John Robertson: the unlikely football genius who won two European Cups

John Robertson scored the winning goal in one European Cup-winning goal and made the winning goal in another. In one poll among supporters to decide the best Nottingham Forest player of all time, he forced City Ground legend Stuart Pearce into second place.  Brian Clough called him ‘the Picasso of our game’. Yet when colleagues suggested he should tell the story of his career after he had retired as a player, he felt he had not really done enough to warrant it.

That was 25 years ago.  Hardly surprising, then, when friends, family and former teammates gathered to celebrate the launch of his life story, Super Tramp: My Autobiography, at Forest’s City Ground home, one or two suggested it was a little overdue.

“It never really crossed my mind to write a book before because I never considered I had done that much in my life,” Robertson said. “But now I’m approaching 60 I thought it was a good time to reflect.”

It was a comment his co-writer, John Lawson, felt was typical of Robertson.  “I probably put the idea to him first maybe 10 or 15 years ago but he has always been quite modest about his achievements,” Lawson said. “But he had so many stories to tell, they really had to go into a book.”

Lawson, who witnessed the whole of Robertson’s Forest career first as the Forest writer on the Nottingham Evening Post and then as a freelance, was always his subject’s first choice as the man to put his words on paper.

“I told John that if ever I did write my story I would ask him to help me,” Robertson said. “He played a big part of getting me first noticed by Brian Clough.

“I wasn’t in the side when Cloughie took over but when a lad called Paul Richardson was suspended for a match, he asked John who he thought could play and John recommended me so I’ve never really forgotten that.”

Robbo’s post-playing career has been spent largely as assistant manager to Martin O’Neill, their association so close that, as they cut their teeth as a managerial duo with Grantham Town and Shepshed Charterhouse in non-League football, they both worked as insurance salesmen for the same company.

Their big break came at Wycombe Wanderers, the home counties club they took into the Football League, and they have since worked together at Norwich City, Leicester City, Celtic and Aston Villa.

Robertson has seen enough of the inner workings of football that he has no desire to become a manager himself but does not rule out joining O’Neill again should his fellow double European Cup winner resume his career.

“I’m not a rich man but I’m not skint so it would not be for money and if Martin wanted to go in another direction I wouldn’t be offended,” he said.  “But I’m still drawn towards football. When you watch a team like Barcelona and a player like Lionel Messi and see the kind of football they can play, how can you not be?”

Robertson was more messy than Messi, always slightly unkempt in appearance and a man with an unashamed love of fags and fry-ups. Cough would often accuse him of looking like a tramp when he turned up for work disheveled and disorganised.  Yet he could spray passes with extraordinary vision and accuracy when he played in central midfield. When he switched to the left wing he was so good at out-thinking defenders and so consistent in delivering pin-point crosses from any angle or distance that the lack of a typical wide man’s pace did not really matter.

In Clough’s eyes he was a football genius and of course much of Super Tramp: My Autobiography celebrates the high spots of his career.

But there is a sad side to the story, too.   Robertson lost his daughter, Jessica, 15 years ago after a life blighted by cerebral palsy ended when she was only 13, and had by then already mourned his brother, Hughie, who died in a car crash only a few days before Forest played a semi-final against Cologne on the way to their first European Cup in 1979.

The chapter that describes those two tragedies begins with a particularly poignant scene as Robertson places a letter beside Jessica’s frail body as she finally lies at peace in the funeral home.

“The book is about my career and the wonderful moments I have enjoyed but I wanted to write about the sad times too and to make it a kind of marker for Jessica so that her life is remembered, too,” he said.

Super Tramp is a book to feed the nostalgia of Nottingham Forest fans of a certain generation but has an appeal beyond that, harking back to an era when success in football did not depend solely on wealth, when the game was played on a level playing field in more than one sense.

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