JOHN McGovern had a key role during a moment in British football with a fairytale script and a fantasy finish. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff as Nottingham Forest rose from English football’s second tier to double European Cup winners in the space of three sensational seasons in the late 70s. But the Scotsman says he would trade every one of his medals for even one full international cap.
Brian Clough’s impact at the City Ground is documented in a superb movie which will enjoy special cinema screenings across Scotland on Tuesday, 13 October and the fact that it remains a story worth telling decades later underlines the magnitude of the feat. But while McGovern, who was captain of that side relishes every single memory, he says the fact it didn’t earn him a Scotland call-up still casts a slight shadow.
“I’m very, very proud to be Scottish and that was probably the biggest disappointment of my career, that I never got one cap for Scotland,” he said. “I played twice for the U-23s but I would have loved even one cap because I think that would have meant more to me than all the medals I’ve got.”
McGovern is a product of a football education doled out by Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor. His father had passed away when he was 11 and having first signed him as a 15 year old for Hartlepool and given him his league debut aged 16, he followed them throughout their careers, including the bountiful time at Forest. People have criticised him for that loyalty and tried to demean him as a Clough disciple. “I just ask them if they want to see my medals!” he says.
They told the players that football was a simple game, they asked them to try their hardest but they understood limitations. Making a mistake and falling short was not condemned, not giving all they had was. Which is why, while McGovern would love to see the nation involved in Euro 2016 in France next summer, he says the players should not be vilified if they come up short. “I’d dearly love Scotland to be there but you can only give your best. You always have to give 100 per cent but if you do that and you just don’t have the ability then you just have to accept that others are better.”
That is why, while Jose Mourinho decrees himself the Special One, the guys who played under Clough, and lived through the success he masterminded, know the truth. “Mourinho blames everyone else. He blames referees, even physios. Clough didn’t look for those excuses,” adds McGovern. “If we came up short Clough would blame us or if he knew we had given 100 per cent and the referee had made a mistake, he understood that human beings make mistakes. If we were beaten by a better team he would acknowledge that.” McGovern says Scotland fans have to share that sense of realism.
“Scotland just doesn’t produce players of the quality needed to compete at world level any more. People will say that is a little demeaning but if you think about it I won European Cups but I never played for Scotland. At that time we had players like Don Masson, Asa Hartford, Willie Carr, Graeme Souness, Archie Gemmill, Billy Bremner, Bruce Rioch. That’s a wealth of midfield talent but now I couldn’t rhyme off three or four Scotland players who would have that kind of influence against international opposition.”
But, in Gordon Strachan, McGovern’s colleague John Robertson sees shades of the psychological prowess of his Forest gaffer. It was Clough and Taylor who transformed the winger into one of Europe’s most influential players at that time.
“Clough was one of the most charismatic men I’ve ever known. He believed in you and if he praised you then you felt 10ft tall. Scotland just now are not as good as Germany and Poland but what Gordon has done is give the nation a lift. He has lifted the spirits of the players.”
In the mid 70s, Nottingham Forest believed their best days were behind them but then Clough came in and turned the impossible into the possible. The movie about that journey is called I Believe In Miracles. Something of that magnitude is needed to get Scotland back to a major championships. Fairytales still happen but Strachan may need to tap into that Clough magic to prove it.