracles originally meant to be a short film?
It was going to be about forty minutes long for Notts TV. But I thought it could break out from being a local story to a national one with a larger audience, and that proved to be the case. At that time, we didn’t expect for it to become what it did over the following eighteen months. My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came when I found an old song by the Jackson Sisters called I Believe in Miracles. It just married so beautifully to those images from the 1970s, and I don’t particularly know why, but it worked so well. There was something otherworldly about that soul/funk/disco sound – it was all very inspirational.
And of course, what happened to that Forest team was otherworldly. John Robertson gave me a great line once. He said, “We went from losing to York away to sharing a jet to Tokyo to play in the World Club Final with Queen.” That just perfectly summed up the trajectory of their path and demonstrated what I meant about the music. This glittery, highly-produced dance music fitted perfectly with footage of this chubby Scotsman running down the wing.
Everyone has got their own impression of Brian Clough. How did you go about putting forward your own presentation of a figure that has taken on an almost mythological status?
It was something that I thought long and hard about. I’m a huge fan of When We Were Kings, and I saw Brian Clough as quite similar to Muhammad Ali in the impact he had on British culture in the twentieth century. He lived several lives: a brilliant young footballer whose career was tragically cut short by injury; the hot young manager at Derby County; the double European Cup winner at Forest; and then, bless him, his later years. Each of those chapters could be its own film; he led such a huge life that was so wide ranging, much like Ali. When We Were Kings just honed in on those three or four years when Ali was absolutely brilliant, and that’s how I wanted to represent Clough. I wanted to present an unapologetic look at Brian Clough in his zenith: this is a man touching the sun.
There are so many other great managers who have come over the years and fallen by the wayside, and were lost to popular consciousness. But Clough is still so popular. He was funny, irreverent and slightly anti-establishment - all the things that we love. That’s why he’s stayed in our consciousness.
And were you surprised by the response the film received?
Before we’d shown the film to Universal, we met with a couple of other distributors. I remember one of them saying, “I love it, but who’s going to watch it? It’s about a bloke who died ten years ago, and a team from forty years ago. I’d understand if it was Liverpool or Manchester United, but you must be mad.” I always remember his parting words: “You’re going to be lucky if you sell 500 copies in the club shop.” I left the meeting thinking, “Oh God, what have I done here?” But when Universal saw it, they immediately said that they loved it and wanted to put it into cinemas. It became the biggest sporting film at the box office in 2015 by quite a distance. It sold 96,000 DVDs in the first six weeks of release, which was completely unheard of.
So how did you go from making a documentary about Nottingham Forest to becoming a director of the club?
The club was struggling before the new owner came in. He’d seen the film, and asked me what we could do as a club to convince the fans that this could be the start of something. It’s a big decision, but I said that they could cut ticket prices. Obviously that’s easy for me to say, I’m not the one funding the club. But that’s what he did - out of his own pocket - and this year we’ve had seven sell-outs, and that’s with only having spent three weeks in the play-offs all season. From that point we developed a relationship where they would ask me for my advice on things. Eventually, he asked me to come on board to help with the media and communications.
What does it mean to be a director of the club?
In terms of social media, Nottingham Forest is now in the top forty European clubs for media interactions, and that’s a football club that hasn’t been in the top flight for twenty years. We’ve got remarkable potential, it’s just about realising it. Nottingham Forest is a club that's close to my heart and I'll do anything for this fan base now, especially after seeing how they supported the film.
How has being a director changed your perspective?
I see now how much a football club is affected by a result on a Saturday; if you lose, it's difficult to put anything on social media because you've lost, you know? I don't sleep particularly well now before a game. I've forgotten what it was like to be a fan where you just go and have a few pints, have a bit of a sing and go home. Now you're a bag of nerves because you're so desperate for them to win. You know next week’s tickets will be much easier to sell, people have a smile on their face and you're nearer the play-offs. You see how important those things are, and that's just me being on the board. Imagine being a manager or a player. The pressure they're under is phenomenal, and listen, they're well paid for it, but it is still massive pressure.
So you’re an actor, and documentary-maker and a member of the Nottingham Forest board. How do you prioritise?
I'm very lucky. The club are very good with letting me work remotely when I want to. I won't lie, and my partner Vicky (McClure) will say this in an annoyed voice: I’m a workaholic. I work long, long days and most weekends. But it’s not work. I make films and I'm a director of Nottingham Forest. If you want me to put the hours in, I'm happy to do that, because I absolutely love what I do. It's the great saying: the man that loves his job never works. One of the big things you learn as you get older is to do rather than say. Look at LeftLion, for argument’s sake, you guys run a fantastic magazine. It’s really important to try and do something positive. Without wanting to sound hippy dippy and all the rest of it, if you can do something you love and that's positive and you can get off your backside, do it. Why not?
You can listen to the full interview with Jonny Owen by downloading the LeftLion Film Podcast from iTunes