<
>

Forest 'the greatest story in the history of team sport' - Jonny Owen

These days Nottingham Forest are a fairly unremarkable club, bobbing around in the Championship where they have been -- bar a three-year spell in League One -- since 1999, occasionally threatening promotion but not quite managing it.

However, Forest have a higher profile than most other clubs at their level because of their glorious past. Brian Clough's arrival at the club in 1975 saw Forest go from the bottom half of the second tier of English football to winning the First Division title, then the European Cup two years in a row.

A new film, "I Believe in Miracles," is the story of the five years after Clough arrived and the film's director, Jonny Owen, tells ESPN FC how Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor found talent where few others would look, polishing rough diamonds to form a team that were the best in Europe -- interrupting the dominance of the great Liverpool side of the 1970s and 1980s.

"It's almost like the Dirty Dozen," Owen tells ESPN FC. "A renegade maverick who gets together this desperate band of footballers, people who are meant to be crocked or over the hill or drinkers, and he puts them together and makes them into the best domestic team, arguably, in the world for a few years.

"It's a story of the underdog and there's nothing that you can't relate to if you've got a soul or a pulse, if you're a human being.

"An American asked me, 'What would it be to us?' I said all I can think of is if a college team came up into the NFL and won the Super Bowl twice, that's the only way I can describe it."

In 2009, "The Damned United" -- based on a David Peace novel that never claimed to be anything like the truth -- was released and played on plenty of stereotypes about Clough. Part of Owen's task was to create a more accurate picture of what the man was like, through interviews with all of the players that Clough brought together.

"I think that the central performance [by Michael Sheen, as Clough] in 'The Damned United' was stunning," says Owen. "I think it's a beautifully shot film and it's a stunning portrayal of him and his characteristics. But the film itself is fantasy. It's made up.

"This is the truth. These are the blokes who spent every hour of every day with him ... I thought to myself, I wonder how I'd feel if somebody made a film about my father."

What's surprising about Owen's film is how willing all the players were to talk. All of the European Cup-winning team talk at length and with great affection about Clough and that time, some 35 years on, and they talk as if this is the first time anyone has asked them about the defining period of their careers, even though they must have told these stories many more times.

"I did find I was surprised that 16 men could talk so brilliantly," Owen adds. "I mean that is very rare, and they've all got a story, they can all speak. I don't know what the reason is, but I think it's a lot to do with the fact that they were the kind of people that Clough would have wanted in his club. He wouldn't have wanted shrinking violets or wallflowers. None are quiet, none are quiet or shy and retiring.

"Clough signed characters. He didn't just sign great players, he signed great characters in that team, and that's why I think they are so stuck in our subconscious."

More than 3,000 fans gathered for the film's world premiere at the City Ground, along with all of the players (aside from Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, who was on duty with his national team) present. The hero worship from fans, many of whom would not have been born during the period in question, never mind experienced it, was extraordinary, with the most adulation reserved for John Robertson.

Robertson was, by his own admission, a "wastrel" when Clough arrived at Forest, overweight and with a questionable attitude, but in the following five years he was turned into a genius of a left-winger who set-up the winner in the 1979 European Cup final, scored in the 1980 final and is now largely regarded as the greatest player in the club's history.

In the film, Forest captain John McGovern describes Robertson as being "like Ryan Giggs, but with two good feet."

"I was with Robertson and McGovern at Forest and there were all these kids shouting 'John, John, John' for his autograph," says Owen. "And I said, 'Is it always like this when you come back?' 'Aye,' he said. Imagine being the greatest player to ever play for a club; imagine being that, you know?

"His son was there, and he's only 10, and he doesn't quite get it. I said: 'Your dad was a good player, wasn't he?' 'I like Messi,' he said. I said: 'Your dad was like the Messi of his day.' He looked at me like I was mad."

Messi might be a bit of a strong comparison in terms of talent, but Robertson and his teammates are just as important to Forest's history as the Argentinean is to Barcelona. For Owen, the task was to make the rest of the football world understand just how important this team, and Brian Clough, were to not only Forest but to a generation of fans.

"What happened in 1975-80 was a sporting miracle," says Owen. "It's easily the greatest story in the history of team sport, arguably the greatest story in the history of sport. What this guy did and achieved was remarkable and almost magical, and that's what this film is about."