Since Makalele made the role his own at Real Madrid and Chelsea, there’s been an increased awareness that you don’t win a thing without someone sitting in front of the back four directing traffic and keeping the ball moving. And in British football, there has arguably been no finer example of a holding midfielder than the criminally under-rated and under-appreciated John McGovern, whose achievements as a player include winning two first division titles and two European Cups. His new autobiography is a reminder that this was a superlative midfielder who was very much a pro’s pro, of the type sorely lacking in the game today.
At the time of writing, Nottingham Forest are mid-table in the second tier of English football, which is more or less where they were in 1975 when Brian Clough arrived to work his magic. Reuniting with Peter Taylor, the duo dragged an unfashionable East Midlands outfit to the pinnacle of European football with a 1-0 win over Malmo in the 1979 European Cup, before the repeating the feat a year later in the Bernabeu with a 1-0 win over SV Hamburg.
Captain on both occasions was McGovern, a wiry Scottish midfielder, who had followed the pair from Hartlepools United to Derby County, before accompanying Clough during the ill-fated spell at Leeds United. McGovern wasn’t one to dribble past half-a-dozen players, didn’t smash in thirty-yard screamers and didn’t leave a trail of devastation off the pitch; instead, he quietly and modestly turned himself into a prototype modern midfielder, playing the holding midfielder role a good 25 years before it became regarded as essential.
It was in Europe that McGovern really shone, providing an authoritative figure as Forest took by the continent by storm and beat all-comers, back in the days when only champions qualified to play in Europe’s premier competition. But the Forest skipper’s first experience of European footballer came to a bitter conclusion in an infamous semi-final tie against Juventus in 1973, which carried a whiff of corruption so strong that in the post-match press conference a furious Clough did his bit for international diplomacy by declaring, “No cheating bastards will I speak to, I will not talk to any cheating bastards!”
McGovern, while no less furious, quietly waited for another tilt at glory and this duly came in the 1978/79 season, when Forest dispatched holders Liverpool before embarking on a run that took them all the way to the semi-final against German champions Cologne. Forest could only draw the home leg 3-3, with Japanese international midfielder Yasuhiko Okuderu coming on for the visitors and netting a late goal that prompted the headline ‘Forest sunk by Jap sub’. Well, it was the 1970s, I guess.
With the odds against them, Forest carved out a memorable 1-0 victory in Germany which saw McGovern pulling the strings in a fine team performance, gaining the quiet approval of Clough in the process. McGovern recalls: “Before I got in the bath, I caught him looking at me. A polite nod of the head as he looked at me said it all. That look made me feel like a million dollars. No words were required as I knew Cloughie meant well done.”
Such recognition was echoed by German midfield legend, Günther Netzer, the following day when he was quoted by the German national press: “Who is this McGovern? I have never heard of him but he ran the game in the second half.” As McGovern says today, “It was a back-handed compliment I suppose but it was great for a guy of that stature to say that about you.”
What I loved about McGovern was the modesty and the quiet way he went about his work. He was hardly noticed by fans when the team were winning, but if he was out of the picture, well, basically, things tended to get ragged. In Europe he was masterful and as Clough and Taylor continued to inspire Forest to greatness the following season, McGovern was as reliable as ever, facing down hostile away crowds, calming his teammates and controlling the tempo against the continent’s finest.
In the final, Forest edged out SV Hamburg with a John Robertson goal, defying the odds to keep the European Cup next to the Trent for another season. And if the neutrals might have overlooked McGovern’s contributions, his fellow professionals hadn’t.
McGovern says: “In the last few years I actually met Franz Beckenbauer at the European Cup final. Like anyone, I’m in awe of great players so I went over to pay my respects and introduced myself and he said he’d watched the 1980 cup final and remembered the game. ‘You played well’, he said. I thought he meant the team so I said yeah, we’d put in a solid display but he said ‘No, you played well as an individual.’ To get those compliments from people like that outside my club was just huge.”
When you watch clips of this great team on YouTube, what is striking about McGovern is how modern he looks. With his short back and sides, slender frame and hi-energy levels, he looks like a man well ahead of his time. Especially so when you consider that this was the era of the maverick, when a host of skilful ball-players with flowing locks and an array of fancy flicks basically spent their downtime drinking beer, chasing skirt and throwing money at bookies. While for example, the Dutch had supreme footballers capable of understanding each outfield role and displaying the athleticism and intelligence to play total football, across the channel the best we could muster was a generation of wasters who handed the game over to the long ball merchants. The Dutch had players who invoked the spirit of Van Gogh; we had players who invoked the spirit of Robin Askwith.
McGovern certainly bucked that trend, revelling in the responsibility of realizing Brian Clough’s vision of the beautiful game being played on the ground, without diving or backchat, though the man is far too modest to make any claims to greatness. Instead, he confesses, “because of a missing muscle in my back, my running style could best be described as ungainly, giving my left shoulder a strange shape that even to this day makes me feel slightly embarrassed when I catch sight of myself in the mirror.”
Harsh, but ultimately, the boy done well…certainly not bad for a player of whom Brian Clough once said "has no pace, no strength and no great ability." However, the legendary boss also added, "but nobody reads the game better," and therein lay the secret of McGovern’s success.
''John McGovern. From Bo'ness to the Bernabeu: My Story' is available from Vision Sports Publishing. You can buy yours here.
If you enjoy reading IBWM and want to help support what we do, please make a donation.