Manchester United and England midfielder Bryan Robson was described by one of his managers and admirers, Ron Atkinson as “A player with a matchless ability to arrive in the right place at the right time”. Captain Marvel’s runs into the penalty area were the ruination of many a defensive scheme, but when it comes to perfect timing Robson could have learned a thing or too from John McGovern.
For a man whose first ambition was to be a tennis player, whose second was to be a rugby union wing three-quarter, who had a muscle missing in his back and didn’t play competitive football until he was fifteen, McGovern’s career is really a thing of wonder, and it owes everything to being in the right place -Hartlepool - at the right time - the mid-1960s.
Born in Montrose, Scotland in 1949, McGovern moved with his family to County Durham when he was seven. It was here that fate took a hand. Because when McGovern left school, a thrusting young manager took charge of Hartlepools United: Brian Clough. One of his first signings, as an apprentice earning £2 a week, was John McGovern.
Despite the fact that the shy, blond Scottish teenager was short of pace, neither much of a tackler or a passer, and had no real eye for goal, Clough took an instant liking to him and handed him his first team debut at Victoria Park when he was just sixteen. The teenage McGovern was so small and thin the shirt he wore had to be pinched together with safety pins so it didn’t fall off his narrow shoulders.
When Clough left to take over at Derby, McGovern believed his career was over. Instead his former patron turned up one day at the door of his parent’s home and asked if they’d mind their son moving to the East Midlands. At The Baseball Ground McGovern won a second division championship medal and then a League championship medal, an ever present in a team that contained a host of internationals.
When Clough fell out with the board and briefly – very briefly – took charge of Leeds he made McGovern one of his first signings. The other Leeds players – top class internationals all – were horrified. “He wasn’t the quality of player you expected to see at Elland Road” huffed captain Billy Bremner.
Fired by Leeds after less than two months, Clough pitched up at Nottingham Forest. His first signing, predictably: John McGovern. In the next five seasons, pllaying alongside the likes of Martin O’Neil, Archie Gemmill and Trevor Francis, McGovern picked up another League championship medal, two League Cup winners medals and two Champions Cup winners medals. Outside the ranks of Manchester United and Liverpool that makes McGovern one of the most successful players in the history of the British game. Yet his ability was barely discernible. He was fit, he had great stamina, he never let anybody down, but the fact he did not win a single senior cap for Scotland tells its own story. Only Clough could see his quality. To everyone else it was invisible. As with Bryan Robson timing was the key. Anywhere else, any other era and nobody outside his own street would have heard of John McGovern.