Chapter 3: Border
Mr Georgeson (Headmaster)
Miss Wigan (School Secretary)
John McGovern (a 16-year-old schoolboy)
Josephine McGovern (Mother of John)
It is 1965. The headmaster’s study at Henry Smith Grammar School. The walls are lined with bookcases containing leather-bound books. There is an oak desk with two chairs in front of it. The entire effect is meant to be imposing, it has an air of authority. On the desk is a telephone, a stack of papers and a potted plant. There is a clock on the wall which seems to dominate the room. The window looks out across a deserted playground and in the distance a carefully marked out cricket pitch. Behind the desk sits Mr Georgeson, a tall man with piercing blue eyes. He is wearing a smart suit. As the scene begins he is writing a letter.
There is a knock at the door. He barely looks up from the letter.
MISS WIGAN opens the door.
MISS WIGAN: Mr Brian Clough is here to see you sir.
GEORGESON: Send him in Miss Wigan.
CLOUGH enters and immediately reaches out to shake GEORGESON‘s hand. CLOUGH is smartly dressed in a blue jacket and wearing a Hartlepools United Club tie. The austere surroundings make him seem unusually nervous.
CLOUGH: Good morning headmaster. I am Brian Clough, the manager of Hartlepools United Football Club.
GEORGESON: Ahh yes Mr Clough I have seen your picture in the local paper. I think you were painting the stand.
CLOUGH: Yes, well a club in the wrong half of the fourth division needs all the attention from the newspapers it can get. The reason I have come to see you headmaster is that young John McGovern, a sixth-former at your school here, had a trial at the Victoria Ground last week and he has a real talent. I know he’s only 16 but I want him to play for my first team. I…
GEORGESON: McGovern is a rugby player. McGovern represented the school as fly-half and captain of the under-15s and is captain of the cricket team too? Rugby is a true gentleman’s sport.
(Peering over his spectacles at CLOUGH) You really do have no right to be here Mr Clough.
CLOUGH: I know that headmaster, but I wanted to get your permission for John to play for my team first. I promised Mrs McGovern that I would speak to you first.
The parlour at JOHN MCGOVERN‘s house. GRANNY MCGOVERN sits sipping tea and looking over from her armchair to the chair on which sits BRIAN CLOUGH. Her beaming smile and slightly open body language is focused on him. JOYCE MCGOVERN enters. She is 57 and the proud host of an immaculate house. She takes a cup of tea from a tray and hands it to CLOUGH.
JOYCE: Your tea Mr Clough.
CLOUGH: (Leaning forward from the sofa) Call me Brian Mrs McGovern.
GRANNY: (Pointing towards the large bunch of flowers in a vase on the mantlepiece) Lovely flowers Mr Clough. I said Joyce didn’t he bring some lovely flowers?
JOYCE: Yes mum, we’ve already talked about those. (She sits in the other armchair. Both women are watching Clough intently)
CLOUGH: So Mrs McGovern are you going to let John sign for my football team? You’ll not regret it. He’s a talented lad. A career in football these days pays a decent wage.
JOYCE: I had hoped Mr Clough that John might stay on at school, take his A-levels and become a PE teacher.
CLOUGH: He might do that Mrs McGovern, but if he did he’d be missing a great opportunity. I mean, how many O-levels did he get? The lad told me it was two, will they let him be a teacher with just two?
GRANNY: I had some flowers like that once. Gentians they called them, Bavarian Gentians they were. Are there any biscuits Joyce? I do like a biscuit with my tea Mr Clough.
CLOUGH: And next time I come to see you Granny dear, I’ll bring you some custard creams.
GRANNY: Ooh lovely Mr Clough
CLOUGH: Brian, call me Brian Granny.
End of flashback.
GEORGESON: Mr Clough, it is my opinion that young McGovern should go on to study A-levels and then go to university. To do that I think he should spend all his time on his studies and forget this football idea. John has benefited from having a first class grammar school education. It would be a shame to waste that chasing a dream of being a football player.
CLOUGH: It’s not a dream headmaster, the lad has talent. There’s a very good living to be made playing for a football team these days.
GEORGESON: What does the boy’s mother think?
