Much has been written about the fabled Nottingham Forest sides of the Clough era that collected a league Championship and a brace of League and European Cups. Likewise the same can be said about John Robertson on the left wing from whom so much of the team’s threat was nurtured. Against this hinterland I will try and place him against some others mentioned in this series, and how I remember him at the time and also now many years later.
In some respects, his time at Forest from 1970-80 pretty well replicated Forest’s story in that period. I note as well that he played for Drumchapel Juniors in Glasgow. How many times does Drumchapel always appear where great Scottish footballers are involved? Seemingly for five or so years he had a dubious attitude to the demands of the game and was a constant frustration to manager Allan Brown.
New manager Brian Clough’s finest action and resulting legacy as far as I am concerned involved turning this just about adequate footballer, into the player that Forest fans have voted twice as the club’s greatest ever player. Let that be the off the pitch romantic and proper legacy. But on the pitch, if you accept that without him the team were half the force they came to be, he was as dangerous and potent a winger as there has ever been. Hyperbole? Not really if you think of the resources and size of the club and the members of the rest of the team.
Like most, he started to come to my notice during Forest’s promotion-winning ride of 1977. It should be remembered they finished third behind Wolves and Chelsea and were in their shadow to some extent, as well as their manager’s cavernous persona. From the first game at Goodison the following August, I started to become almost hypnotised by this number 11 on the left wing at Forest. The TV can distort, pace especially, but not when there is little in the first place. No slouch of course, but his ears were rarely peeled back.
I cannot think of any player who literally appeared to operate on such a thin isthmus of left flank grass to such consistent and devastating effect. It was as if he was some sort of footballing Harry Houdini whose trick would be, ’Watch how I bamboozle this defender in six inches of space and cross the ball to Peter Withe’. Certainly, that is the case within our series and yet, like Thomas, he could use both feet and would cut across the edge of an area and you knew what would happen next.
So perception and reality play tricks on you again. He did get out of his cage every now and then if you consider his area of operation was the federal republic of the left touchline. The goals won’t help you here in trying to decipher the contradictions. Supplier or killer? He was scoring a goal on average just over every six games for Forest and indeed managed a very healthy eight in 28 games for Scotland. If we go with the big stage announcement of the 1977/ 78 season there was no second season dip or even beyond that.
He actually played 243 games in a row for the team which really does turn his attitude problems completely on their head. Someone once said to me that similar to Rod Stewart’s ‘Atlantic Crossing’ album where the second side was fast tempo compared to the slow first side, he straddled the first and second part of the decade in a similar fashion. That is if you can get past the misplaced fast adjective or even the idea of turning over a record.
‘Fat bloke on the left wing’ was how he was generally referred to by his manager. The ability without pace to find a chink of light to cross the ball was ingenious. No-one or team in England or Europe seemed to be able to find a way to cope with it. He didn’t look the part but then you could argue the same about quite a few others in the Forest team. Sum of parts and all that but whatever way you looked at it, Robertson came across like some xenologous attachment welded on for murderous adventure.
But he was big time too. Without thinking hard off the top of my head I remember his tearing Man Utd apart in December 1977. 4-0 at Old Trafford was a massive result. His penalty against Liverpool a few months later at the same ground to win the League Cup was up there too. His header of all things in the mud of the City ground against Cologne in the European Cup semi-final and of course the cross and goal in both ‘79 and ‘80 finals had the Uddingston birthmark all over them. How many times did he do that right foot curling shot into the corner so well illustrated in that 1980 final v Hamburg? His stumbling and flailing in trying to keep his balance for that goal was not untypical either for he was no streamlined gazelle. Everything a contradiction!
You would watch Forest and simply think just get the ball to Robertson and expect damage. As he leant over the ball with the arms never still you waited for the arcing salvos to appear. A Stalin organ if you like behind the forest tree line. The crosses almost invited the soundtrack scream from those real Red Army operatives circa 1944. It wasn’t like you could see the clear and obvious danger. Dave Thomas, for example, bellowed speed and threat at you. Robertson perhaps a wheezy cough.
John Robertson. I still ponder about him as to how he defied what you know about football. In an area where he could be pushed out or back it just never seemed to happen. I watched him live once for Scotland at Hampden Park in 1981 and was none the wiser trying to work him out. There was a nonchalance about him as a person which, despite his better attitude and commitment he never managed to lose on the pitch. Electrifying in speed most definitely not; wily box of technical tricks neither.
But the business of simply beating a man effectively and relatively economically without those general necessary requisites was a fascinating exercise. The run at a bit of an angle would change to straight on and he had this lazy curl of his leg to trawl the ball along with him. Thus that nonchalance, and in interviews, he gave the impression of never quite being sure himself of how it all worked.
It must have been fascinating watching Brian Clough and Peter Taylor pull the player out of him. Many of you will have seen footage of Clough shouting at players from the training pitch shouting “Bloody disgrace” etc. at some technical howler. You simply didn’t play for Clough unless you could master a football. In the article on Dave Thomas, I suggested he should maybe be the one that the wingers’ Mount Rushmore should start with. I propose John Robertson should be the man beside him.