McGovern down the middle on derby day

He was a key midfielder in the glory days for Clough at Derby and Forest. Now he tells Phil Shaw the rivals lack confidence and cash
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First impressions, they say, are lasting impressions. John McGovern's initial experience of the man with whom he would scale the heights at Derby County and Nottingham Forest was not auspicious.

It was the mid-1960s and a motley crew of teenaged trialists at Hartlepools had been lined up to shake hands with the club's brash new manager. Upon reaching the 15-year-old who captained the nearby grammar school at rugby and cricket, Brian Clough provided an early glimpse of his penchant for the unexpected.

"Stand up straight, get your shoulders back and get your hair cut," Clough snapped with what would become a familiar nasal twang. "You look like a girl." McGovern, a devotee of the Rolling Stones in those days, cycled home to tell his mother "the bogeyman" had arrived at the club. He, for one, would not be going back.

He did return, of course, not only serving Clough in his first managerial outpost but also at the fierce East Midlands rivals, as well as joining him at Leeds during what is now redefined as the Damned United era.

It was McGovern who scored the goal for Derby, against Bill Shankly's Liverpool, that effectively sealed the 1971-72 league championship. And at Forest, where he became the great man's captain, he lifted the European Cup twice, the only Scot to do so.

The fortunes of both the Rams and Reds have dipped since Clough and the supreme talent-spotter Peter Taylor ran the show, first at the Baseball Ground and later, 15 miles down the A52 (or the Brian Clough Way as it was renamed after his death in 2004).

When McGovern, 61 years old and working on what promises to be a fascinating autobiography, returns to the City Ground today to cover the 88th competitive derby as a summariser for BBC Radio Nottingham, they will be contesting Championship points. Forest's need is more pressing.

Under the stewardship of Steve McClaren, the former England manager (and ex-Derby coach), last season's play-off semi-finalists lie fourth from bottom in the embryonic table, having collected only five points from six matches and crashing 4-1 to West Ham in their most recent appearance before their own fans. By contrast, Derby – with one-time Forest mainstay Nigel Clough in charge – won their opening four fixtures. Despite two defeats, they are in fifth spot.

Last season, when Forest completed a double over Clough Jnr's side, winning the home fixture 5-2, former Derby manager Billy Davies led them to sixth position and a failed tilt at the play-offs, compared with their neighbours' 19th. This time, the standings are almost exactly reversed, but McGovern – whose first, uncomfortable brush with Clough Snr underlined the folly of rushing to judgement – cautions that it is too early to suggest their fortunes will continue in the same vein. "They could yet finish in the same positions as last season," he argues, a professional viewpoint rather than a partisan one. "Forest have had some managerial upheaval and Steve McClaren is struggling to get a result, but I think they have a better squad than Derby, who I feel have over-achieved so far. There's still 40 games to go – plenty of time to turn things around.

"Forest have got to get their season going in this game. If they really are ambitious to get promotion back to the Premier League, they must start getting points on the board. The West Ham defeat was a disaster – every department of the team was lacking – but at Southampton last Saturday [a 3-2 loss] they played well against a team still riding a wave after promotion.

"At the moment I'd only call Forest's position 'teething problems'. The commitment at Southampton was fine. They scored two magnificent goals and could just as easily have won it by the odd goal. I fancy them to beat Derby, and in Lewis McGugan they have the potential match-winner. For once in this derby the home side are the underdogs, which may help them psychologically."

McGovern appreciates from personal experience the value of self-belief to a player, as did his late mentor. "Brian Clough used to tell us: 'If I could give you all a confidence pill before a game, I could go home and watch the racing on television'," he recalls. As a midfielder not noted for elegance or speed – he has a muscle missing from his upper back that made his running look ungainly – his worth was not obvious to some managers. He never, for instance, won a full cap, though his man-marking prowess and ability to cover the centre-backs might have been a precious counter-weight to the flair that Scotland once had in spades.

So what does he think Clough saw in him? "Dedication, commitment and honesty," he replies. "In the last minute, whether we were 3-0 up or down, I'd be playing the same way. I had no pace or physical presence. But because I could control and pass a ball, I made a career out of football. I understood the game, and I knew that, over 90 minutes, I could play against any midfield player in the world and do OK."

Clough swiftly realised it too, and McGovern, in turn, felt "comfortable" playing for him and freely admits he owes him "every medal I ever won".

Similar complaints about a lack of pace were levelled at Nigel Clough when he was "the number nine" in a later Forest line-up. Like McGovern, however, he used the ball intelligently and could see situations quickly. Not that his contribution to Forest's cause will count for anything this afternoon – he was embroiled in an altercation with Davies two seasons back – but McGovern has been impressed by the way he has followed in distinguished footsteps at Pride Park.

"He's done a fantastic job without a great deal of financial help. During the transfer window last January, Forest got Paul Konchesky, an England international, on loan from Liverpool, whereas Derby's big signing was Ben Davies from Notts County. That shows the constraints he's working under. It's a tough remit to win matches when you have to reduce wages and sell your best players. Even Einstein couldn't solve that equation."

The young Clough, 45, has also had to contend with criticism, particularly during Derby's slump last winter, that he owed his position and continued employment to the family name. McGovern scoffs at the suggestion. "His record at Burton Albion virtually guaranteed him the Derby job even if he wasn't a Clough. They were 15 points clear in the Conference before he left them. How could they have ignored him when he was on the doorstep?"

McGovern describes the son of Ol' Big 'Ead as "a strong individual" and adds, pertinently, "he's very much his own man". As for McClaren, he hopes he can overcome his early setbacks to improve on his new club's successive anti-climaxes under Davies. "They keep making the play-offs but they haven't reached the final once," he says. "It's like Groundhog Day."

As the parochial struggle to command Brian Clough's legacy resumes today, Forest would settle for reliving last season's relative successes over and over again.

McGovern under clough

Hartlepool (1965-68) 76 games, 7 goals

Derby County (1968-74) 227 games, 20 goals

Leeds United (1974) 4 games, 0 goals

Nottingham Forest (1974-82) 335 games 11 goals

Total:642 games, 38 goals


Derby County Division One title (1972), Divison Two title (1969)

Nottingham Forest Division One title (1978), European Cup (1979, 1980), Super Cup (1979), League Cup (1978, 1979)