John McGovern on leading a band of Scots to 1980 European Cup glory with Nottingham Forest

Forty years ago was the last time five Scotsmen played in a European Cup winning side as Brian Clough’s men claimed their second crown

Nottingham Forest celebrate after their 1-0 win over Hamburg in the 1980 European Cup final in Madrid. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock
Nottingham Forest celebrate after their 1-0 win over Hamburg in the 1980 European Cup final in Madrid. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock

There was an 11-minute spell in the 1980 European Cup final that took place 40 years ago today when the extraordinary feat Nottingham Forest were building towards became specially wrapped in a saltire.

The 67th minute introduction of John O’Hare against Hamburg in the Bernabeu wasn’t a turning point. That came with the classy 23rd minute strike by John Robertson, the winger’s artistry as central to Brian Clough’s men inconceivably retaining the cup as it had been to them winning it.

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But the appearance of the Renton-born forward makes the occasion unrivalled outside of Celtic’s claiming of the trophy in 1967. That is because when O’Hare joined fellow Scots John McGovern, Kenny Burns, Frank Gray and Robertson on the pitch at Real Madrid’s amphitheatre it became the last time five men born within these borders played in a European Cup winning side. A quintet reduced to four when Gray was replaced in the 78th minute.

That high five will never be witnessed again. Likewise the alchemy from Clough, and assistant Peter Taylor, that allowed an unfashionable, small-time club to scale the peak of the continental game twice inside 363 days when only three years earlier they had scraped promotion to England’s top flight through finishing third in the second tier.

The 1980 European Cup final was the apogee of the fantastical Forest side that the idiosyncratic genius Clough moulded from a mix of mavericks, magisterial presences and metronomic performers. Into the third category came captain McGovern who, speaking yesterday, accepted that the 1-0 victory over Hamburg eclipsed victory by the same scoreline against Malmo the previous year.

“It is always more difficult to do something for a second time than a first, and that was true for us when you consider what we were up against,” said the 70-year-old. “We had lost through injury our main striker Trevor Francis, the first million pound player in English football, and the goalscorer when we won it, and had to replace him with an 18-year-old in Gary Mills. Hamburg were becoming a German football superpower and they had their main striker Kevin Keegan shake off injury to make it. The odds were stacked against us.”

McGovern said that the aura surrounding Keegan, European footballer of the year in 1978 and 1979, and “such a big loss” as Francis ensured that the English public had written off their prospects. Even when, only four months earlier, they had added a Super Cup success earned against Barcelona in the Nou Camp, to their burgeoning honours list.

“What we had as a side, though, was what was made famous by that old John Wayne film – true grit,” said McGovern. “When we were up against it, we refused to give up. We were a good side, and then had the magic of Taylor and Clough on top of that.”

As well as grit, Forest could count on the gold dust Robertson was able to sprinkle on big occasions. It can be difficult for subsequent generations to appreciate the talent that oozed from the, sometimes, slovenly-looking performer. McGovern provides the context with the ultimate compliment for a player that Clough’s predecessor at Forest, Allan Brown, tried to send to Partick Thistle in a swap deal for Ronnie Glavin

“John was a young player who had drifted at Forest before Clough and Taylor arrived [in 1975]; he hadn’t stepped up. But they changed all that with the inspiration they gave to players. I always say that people talk about Ryan Giggs, and he was a great player, but he only had one foot. John could do it with both feet. He showed that in the two European finals. He was able to produce the cross for the goal in the 1979 final because he could take two defenders out by going to his left. In 1980, he came off the left, played passes with Garry Birtles, and then squeezed in a low shot with his right. Sorry Ryan Giggs, but you were no John Robertson.”

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And no other manager was Clough, who bucked every managerial convention with his quixotic ways. Not least ahead of 1980. “We went to Mallorca for a week’s retreat before it and there were only two rules: no training, and no curfew,” said McGovern.

Despairing he worried about being “rusty”, Peter Shilton begged for a training session in the lead-up to the final for which Forest had been stationed at an out-of-town Madrid hotel without facilities. It led to another Scot, trainer Jimmy Gordon, ordering the team bus to stop after leaving a 15-minute pre-final session at the Bernabeu. What he had spotted was a roundabout with a patch of land. On a dual carriageway. Wherein players fired balls at the keeper from the fringes. “All these cars would slow down as they came up to the traffic island, wind down their windows, put forefingers to their temples and shout ‘Anglaise loco’,” said McGovern.

The madcap ways of Clough and Taylor never worked again in quite the same fashion following Madrid. Money, for McGovern, was the root cause. “They lost their focus after that second European Cup win and were arguing all the time. The relationship fractured.”

McGovern suffered from the dissolution of the partnership. Taylor wanted to recast the Forest squad in the aftermath of 1980 and called McGovern into his office to say his time was up and he should move on. “Then Clough came back from holiday and said I was going nowhere and he could use me across the 42 league games. Then the next week Taylor called me in again and said I was definitely going. Then Clough a week later said I wasn’t. I eventually said to them, ‘look you have to give me clarity, who’s managing this team and what do you want me to do?’ Eventually Clough said I should consider my options.”

He left for Bolton in 1982, as Taylor departed from Clough’s side, but his football career was entwined like no other with the man who acquired the sobriquet Old Big ‘Ed. He played for him at four clubs. The first was Hartlepool, before he took him to Derby County, where the title was won and a European Cup might have been secured but for a controversial semi-final defeat to Juventus. “If the referee wasn’t bought off, he didn’t know the rules of the game,” said McGovern. 
Clough then signed the midfielder, along with O’Hare, for Leeds United for that ill-fated 44-day spell in 1974 now popularised in book and film, before he spared the pair any more misery at Elland Road through buying them for Forest shortly after he was appointed. Not, though, before McGovern had endured some bitter experiences as a player the Leeds support despised for his Derby and Clough links.

“He told me I wouldn’t be accepted, and he wasn’t wrong,” said McGovern, inducted into the Scottish football hall of fame in 2017 having inexplicably been one of only two Scots to have lifted the European Cup not to earn a full cap with the country he left at seven but which he would “have walked over broken glass” all the way to his homeland to represent. “I was booed by the Leeds fans when I warmed up and booed when I went on to the pitch,” he said. “Afterwards I was driving out of the car park and said to my good lady to stay in the car as I took a trip into the supporters’ club. ‘You can’t do that’, she said ‘I can, I said, and will, with my wife then demanding she come in with me if I was determined to do it. I went in and the booing started again, people throwing beer mats at me as I made my way to the bar and ordered a draft half Guinness. The barman gave me a look as if unsure whether to serve me, then put the drink down and said ‘this one’s on me’. I drunk it slowly and walked out before my wife said ‘never do that again’. Even now, whenever I go back to Elland Road, I always make sure I am wearing one item. It is a Nottingham Forest European Cup winners tie. And I always make sure you can see the ‘European Cup winner’ stitching.”

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