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Football League

Martin Hardy: A hair-raising tale of Brian Clough and the game's top prize

Life beyond the Premier League


"Yes," he replies.

"Do you remember me? We used to go to junior school together."

"Hold on, that was 54 years ago!"

As it happens John McGovern does remember, but then his memory is as sharp as the Nottingham Forest team he captained in 1979 and 1980 to two European Cup successes. "A provincial team winning the European Cup twice," he says. "That will never happen again."

Life beyond the Premier League is today more literal; before the Premier League, before the Champions League, the trophy that Roman Abramovich had to spend about a billion pounds to win. The trophy that John McGovern lifted in the air twice inside 12 months for a few quid less.

His story starts at Hartlepool, where he is back when we meet, signing books for the people he grew up with, people whose memories match his. Theirs is a different nostalgia, of playing with childhood friends, without structure but with discipline. McGovern had lost his dad when he was just 11. He was 13 before he started playing football for a proper team. At 15 he became Hartlepool's first apprentice. He instantly recalls the first time he met Brian Clough. "He said, 'Stand up straight, take your hands out your pockets and go and get your hair cut. You look like a girl.' I was frightened to death. I said to my mum, 'I'm not going back there, the bogey man's arrived.' You don't forget the first time you meet Mr Clough."

Mr Clough? Still?

"He is to a lot of the lads. I called him Brian once I stopped playing for him but then I was quite privileged. I'd been round to his house a few times." That was 15 years after the first haircut. Where Clough went, McGovern followed, usually with great success. Leeds didn't work but that has been told plenty elsewhere.

McGovern's tale has more relevance now because it seems implausible for a Hartlepool apprentice to even dream of twice picking up Europe's biggest prize, never mind actually going ahead and doing it, at a provincial club.

"I don't like the academies," he adds. "It stops children growing up with their mates, it stops them maturing with their mates, it stops them from being able to play football against their mates. That is all taken from them as soon as they join academies. It breeds an elite society within football.

"The boys think they're something special and the parents think they're something special. I have had to say to one or two of them, 'How many first-team games have you played?' You're bragging about your son being in an academy, how many league games has he played?

"Until you have 75 league games under your belt you have achieved absolutely nothing. That is the dinosaur in me, disagreeing with a modern concept. I never thought it was a sensible concept. Let children grow up."

He grew up at Hartlepool United, won promotion, got bullied by Clough's successor and then went on a trail to Derby, Leeds and Nottingham Forest that was littered with gold.

And what were McGovern's thoughts as he lifted the greatest club prize in world football?

"My dad died when I was 11," he adds. "For some strange reason an image of him would manifest itself when I was lifting trophies, because he wasn't around. Like any son I hero-worshipped my dad. I'm delighted my mum is still around, at 89.

"There wouldn't have been anything better, apart from holding my son in my arms for the first time, than getting the European Cup and going up to my dad, and saying, 'This is for you'. "

It was his father's search for work that led the family to Hartlepool. Back "home" the humour is good and there is genuine affection for a "local" boy who made good.

"You've had a great career, John. Congratulations," adds an elderly chap as he walks past the table where McGovern is signing copies of his autobiography, From Bo'ness to the Bernabeu.

"Thanks, I had an incredible career," says McGovern, "I won a lot of medals but I was always grateful I got paid to do something I would have done for nothing. What kind of a privilege is that? It was an honour."

'John McGovern: From Bo'ness to the Bernabeu' is on sale courtesy of Vision Sports Publishing, £18.99