John Robertson: “You don’t win two European Cups being ragtag and bobtail.”

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
October 17, 2018

You could make an argument that John Robertson is the most significant player in the history of British football. Granted, you have to make a few logical leaps. You have to accept Robertson was the best player in Nottingham Forest’s great team of the late 1970s/early 80s: not the most controversial of takes, since basically everyone who saw them, all the team’s other players and the manager said the same.

You then have to regard the league title after promotion and the two European Cups that team won as the greatest achievement the British game has ever seen. That’s more contentious: fans of Leicester, Manchester United, Celtic and Liverpool among others will argue the odds. But Brian Clough’s men, whose story you know, are at least in the conversation.

All of which is subjective and ultimately doesn’t really matter. But really it doesn’t need to. What matters is that Robertson is the sort of player, the sort of football hero that doesn’t really exist now. Teams like Forest have no hope of keeping someone that good anymore.

He was a player of genuine brilliance who stayed at a small, provisional club for the consequential part of his career. He stayed long enough to make himself an icon, leaving as his career was on the downturn. Or, as he puts it, when he had “shot it.”

“There was no point in going anywhere else,” Robertson tells Tifo on an afternoon in a Nottingham pub, before meeting up with his old colleagues. Every week the members of that Forest team who still live around the city get together – not because they’re clinging onto the old times, but because they’re mates.

“We were the best team, or the second-best team to Liverpool. Maybe people did try to buy us, but we [usually] never found out about it. Cloughie kept that sort of thing secret. He wouldn’t be telling us.”

A move to Manchester City never materialised, nor did one from a slightly more glamourous club. “I got a phone call once from an agent, asking if I wanted to play for Real Madrid. Apparently they were interested in me and Tony Woodcock.” And it was hardly a surprise if they were keen.

Every contemporary of Robertson’s will tell you that he was the best player in that team. The two-footed left-winger, unassuming, resolutely un-athletic looking. He’s the man Brian Clough once said he would stand next on the (rare) occasions his self-esteem was low because “I looked like Errol Flynn by comparison”, but also the player who the captain of that team, John McGovern, said was “like Ryan Giggs, but with two good feet.”

So did Robertson know how good he was, back then? “No, not at all. I know I had an ability to beat players, and had a brain. But there were a load of things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t tackle. I couldn’t head it. I couldn’t particularly run. So for a person who couldn’t do that I made a decent player.”

That self-effacement is a constant with Robertson, to the point of exasperation from his teammates. But he’s said before that he gets “embarrassed” by the flattery. “I’m a wee council house boy from Viewpark in Scotland. I’ve never been the most forceful. I love it when they say these nice things, but I also remember the days when I got booed by the crowd too. People forget the nightmares you had – I remember those. I don’t think I’m capable of getting too big-headed. My daddy and my mammy would’ve killed me.”

Part of his relative lack of ego might be down to embarrassment, part of it might be a generational thing. But part of it might be the way that the brains of the exceptionally talented work.

“Most of it was instinct,” Robertson says. “Usually when I did think about [my game], when I did visualise how to beat a full-back, it was when I’d had a nightmare the previous week. When everything’s going great you don’t think too much, then suddenly you have a bad game.

“I used to worry about when I hadn’t play well. Martin O’Neill always used to say I was a nightmare, always asking him “Do you think I played well today? Was I any good?” I was a bit insecure like that.

“I hated playing badly, and yet, because of the make-up of our team, we had some of our best games when I never had a kick. Sometimes I used to get man-marked, no matter where I was on the pitch, so Cloughie used to tell me to stand near the dugout. I’d go deeper, the ball would break on the other side, but the full-back would be out by me. I’d say to them “You can’t be here. Birtles and Woodcock are going to destroy you.” And, pretty frequently, they did.

If he is embarrassed, then the last couple of years must have been mortifying. Jonny Owen’s film ‘I Believe In Miracles’, about Robertson and friends’ achievements, came out in 2015, and while it of course added another layer to the Clough mythology, perhaps its more important legacy is it emphasised what good players were in that team.

A theme from the film and the discussion afterwards is that the squad believed they didn’t get enough credit at the time, or since – for their achievements, but also their individual quality. The image of Clough spinning silk from a bit of old string and an emptied ashtray is a romantic one, and there’s little doubting his genius, but he was working with some fine material.

“We’re not trying to drag Cloughie out of this,” says Robertson. “He was brilliant how he pulled it all together. But the film certainly brought attention to the players as individuals, rather than being called ragtag and bobtail, dragged together luckily. You don’t win two European Cups being ragtag and bobtail.”

Robertson was voted as Forest’s greatest ever player by fans a few years ago, before the film and the reassessment of that team’s talents. That would have been voted for by many people too young to have seen him play, but perhaps he was so popular because they realised that teams like Forest don’t, and probably will never again have players like Robertson.

“Time makes you a better player,” he says, getting in one last bit of modesty. But occasionally, that slips long enough for the odd admission of the truth. “I don’t want to sit here and say I wasn’t a good player. I was a fucking good player.”

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