Phil Shaw

John McGovern: a life of 'what if' moments

Created on 03 Oct., 2012 4:37 PM GMT

Even for the wildly fluctuating world of the professional footballer, John McGovern’s story is unusually replete with “what if” moments.

* What if he had stuck to his guns and not returned to Hartlepools after Brian Clough gave the 15-year-old trialist a dressing down when they first met?

* What if the self-doubts which invaded his thoughts when he first watched his new Derby County colleagues play had crippled his self-confidence?

* What if he had succumbed to Clough's pressure to sign for Brighton & Hove Albion -- or decided against rejoining him for the infamous 44-day reign at Leeds United?

* What if moves to Cumbria or East Anglia had come off before Clough re-emerged to propel Nottingham Forest from mediocrity to European Cup glory?

* And what if Ally MacLeod had done his homework properly and integrated him into Scotland's squad for the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina?

At key points during what became an illustrious career -- strewn with medals and the distinction of lifting European football’s greatest prize twice -- McGovern had choices, or others were faced with decisions about him, that would have dramatically changed his life.

Clough’s name is a constant thread throughout his odyssey, of course, and the unsung captain graciously insists he owes “every honour I won” to the complex character who was his manager at four clubs.  

It is equally true, though, that McGovern, like Clough’s right-hand man Peter Taylor, was integral to the incredible successes the East Midlands rivals enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s. 

The long relationship between Clough and Taylor finished on acrimonious terms. In contrast, Clough and McGovern began awkwardly but improved as it went on, although as the 62-year-old Scot recalls, the rapport was professional rather than personal.      

McGovern, born in Montrose and brought up in Co Durham, attended a grammar school where rugby union was the winter sport. He discovered the round-ball game by chance, being invited to make up the numbers while on holiday at his grandmother’s place at Bo’ness, near Edinburgh, and finding he “had never had so much fun”.         

In 1965, Hartlepools, having been forced to seek re-election four times in six seasons, had a dashing new manager who offered trials to local teenagers. Central Park FC sent McGovern and his best friend, Kenny Jessop. Clough, like the monarch meeting the performers at the Royal Variety Show, went along the line of young hopefuls, shaking hands

“When he came to me,” says McGovern, then a Rolling Stones fan, “he told me to ‘Stand up straight, get your shoulders back and your hair cut. You look like a girl’. I cycled home and told my mum ‘I’m not going back there – the bogey man has arrived’

“But I plucked up the courage to return, and he had me playing in the reserves when I was 15. When I turned 16, and I was still at school, he gave me my [Fourth Division] debut against Bradford City .                                

Clough and Taylor, doubtless aware of Middlesbrough's growing interest, sought to persuade him to sign apprentice forms. “I’d flunked my O-Levels, which was embarrassing because I was supposedly the brains of the family. My mum wasn’t sure about my signing for them but my gran, who was down from Scotland, talked her round. Cloughie told her: ‘Trust me. I’ll look after him. He’ll make it’.”

In fact, Clough departed for Derby in mid-'67, to be replaced by Angus McLean. “The summer McLean was appointed I went in, out of politeness, to introduce myself,” says McGovern. “He told me ‘You’re Clough’s blue-eyed boy but I’m going to change that’. I could do no right. He treated me like dirt and picked on me mercilessly. He made me so uptight, I used to be sick on the pitch before games. ‘I got through the season and we won promotion for the first time in Hartlepools’ history. We got a bonus of £40 per man for going up. The chairman told us we had to look the part, with club blazers and a crest. In our next wages they deducted £20 for the suit, which wasn’t worth more than a tenner!”                          

More worrying than any sartorial concerns was McLean’s hostility. McGovern was wondering “if it was worth continuing to play football” – another of those “what if” moments – when journalist and ex-England player Len Shackleton made contact and said ‘He’s still interested’. I went ‘Clough?’ He said yes and it would help if I submitted a transfer request.

“McLean grilled me, called me a liar, traitor etc. I told him I was happy before he arrived. I think I played a few games in the Third Division, then joined Derby [for £6,500].”

