The blueprint for the modern holding midfielder, and the archetypal old-fashioned footballer, John McGovern won First Division Championships, European Cups, League Cups and the Auto Windscreens Shield. His autobiography tells the story.
Everybody loves John McGovern. That’s a fact, right? He captained Nottingham Forest to the league championship and two European Cups. He was a part of Hartlepools’ and Derby’s successful sides of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And, of course, he played for four of the five clubs Brian Clough managed.
Clough’s shadow looms heavily over this autobiography — not in a bad way, but just in a way that you can only separate their stories at the beginning and the end of the book.
And as long as you remind yourself that this is story of John — a hard-working, honest Scotsman who just happened to meet ‘the greatest manager of all time’ as an impressionable young man — then you’ll find yourself being less distracted by the questions about Clough that aren’t answered here.
To be fair, McGovern has done a good job of cramming his life’s story into just over 250 pages. His early life — family, school, moving from Scotland — are well covered, clearly the making of him, before his life in Hartlepools’ reserves at just 15 is transformed by the arrival of Clough and Peter Taylor. And that really is the magic of the story — the moves to Derby, Leeds and Forest before, in typical Clough fashion, he’s unceremoniously moved on to Bolton Wanderers as player-manager and subsequently a life beyond the football pitch.
And the life of a retired footballer was very different 20-30 years ago. As Kevin Keegan, who writes the foreword, point outs: “I’m not saying it was better or worse in our day, but it was certainly different.” McGovern’s experience as an estate agent in Tenerife, an aircraft services manager and, later, an after-dinner speaker, match-day host and on the radio, prove it wasn’t easy sailing despite his medals.
There are — without doubt — anecdotes, insights and opinions on the Clough and Taylor magic that you won’t find elsewhere. For instance, modern footballers could learn something from Old Big ’Ead’s philosophy: “You don’t swear at referees. Why? Because he makes fewer mistakes than you do, and if you keep having a go at referees and then you’re involved in a 50-50 tackle in our penalty area in the last five minutes of a match, he’ll give a penalty against you… and then I’ll fine you!”
But if you’re just after another Clough book then Jonathan Wilson’s fascinating biography is what you really want.
McGovern was, in many ways, the blueprint for the modern ‘holding midfielder’. With a missing muscle in his back, he wasn’t quick — “My grandmother runs faster than you,” Clough would lament — but he could “run forever” and had a willingness to tackle, pass, track back and, on occasion, score.
Yet he was also the archetypal old-fashioned footballer: determined, dedicated, competitive, hard-working, honest, modest and a team player. And as Clough laconically said: “He has no pace, no strength, no great ability, but nobody reads the game better.”
From Bo’ness to the Bernabeu is available in hardback from Amazon priced £13.29 (RRP £18.99).
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