Scotland as a nation has been blessed with many great wingers, players who liked to get white paint on their boots, as the saying goes. Players who can turn opposing full-backs inside out before delivering a cross to their ever accepting centre-forwards to enhance their goal tallies. One such player, a player who I loved to watch when I was young, was John Robertson – and some believe he was the greatest of them all.
John Robertson was born in Uddingston in 1953, a town approximately seven miles south-east of Glasgow. Nicknamed ‘Robbo’ early on, he joined Nottingham Forest in May 1970 after representing Scotland at schoolboy and youth levels and made his debut in October of the same year.
His early career was often stagnant, seemingly going nowhere; Robertson was playing narrow on the left side of midfield and was in and out of the side. The team were in the lower divisions in mid-table mediocrity – indeed the player himself was transfer listed and there were concerns over his attitude in training and fitness. The player’s fortunes, and the club’s, all changed in 1975 when a certain Brian Clough become manager of the midlands side, with the transformation remarkable.
In 1976 Peter Taylor joined Clough at Nottingham Forest as assistant manager, reuniting the partnership they had enjoyed at Hartlepool, Derby and Brighton. When Taylor and Clough took over at Forest they were in the Second Division (Championship level in today’s commercial world), but within a season they were back in the top flight. They memorably went on to win the league title and took their success to legendary status by securing two European Cups, in 1979 and ‘80. It was a truly remarkable achievement for a club such as Nottingham Forest to reach these heights, with John Robertson was at the forefront of success on the pitch.
From December 1976 to December 1980, Robertson played 243 consecutive matches for Nottingham Forest, a stunning achievement for a player who was kicked and elbowed on a weekly basis – often the only way of stopping his mercurial talents. When you average out the matches over a four-year period, it works out at over 60 a year. In modern football those statistics are pretty much unheard of, especially for a mazy winger.
Robertson’s career prior to Clough and Taylor coming on board was going nowhere. So what caused the transformation? Clough and Taylor quickly identified what the player’s strengths were and converted him into an out-and-out left winger whose job it was to get on the ball, take on the defender and deliver crosses to the likes of Peter Withe, John O’Hare, Tony Woodcock and Garry Birtles, all strikers who were at the club during Robertson’s tenure there.
Robertson himself has stated in interviews that Clough and Taylor asked him to concentrate purely on his strengths, namely beating the opposition full-back on the inside and down the flank, and not spend his game tracking the full-back’s forward runs. Robertson was never blessed with blistering pace – or natural fitness – so having him higher up the pitch where he could deliver some of the best crosses in British football was far more dangerous. His role was to influence play in the opponent’s half; he did it better than most wingers of his era.
Colin Barrett, who played left-back for Forest, stated in the documentary of the club’s glory years, I Believe In Miracles, that his instruction when he played was to just give the ball to “the fat bloke on the wing” – a typically humorous, tongue-in-cheek Clough remark – an instruction that Barrett followed to great success.
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Read | Brian Clough and the art of doing it your own way
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The “fat bloke” was probably an unfair a description of the player; Robertson was stocky in frame, stood at only five feet eight inches tall and lacked any real pace – hence the jibes about his speed – but his dribbling ability gave him a yard to put an opposing player on the back foot, allowing Robertson a window of opportunity to cross the ball or take a shot.
The thing I always admired about Robertson was that unlike many wide players I had seen over the years, you weren’t entirely sure if he was going to go outside the defender or cut inside. Robertson was one of the very few players who was equally adept on his left or right foot, which meant he was entirely comfortable on the ball and could gratefully accept whatever the direction the full-back showed him. This must have been hell for even the best full-backs of the era. Indeed, defenders of any generation would struggle with a player of that skill set – just think Neymar today and the ability to go both ways.
It was not just his dribbling skills that set Robertson apart but his crossing ability. It’s impossible to recount the number of times he would get to the byline and, from an almost impossible angle with a defender tight, still clip in a cross that would find a teammate to head home. He had an incredible knack of doing that. He also scored his fair share of goals, often cutting inside from the left and curling a shot with his right foot into the far corner.
Of the 73 goals he scored in his professional career, none were more important than the winning goal he scored against Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg in the European Cup final in 1980 from the edge of the box.
After success with Nottingham Forest, Robertson moved to Derby in 1983, a move soured by the relationship between Clough and then Derby manager Peter Taylor. Robertson was 30 at the time and not at the peak of his powers, with injuries curtailing his spell at Derby.
In 1985 Robertson rejoined Forest, however at this point his professional career was almost over. The winger also played 28 times for Scotland, which is widely viewed as too few caps for a player of his ability, although he did score on eight occasions including a winner against England at Wembley and a goal in the 1982 World Cup finals. Much like Glenn Hoddle was an under-appreciated genius for England, years ahead of his time, Robertson was sadly the same for Scotland.
A number of Forest players from the Clough era state that the player who dictated the style of play and attacking tempo was Robertson. He was a left-winger who stayed out on the touchline but played as an inside-forward, like so many wingers are asked to do today. Unlike many of today’s wingers, however, he performed on a weekly basis, registering tens of assists and goals and played a leading role in bringing two European Cups to the unlikely city of Nottingham. In most cases, great sides are marshalled by central players, but not Nottingham Forest – this shows just how good John Robertson was.
For those of you that didn’t have the fortune to see Robertson play then you missed out on a real treat. I would recommend you take a look at videos on YouTube of his greatest dribbles and goals. Indeed, if you are looking for one video that encapsulates his playing style then I would recommend watching the winning goal in the 1979 European Cup final against Swedish side Malmö FF, scored by Trevor Francis.
The cross is delivered by Robertson after darting past the full-back and, from the byline, he puts in an inch perfect ball for the winning goal. In terms of modern-day wingers who are similar, the only player I can think of who was of the same stature and had the ability to take players on both ways would be Damian Duff. The Irish international was more fleet of foot, but their styles were very similar.
The word genius is one I feel is used far too often in professional sport, but for John Robertson I am perfectly comfortable in writing it. He truly was a wing genius.
By Craig Muncey. Follow @Muncey05