'It's always harder at Forest, because of the history. Expectation is greater'
With the club managerless after Steve McClaren's exit, City Ground great John Robertson tells Jon Culley why European Cup-winning Brian Clough is still such a tough act to follow
Saturday 08 October 2011
One by one they appear at the door, the old faces.
Some a little thinner, some the opposite, framed mostly by grey hair now, at least those who still have some. Liam O'Kane, Kenny Burns, Garry Birtles, Frank Clark; Bryn Gunn, Colin Barrett, John O'Hare, Archie Gemmill.
There is one absentee, or rather a late arrival. Knowing glances are exchanged, a few comments too and shared laughter as the memories resurface. It is the launch of his autobiography, his version of the stories they all know so well, and cherish. If he had forgotten, muddled the time or simply muted the bedside alarm and drifted back into sleep, it would only be because that's how he was.
In fact John Robertson was not being shambolic; nor was he standing in the car park, savouring the last deep drag on a cigarette, as was also suggested. He was a little behind the group waiting for him in a function room at Nottingham Forest's City Ground because he had been at the cemetery at the top of Wilford Hill, a couple of miles away, remembering his daughter, Jessica, who had been born with cerebral palsy and had died 15 years ago to the day, aged only 13.
"The book brings together the story of my career but there have been some moments that weren't so nice," he said. "I wanted to get those down, too, in particular as a marker for Jessica, so that her life is remembered,"
It was not the first tragedy to befall Robertson. Four years before Jessica was born, he had lost his brother, Hughie, in a car crash, on the eve of Forest's European Cup semi-final against Cologne. The chapter that begins with Robertson, in his best suit, placing a letter beside his daughter's body in a private moment at the funeral home is beautifully poignant.
Thus this celebratory gathering has a sadness to it, too, yet he keeps it to largely to himself, eager not to dampen the spirits of friends and team-mates who queue for him to sign copies, endorsing another documentary addition to the history of an era by which Forest, the club, is still defined.
The echoes are inescapable, not least because the City Ground's dowdy main stand, fronted by its unprepossessing single-storey offices, has changed so little. In reception, a bust of Brian Clough welcomes visitors. Cast in bronze, it has an almost Shakespearian magnificence about it, even if the Bard was never captured, hand cupped to mouth, barking orders across the stage.
Robertson will never tire of the memories yet understands how to others they may be a burden, particularly to whichever candidate is chosen to succeed Steve McClaren, who walked away last weekend, as the 12th permanent manager in 18 years since Clough retired.
"It is always harder here, because of the history," he said. "The expectations are greater. It is how things will be for years after Sir Alex [Ferguson] finishes at Manchester United."
It would need powers of persuasion that he cannot imagine to talk Robertson himself into becoming involved, even though his friend and erstwhile employer, Martin O'Neill, can be particularly convincing in that respect. Robertson has been at O'Neill's side since they both worked as insurance agents in the 1990s and has been assistant to his fellow Forest icon at all of the clubs he has managed, from Grantham Town to Aston Villa. Yet he makes it clear in the chapter of his book devoted to O'Neill that the idea of the pair resuming their partnership at the City Ground is not one he would entertain.
"I've lost count of the times people in Nottingham have asked me whether Martin and I would have liked to come back to Forest," he writes, "but [referring to the possibility that they might have taken over from Dave Bassett in 1999] I'm not too disappointed it didn't happen.
"I would have hated to do anything to spoil my reputation as a player at the City Ground. It is a matter of immense pride to me that I was held in such regard during my playing days at the club and I wouldn't have wanted to have tarnished that in any way by things not working out in management.
"I'm well thought of in Nottingham because of my playing days and I'd like to leave it at that."
Not that he discounts the possibility of working again with O'Neill elsewhere, 14 months after leaving Villa. "If Martin gets another job I would consider it," he said. "Although I wouldn't be offended if he wanted to go a different way. I'm not a rich man but I'm not skint either.
"But football still has a big pull. Who would not be drawn to it when you watch a team like Barcelona play? Lionel Messi is just wonderful to watch and when you see him you think, 'That is what the game is all about', and you have aspirations to play like that, although unfortunately most players are not Lionel Messi.
"I do think Martin will come back. I'm biased but I think he is very good at his job and the game needs people like him. Whatever you say – and we have had our critics at various times – over his career he has been very, very successful.
"It would have to be the right job but I'm sure any offer he got he would consider seriously. He loves the game and I'm sure he is missing it. He is good at the job and deserves to be back in it."
Yet even were Robertson to relent and agree to go with him, it is doubtful that Forest would tempt O'Neill now. The Ulsterman left Villa feeling his hands were tied in the transfer market – the same reason, fundamentally, why Forest have lost Billy Davies and McClaren in the space of four months.
The club's targets have been realigned dramatically since the Football League agreed to introduce a version of Uefa's financial fair play rules. The Premier League was within touching distance only last May when Davies steered Forest to the play-offs for a second consecutive season yet ambitions now are no loftier than "living within our means".
It is not a mantra likely to excite O'Neill, nor Stuart Pearce, nor Roy Keane, whose more recent endeavours in the Garibaldi red would make them popular candidates too. The next occupant of Clough's old office is likely to be young and ambitious but with insufficient pedigree to be making unsustainable demands, on which basis Karl Robinson, 31-year-old manager of MK Dons, and 38-year-old Paul Tisdale, who has overseen successive promotions with Exeter, are seen as contenders.
Robertson would envy neither. "It's so difficult. People still hanker after the European Cup days, but [for a club of Forest's size] it can't really happen now, as the big clubs get bigger and bigger. In our day it was more of a level playing field.
"That's not to say they cannot be a Premier League club again. It is a big enough club for that. But people want success instantly and it never happens that way."
Super Tramp: My Autobiography, by John Robertson, published by Mainstream (£17.99)
From European Cups to League One and back...
6 January 1975: Brian Clough appointed manager.
1977: Forest promoted to First Division.
1978: Clough leads club to title.
1979: Forest win European Cup after beating Malmö 1-0 in Munich.
1980: John Robertson's goal enough to see off Kevin Keegan's Hamburg in Madrid as Forest retain the trophy.
1984: Forest reach Uefa Cup semi-finals, but beaten in controversial circumstances by Anderlecht.
1989: Playing Liverpool in FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, game is abandoned six minutes in following crowd crush. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died.
1990: Forest win second League Cup in succession, defeating Oldham 1-0.
1993: Relegated from First Division, with Clough stepping down after 18 years.
1994: Frank Clark takes Forest back up.
1996-97 Clark sacked as Forest struggle; Stuart Pearce unable to keep them up.
1997-98: Bounce straight back under Dave Bassett.
1998-99: Finish bottom in the Premiership and lose 8-1 at home to Manchester United.
2004-05: Relegated to League One.
2007-08: Back in the Championship under Colin Calderwood.
2011: After two near misses in the play-offs under Billy Davies, Steve McClaren takes over, but lasts just 13 games before resigning.
By Alex Gildea-Trott
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