He remembers seeing the Rams play Chelsea in the League Cup at the Baseball Ground. “They were terrific…Willie Carlin, Dave Mackay, Roy McFarland, Alan Hinton, John O’Hare. I thought ‘How the hell am I going to get into that team?’”

At first he didn’t, playing outside-right in the reserves until Taylor collared a dismayed McGovern to say he’d received a “bad report” about him. “He’d been told I’d never got involved in the last match. I said that was true. He asked why. I said ‘Because I never got the ball’. I must have run 15 miles but nobody could win the ball and feed it to me.”

Asked whether he wanted to switch to centre-midfield and do precisely that, he grasped the opportunity. “That was a turning point. I got in and stayed in. Having such good players around me made the difference. Clough gave me confidence. I thrived because I felt comfortable.”  

McGovern helped Derby to promotion, and within three years, to their first-ever League championship. In their final game, his winner against Liverpool effectively sealed the title, though the squad were on a Spanish beach when they learned that both Liverpool and Leeds had fluffed chances to overtake them.

Their run in the European Cup in 1972-3 hinted at what Clough and some of the same players could achieve in continental competition, but it ended in disbelief, exasperation and anger at the semi-final stage. Their 3-1 first-leg defeat against Juventus in Turin was the only game he ever played, McGovern says through gritted teeth, where he was “almost in tears” at the end.

 “I hadn’t cried since my dad died when I was a kid. But we were totally baffled by referee Gerhard Sculenburg’s decisions. He booked Roy McFarland and Archie Gemmill for nothing which meant they missed the second leg (a 0-0 draw), whereas they were cutting us in half with challenges and going unpunished.

“We thought ‘It’s on TV; someone will have seen what’s gone on’. But the final whistle went and that was that. There were rumours that the ref left in a brand new Fiat sports car!”

Was Clough’s stunning resignation in late ’73, after a falling-out too far with Derby’s old-school chairman Sam Longson, a misjudgement? “Of course,” the Clough loyalist says with disarming candour. “He signed a letter saying he’d resigned. It was a major mistake because it allowed the chairman to come out waving his letter, saying ‘Look, he’s quit!’

McGovern attended protest meetings and experienced “the strong feeling of injustice in the town that the man who had made us champions had gone”. But when Longson shrewdly appointed Dave Mackay, a crowd favourite in Clough’s title-winning side, he thought that was the end of the campaign.

 Instead the dissent rumbled on. One day, before training, Mackay slapped a sheet of paper on the dressing-room table, asking anyone who wanted to play for him to sign it. McGovern promptly put his name down, only for McFarland to ask why he had done so. “I said ‘I want to play football. I’m not interested in politics’.”

 That evening Clough rang to ask his reason for signing. “I told him all I’d ever wanted to do was play football’. He said ‘That’s all I wanted to know’. He was wondering who had persuaded me, but I make up my own mind.”

Mackay, ironically, judged that his holding role was better filled by another attacking player. In came Bruce Rioch, who scored freely from midfield. McGovern became marginalised.

 Clough phoned him. Did he fancy joining him at Brighton? “I replied ‘But you’re in the Third Division’. He put the phone down on me. He called again, this time dangling the captaincy. I said ‘But you’re still in the Third Division’.”

In mid-1974, they were League champions Leeds.  Anyone acquainted with The Damned United must have wondered what possessed McGovern to join a patently unwelcome Clough at a club renowned for its tight-knit “family”.

 “I wasn’t in the Derby side and I come back to that feeling of being comfortable and confident working for him. When I signed he warned me I wouldn’t get in straight away because he had (Billy) Bremner and (John) Giles who were absolute geniuses. But if anyone got injured he felt I was better than (Mick) Bates or (Terry) Yorath. Then Bremner got a long suspension after being sent off in the Charity Shield, so I went in at the deep end.

 “On my first day I thought ‘I’m in the s*** here’. It wasn’t the open hostility you see in the film. It was the Leeds lads being baffled why Pete Taylor hadn't come too and asking me and John O’Hare what he was good at. Norman Hunter shook my hand and didn’t let go. Eventually he said ‘Last time you played here you dumped me on the halfway line. Good luck’. “

 McGovern, who shared Clough's view that one particular Leeds player wasdeliberately over- and under-hitting passes to him, sees Hunter, Eddie Gray and others at matches today. They get on well. But he believes many of the Don Revie stalwarts' “grouses” with Clough had “no validity”, and that they set too much store by Revie’s dossiers. 

