Interview: John Robertson, ex-Nottingham Forest footballer nicknamed ‘Super Tramp’

John Robertson beats England goalkeeper Joseph Corrigan to score Scotland's winning goal in a 1-0 win, on 23 May 1981
John Robertson beats England goalkeeper Joseph Corrigan to score Scotland's winning goal in a 1-0 win, on 23 May 1981
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jOHN Robertson has the late Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough to thank for an image that he cannot shake.

“John Robertson was a very unattractive young man. If one day I was feeling a bit off colour, I would sit next to him. I was bloody Errol Flynn compared to him. But give him a yard of grass and he was an artist. The Picasso of our game”

Brian Clough

The lazy, loping stride, the unkempt appearance, the booze and the fags and the disdain for shaving that remains with him to this day are as big a part of the package as the dreamy left foot that drew the prettiest of pictures. The Tartan Army, who like their heroes to be one of them, wouldn’t have it any other way.

When Robertson and the co-author of his new autobiography set about agreeing on a title, they came up with Super Tramp, thanks to a headline in the Sunday People 33 years ago. The first word, it has to be said, is rather more flattering than the second, but eventually, the former Scotland winger was persuaded. “I wasn’t sure because sometimes you want to get away from an image but, in the end, I just went along with it. C’est la vie I suppose. It’s something I don’t think I’m ever going to escape.”

And why should he? It was part of who he was, a laid-back Uddingston lad who, according to Bill Shankly, could thread a pass with all the accuracy of a snooker player. Had he been the kind of man who lay awake at night worrying about the wrinkles in his shirt, would he have waltzed so nonchalantly up the touchline? And anyway, what’s a few hairs out of place when you have scored the winner for Scotland at Wembley?

When Bryan Robson bundled over a bearded Stevie Archibald in May 1981, Robertson grabbed the ball and headed for the penalty spot. Trevor Francis, his Forest team-mate, made great play of advising Joe Corrigan which way to dive, but the Scotland player, engaged in a game of double-bluff, wrong-footed the goalkeeper by picking his usual spot. “When it went in, I was full of relief, but it was only sitting in the dressing-room afterwards that I thought, God, what if I’d missed it. I’d never have been allowed back north of the Border.”

No wonder Robertson likes the sound of plans, reported only the other day, to revive the fixture. He won two European Cups in the space of a year, but he has long insisted that the highlight of his career was the goal at Wembley. “It was like a pilgrimage for Scotland fans, going down there every second year. And it had been such a massive thing for me as a boy, watching it on television. I used to think, ‘God, I’d love to do that, score the winner or something’. I bet you were the same. Fortunately for me, it came off.”

At the end of another disappointing week for Scottish football, his memories of that day come as light relief. Not even he can quite believe that, after the game, he hitched a ride into London on the England team bus because he had arranged with Viv Anderson and Tony Woodcock to have a night out at Stringfellows. “I just sat at the back, keeping quiet,” recalls Robertson, whose book has the usual quota of footballers’ tales.

Take for instance, the night he chatted up a receptionist at the Scotland team hotel. She seemed reluctant at first, but agreed in the end to give him her room number. When he knocked on her door later that night, there was no answer, so he telephoned down to the head porter and asked to be connected. “You want to speak to Mr Stein at this time of night?” came the reply. Had it not been for the sleeping pills his manager took, Robertson would have been in big trouble.

Then there was the Kenny Burns incident. With Scotland due to play Israel at Hampden, Jock Stein demanded that Robertson and his Forest team-mate make the trip north on Saturday night, immediately after their match against Crystal Palace in London. The problem was that Burns drank too much vodka and lime while waiting for the taxi. By the time they reached Heathrow Airport, the defender was so “utterly bladdered” that they were turned away from the departure gate. Forced instead to take the train, they staggered “like two men in a three-legged race” across Euston Station while a mob of Manchester United fans chanted: “Kenny Burns is pissed, Kenny Burns is pissed.”

Robertson scored eight goals in 28 appearances for Scotland. He wasn’t up to much in the early days, which included the draw with Iran in Argentina, but his contribution to the 1982 World Cup included a goal in the 5-2 defeat of New Zealand. It came from a free-kick, curled into the top corner after some well-rehearsed confusion between Graeme Souness and Frank Gray.

His biggest regret is that his brother never saw him score against England. Hugh Robertson, and his wife, Isobel, were killed in a car crash just before John was due to play against Cologne in the semi-final of the 1979 European Cup. The following year, his father died. “My dad saw me win the European Cup but they both were gone when it came to Scotland-England. That would have been a really big thing for them because my brother used to go down every two years. He used to organise trips to Wembley.”

It would not be the last time that Robertson was visited by tragedy. In 1996, his daughter, Jessica, died at the age of 13. Born with cerebral palsy, she had been a quadriplegic, who knew only pain and suffering. His book includes a moving chapter on the private grief that accompanied his life in the public eye. “She died without us ever knowing whether she knew who her mum and dad had been.”

In Nottingham, everyone knows John Robertson. Six years ago, fans voted him the best player in Forest’s history. Going nowhere until Clough arrived in 1975, he played in 243 consecutive games for them between December 1976 and December 1980. When the manager broke Britain’s £1 million transfer barrier by signing Trevor Francis, he told the England striker not to worry. “Just give the ball to Robertson and he’ll do the rest,” said Clough.

When he left for Derby County in 1983, providing the catalyst for the famous fallout between Clough and Peter Taylor, he had already become a folk hero at the City Ground, thanks largely to his part in those European Cup finals. In 1979, his cross enabled Francis to head the only goal against Malmo. In 1980, he scored the winner against Hamburg.

It would be almost impossible now for Forest to win the Champions League, which is not to say that the competition has improved. “I’m not a total fan of it,” says Robertson. “It’s the name of it that gets me. Champions League? Clubs can finish 25 points behind the league leaders and still get in it. In my day, it was only for the champions. I’ll grant you, it was a bit easier once you were in it because there were fewer games, but you had to win the league to get there. It meant two years of hard work.”

It was in those days that he developed his relationship with Martin O’Neill, the Forest midfielder who went on to manage Leicester City, Celtic and Aston Villa. As an assistant to O’Neill at all of those clubs, Robertson was “not so much a coach, more a watcher”, although in the foreword to Super Tramp, O’Neill pays tribute to the Scot’s judgment of players and their attitudes.

Robertson, now 58, is in no doubt that the five successful years they spent together at Celtic were the best of their managerial lives. He says that O’Neill’s secret was, and still is, his honesty with players. “Obviously he has tremendous knowledge of the game, but players were left in no doubt as to what he thought of them. There were no grey areas. Maybe that is why they worked so hard for him. He told them the truth.”

Robertson says that he and O’Neill are proud when their players follow them into the dugout, as Neil Lennon has at Celtic and Paul Lambert at Norwich City. The latter has taken his share of stick for modelling himself on O’Neill, right down to the sweatshirt with its collar up, but Robertson is having none of it. “You know what? I think that’s a massive compliment to Martin. We’re talking about a lad that has won the Champions League under Ottmar Hitzfeld.”

If O’Neill returns to management, and wants Robertson to join him, the Scot will not let him down, although he admits to enjoying the 14 months that have passed since they left Aston Villa. Without that break from the game, he would not have written the book, which he insists was done for personal reasons. “I wanted to put it down as a marker for the family, to show that I’ve been here, basically.” He has done that, and plenty more besides.

John Robertson – Super Tramp: My Autobiography, Mainstream, £17.99.