CLOUGH: I talked to his mum about it sir and she thinks it’s a good opportunity. Life’s been hard on that family with the father dying abroad whilst John was still young. If you’d sign his permission form he’ll be making his league debut at the age of 17 and can look forward to a bright future. I’d really like to play him for Hartlepools. I know they’re only in the bottom division but there aren’t many chances for someone that age to play in the professional league. (Reaching in his pocket for the form) If you’ll sign this then he can start the last game of the season next week.
GEORGESON: Very well, if you have his mother’s permission then I will not stand in your way, but you must make sure that football does not interfere with his education. He should go to the college and carry on his studies there. (GEORGESON signs the form)
CLOUGH: Thank you headmaster. The club will happily help him through college. I’m sure the lad won’t regret this.
GEORGESON: I certainly hope you are right Mr Clough and now I will bid you good day. (He walks round them to open the door)
CLOUGH: (Shaking Georgeson’s hand) Good day headmaster.
Later Clough said that after this meeting he felt that he had made ‘one of the most significant signings of that era’. His first words to McGovern at his trial for Hartlepools a week earlier had been ‘Stand up straight, get your shoulders back and get your hair cut’. Perhaps a little harsh to a lad that was missing a muscle in his back. He didn’t find out he had part of his shoulder missing until he was 29. By then, there seemed little point trying to do anything about it.
McGovern’s father was killed in Ghana when John was 11 years old. Clough became an inspirational father-figure to him to him as together they lit up the stage of world football.
McGovern would become a part of the Hartlepools United (The s was dropped in 1968) that were promoted to the third division. Then he would be one of the first players Clough brought in to his Championship-winning Derby side who were cheated out of a European Cup final by a corrupt referee. At the age of 16 he became the youngest player in the league. At the age of 19 McGovern became the youngest player to play in all four divisions of the football league. Along with John O’Hare, he would join Clough during his disastrous 44-day reign at Leeds United. He only ever played four times for Leeds. Finally, again with O’Hare, he’d join the Forest side that went on to lift two European cups.
When Clough joined Forest in 1974 it took him just a month to bring in McGovern and O’Hare for £60,000, that was £90,000 less than he’d spent to bring them into the Leeds side. He was one of those players that was quietly efficient. Some Forest fans could not see why Clough wanted him, but Clough believed in players that had what he called ‘heart’, real courage. Whilst he was never a brash or arrogant player, McGovern had tremendous vision and would hold up the ball, then pick out the perfect pass. He had tremendous distribution of the ball.
McGovern’s career at Forest began with a fight against relegation to the third division. He was never the paciest player in the side and after Forest’s first win in 16 games, he urged Clough to rest him as he had a groin strain. Clough said, ‘We’ve got 10 games left and you’re playing in all of them.’ ‘I can’t run,’ replied McGovern. Clough said ‘It doesn’t matter, you never could.’ Forest survived in the second division by six points, in those days that was three wins. McGovern actually made eight league appearances.
For the next two seasons, McGovern was an ever-present in the side that eventually won promotion amassing 80 appearances and taking over as Forest captain from Sammy Chapman. Until Larry Lloyd arrived at the club, he played as a central defender before taking his more familiar role in the centre of midfield.
‘Border’, nicknamed after a racehorse, lifted the League Cup and the League Championship the next season. The following season he held up the League Cup and the European Cup. In 1980 he got to hold up the European Cup and the Super Cup. Then in 1981 he joined the exodus of that great Forest side and left to become player-manager of Bolton Wanderers having made a total of 330 appearances and scoring 11 goals.
In 1978 Scottish manager Ally MacLeod witnessed Forest’s ritual slaughter of Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford and announced all Forest’s Scottish players would be in the national side for the World Cup finals in Argentina. Robertson, Burns, Gemmill and McGovern all had their picture taken in kilts together, the tartan army. When the squad was announced McGovern wasn’t in it. MacLeod hadn’t realised he was Scottish. Imagine the effect his appearance in the Scottish team would have made to the disappointment that was Argentina 1978. It is a tragedy that McGovern, the leader of the best team in the world never attained an international cap.
His name was McGovern Mr MacLeod. He had his picture taken in a kilt. If he lay in front of you in nothing but a sporran swigging Glenfiddich, playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes protruding from his arse, would you have noticed then that he was the most visionary Scottish player on the pitch at that moment in time?
These days he remains something of a spokesman for that great side, working as a commentator on local radio and spending much of his working life at the City Ground.
You can follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkCollar