Friday, 20 November 2015

I Believe In Miracles

This column will now take a detour from its usual route down the valley of sneering sarcasm on the subject of modern life with a disability and become a book review column.

I have just finished reading I Believe In Miracles by Daniel Taylor and Johnny Owen, the story of Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough-led rise to European glory between 1975 and 1980. This is the best book I have read about sport since Fever Pitch. The words Fever and Pitch might scream middle class Johnny-Come-Lately at you, and you might well point to it as the precursor for all of the current ills in professional football. Certainly it helped to make football fashionable among the wealthier to the point where now you should probably think about selling your house if you want to be able to afford a season ticket for one of England’s top clubs. All of Roy Keane’s prawn sandwich brigade probably read Fever Pitch and loved it. Yet none of this detracts from the fact that Nick Hornby’s breakout tome is not just a book about football or sport, but about life, love, work and obsession. It’s utterly compelling.

As is I Believe In Miracles. It begins with Forest in the old second division at the time of Clough’s appointment as manager in 1975, the year of my birth. It culminates in Forest winning a second European Cup in successive years by beating Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg in 1980. In between there are tales of running through nettles to get fit, drinking heavily as preparation on the eve of big games, and a plethora of priceless Clough witticisms which became legend. Coughisms, if you want to go that way. On being told by one player, left out of the team for a big game, that he was ‘not happy’ Clough simply replies;

‘No, well which one are you then?’

Of course, plenty of books have been written about Clough and his managerial partnership with Peter Taylor. Not so many of those have focused on the characters within the Forest team while the pair were in charge. Men like Kenny Burns, Larry Lloyd, John Robertson and John McGovern feature heavily here as they tell the story in their own words. McGovern tells the story of how he missed out on selection for the Scotland squad for the 1978 World Cup despite his status at that time as one of the first division’s premier central midfield players. When asked why McGovern was not in his squad for the tournament in Argentina Scotland manager Ally McLeod, who would go on to be mocked for stating that his team would win the World Cup only to see them eliminated in the first group stage after defeat to Peru and a draw with Iran, replied;

‘’McGovern’s Scottish?’

I don’t want to tell you all the best bits now, so I’ll try to keep the quotes to a minimum. Oh ok, one more. At the 1980 European Cup final Forest fans paid homage to Robertson with a banner that said ‘Robertson lays on more balls than Fiona Richmond’, a reference to the actress and glamour model who was the female sex symbol of the day. What leaps off the page at you is how different football was in the 1970’s compared to the modern era. Forest won promotion from the second division in third place (no playoffs) at the end of the 1976/77 season and by the end of the following term were celebrating winning the first division title itself. This was viewed as a remarkable achievement even at the time but the difficulty involved, while high, is nothing like what it would be today. The idea of a promoted team winning the Premier League at the first attempt is utterly laughable. Year after year promoted sides scramble around with the sole aim of staying in the division, and they are wise to do so given the financial gap between themselves and the elite within the elite. In less cynical times, Clough and Taylor saw no reason why Forest could not compete at the higher level, proving that they could do so and then some. In that title winning season Peter Withe was Forest’s top scorer. He was sold to Newcastle United, then of the second division, just three weeks into the following season. A season in which they were about to play in the European Cup. Can you imagine Jose Mourinho, fresh from winning the title and preparing for an assault on Champions League honours, selling Diego Costa to Sheffield Wednesday or Birmingham City just weeks into the season? Can you imagine Costa agreeing to join one of those clubs? If Mourinho was of a mind to sell Costa, the Spain striker would sit on his fat contract, train with the reserves, train on his own and generally sulk and cause chaos until such time as a sensible offer came along. Not Withe. He wasn’t wanted, for whatever reason, and off he went to Newcastle. Four years later, he scored the winning goal for Aston Villa in the European Cup final against Bayern Munich. Yet given everything that Forest won after his departure, Withe’s sale can hardly be considered a managerial mistake on the part of Clough.

European football was a different beat also. Nowadays if you are not good enough to win the league in your own country then all is not lost. You can finish as low as fourth and still qualify for the Champions League if you are a Premier League team. When Forest were conquering Europe the only English representatives were the first division champions unless an English team were the European Cup holders. Forest beat holders Liverpool on their way to the 1979 final, but none of their subsequent opponents, AEK Athens, Grasshoppers or FC Cologne regularly find themselves in the Champions League now, even with its expanded qualification criteria. Similarly in 1980, Forest beat the then mighty Ajax in the semi-final after overcoming Oster of Sweden (who?) Arges Pitesti of Romania (you what?) and Dynamo Berlin. Regular viewers of ITVs Bundesliga coverage will have noted that the latter are not at Germany’s top table these days. The European Cup in those days was a more cut-throat business, but that meant that often the identity of the opposition would have what we would now consider a more Europa League feel to it.

It wasn’t all sweetness and sunshine for Forest during their run, however. Taylor and Clough fell out frequently and never quite made up by the time of Taylor’s death in 1990, while Clough was not afraid to upset star players. Archie Gemmill, scorer of THAT goal against Holland for Scotland in the 1978 World Cup, was left out of the Forest team for the 1979 European Cup final having only just recovered from injury. His response was furious, claiming that he had been told by Clough that he would be picked if he could prove his fitness, which he felt he had. Despite being a vital cog in their title-winning midfield Gemmill never got over what he saw as a betrayal, and never played for Forest again after that final victory over Malmo. He moved on to Birmingham City, and was so disturbed by Clough’s actions that he refused his old boss’s advances when he apologised and tried to bring Gemmill back to the City Ground the following season.

Nottingham Forest currently languish in the second tier of the English league structure, just about where they were when Clough walked through the door 40 years ago. After their 1-0 victory over Hamburg in the 1980 European Cup final they never got close to repeating those heroics, and were relegated from the top flight in Clough’s last game in charge some 13 years later. They have been back up and down again since, but the fact that they have never threatened to challenge for a title since shines a light on the magnitude of their achievements on which I Believe In Miracles is a funny, sad, eye-opening and generally sensational account.

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