“If you’re Norman and you play central defence for England, you don’t need a detailed analysis of the striker you’re facing. Cloughie used to tell me: ‘You play midfield. Go out and pass the ball, or I’ll get someone who can’. Sorted. He had so much confidence in his players that he didn’t need to dissect the opposition.”

Clough’s sacking might have been avoided, he argues, if Taylor had forsaken Brighton to resume their partnership. “That was a major part of the problem. He couldn’t work without him, not with the same success. He was an ally, a sounding board, his mate, another voice in the dressing-room. They complemented one another’s qualities.”

McGovern became persona non-starter at Elland Road. Leeds, reviving rapidly under Jimmy Armfield’s stewardship, “couldn’t wait to get rid of me”. He turned down a transfer to Carlisle. Then a deal with Norwich fell through.

Clough, meanwhile, resurfaced at Forest in January 1975. “I was in Derby one night and went round to his house and knocked on the door. I said ‘Are you interested in signing me?’ He told me I shouldn’t have come to his home and to bide my time. ”

O’Hare and McGovern followed Clough to the City Ground for half the £120,000 that took them to Leeds seven months earlier. Forest had been 13th in the Second Division when Allan Brown was sacked to make way for Clough, but Brown, it transpired, had sown the seeds of future triumphs. “Clough inherited (Tony) Woodcock, (Viv) Anderson, (John) Robertson, (Ian) Bowyer and (Martin) O’Neill; half a side. They were under-achieving. He instilled belief, then started adding players.

“Things clicked from the moment Peter Taylor arrived. It was as if Clough’s confidence grew when that happened. I remember talking to another player and using the phrase ‘When we get promotion’. He said ‘What do you mean, when? Don’t you mean if? There are no certainties in football’. But I was convinced we’d not only go up, but do really well when we got there.”

Even so, it took an own goal by Millwall’s Jon Moore, giving Forest victory in their final game, and a Wolves winner at Bolton, as McGovern and co flew to Majorca for a typical Clough end-of-term break, to clinch third place and promotion in 1976-77.

They took the First Division by storm, losing only three games en route to the title. And unlike the previous newcomers to finish as champions, Ipswich Town in 1961-62, Forest built on their success. In 1978-79 they finished runners-up, losing just three again, and won the European Cup and League Cup.                                                                        

The 1-0 win in the European final against Swedish side Malmo is remembered for the result, not the performance. “We were very disappointed,” admits McGovern. “In the dressing-room it was as if we’d lost. We wanted to put on a show. By the standards Cloughie set, we fell short.”

The semi-final defeat of Cologne was a better advert for their qualities. Trailing 2-0 at home after 20 minutes, they led 3-2 before Yasuhiko Okudera’s late equaliser. “One paper had the headline ‘Japanese sub sinks Forest’. It was assumed that we’d blown it But the manager went on TV and said ‘I hope no one’s stupid enough to write us off’. We knew we just needed to win by a single goal. And we did.”

A year later, McGovern lifted the giant trophy again, Forest overcoming Hamburg 1-0 at the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid. “We’d had a week in Majorca beforehand, with no training, which people might say wasn’t the best preparation. And we had only four substitutes because Stan Bowles didn’t like flying, which shows how small our squad was.

“But John Robertson, who was our best player, produced a piece of magic to win it. He went past Kevin Keegan like he wasn’t there. If we got a goal we’d close up at the back. West German football was massively strong and Keegan was European Footballer of the Year. So we were all much happier with that performance.”

 Today, after spells in management at Bolton, Rotherham, Plymouth, Hull and Woking, McGovern is an insightful pundit for BBC Radio Nottingham, covering Forest's wins, woes and “what ifs” back at the level where Brian Clough found them. He also works as an after-dinner speaker and is finalising his autobiography.

* From BACKPASS magazine. For subscriptions:

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