Welcome to Forest's Thursday club… where legends gather every week
Welcome to Forest’s Thursday club! Legends gather every week to check in on their old Nottingham teammates and swap riotous tales of adventure… before hopping on the bus home
- Nottingham Forest’s legends gather every Thursday to laugh and talk football
- The group agreed to let Mail Sport’s Matt Barlow attend the weekly meet-up
- Mail Sport’s new WhatsApp Channel: Get the breaking news and exclusives here
Frank Clark sets the scene having reluctantly agreed to share a story most of his audience has heard dozens of times before.
It hails from back in the day he played for Newcastle, and they are staying in London between games when Clark agrees to join goalkeeper Willie McFaul, who is heading out in search of George Best.
McFaul and Best were Northern Ireland teammates and his inkling that he might find his friend at the Stringfellows nightclub proves correct.
Best is alone but soon an attractive young woman approaches the table, makes strong eye contact with Clark and asks if he would like to dance.
‘Aye, I wouldn’t mind,’ he replies.
Inside Nottingham Forest’s Thursday club! A place for old friends to laugh and talk football
Mail Sport sat down with Nottingham Forest legends Colin Barrett (1), John Robertson (2), Garry Birtles (3), Frank Clark (4), Jim (Seamus) McDonagh (5) and Ian Storey-Moore (6)
‘Good,’ she says. ‘Go and have a dance and let me sit next to George.’
They know the punchline is coming, yet Clark’s comic timing and deadpan delivery is perfect, fine-tuned over 50 years and they roar with laughter just as they do when John Robertson slips into his stand-up routine.
One Robbo joke after another is fired out with the same casual accuracy as those crosses he used to swing across from the left wing.
At 70, he is living with Parkinson’s disease, which slows his speech and frustrates him sometimes because his mind is sharp as ever and his body cannot always keep up.
Once Robertson finds his rhythm, though, his speech quickens and jokes flow. They feature parrots and cannons, peppered with excellent impersonations to the delight of his pals.
Garry Birtles leaves the table as the Scot launches into another signature tale, safe in the knowledge he knows it word for word and will be back before the end.
This is a glimpse inside Nottingham Forest’s Thursday Club, where former players can gather once a week for a bite to eat, coffee or tea, maybe a couple of pints or a bottle of wine and an afternoon of warm company, a place to laugh and talk football.
No-one is solving murders and it bears no connection to Richard Osman’s septuagenarian amateur sleuths, although the average age is about the same and one or two of those present have been known to try solving the mysteries of modern football.
The former stars gather for a bite to eat and an afternoon of warm company. Here, they’re joined by Jonny Owen (fourth right), maker of the Forest documentary ‘I Believe in Miracles’
The 2015 documentary made by Owen (left) – a Nottingham Forest fan and now director at the club – has brought many of the players back together and inspired them to stay in touch
Pep Guardiola’s complaints about having to take the bus back from a Carabao Cup tie in Newcastle rather than a plane have not gone unnoticed. They provide a titter of amusement.
Colin Barrett is a staunch advocate of bus travel and, smiling, brandishes his bus pass as proof.
Last weekend, Barrett was in the away end with Forest fans at Manchester City, the club where he started his career, and notes how Guardiola did not hesitate to change his style when Rodri was sent off. Guardiola went much more direct, he explains to the table, with almost everything long from goalkeeper Ederson.
‘A 40-pass goal is worth the same as a four-pass goal, they all count the same,’ says the 71-year-old scorer of Forest’s second in a 2-0 win against holders Liverpool at the City Ground, the first leg of the first round of Forest’s first European Cup adventure.
By the time progress was secured in a goalless second leg at Anfield, in what was then a straight knock-out competition, Barrett was in hospital recovering from surgery on the knee injury that would eventually force him to retire at 28.
Among various attempted comebacks, he made appearances against Grasshoppers of Zurich in the quarter-finals and Cologne in an epic semi but was not involved in the final against Malmo, and this meant there was no medal.
Forest made replicas for him and others but somehow it doesn’t feel the same and only enhances his unsung status. ‘I know when I look at that medal it’s not the real thing,’ he says. ‘I know I didn’t cross the white line in the final. Deep down you always know.’
It sparks a wider conversation about lost souvenirs, misplaced shirts and signed balls. Even missing assists. Nobody was registering the assists when Trevor Francis converted Robertson’s cross with a diving header against Malmo.
Clark (centre) entertains his audience with anecdote most have heard dozens of times before – an amusing story involving his former teammate George Best at Stringfellows nightclub
Barrett (left) – a staunch advocate of bus travel – was amused by Pep Guardiola’s complaints in midweek about City having to take the coach back from their Carabao Cup tie in Newcastle
And this in turn meanders towards a missing bonus. None of the players thought to negotiate extra for winning the title in the year they did it. They had just been promoted and Brian Clough simply told them bonuses would be £25 a point, just as it had been in Division Two.
This added up to £1,600 each by the time they had finished seven points clear of Liverpool at the top and went into Europe where they changed perceptions of Nottingham Forest around the world forever.
The unlikely rise of a team, mostly players assembled on a budget by Clough and Peter Taylor, from the lower reaches of the second tier to lift the European Cup twice lives on as one of football’s greatest stories.
It may never be eclipsed and is beautifully preserved in the 2015 documentary, ‘I Believe in Miracles’.
Made by Jonny Owen, filmmaker, Forest fan, now a director of the club, the film has found another legacy because it brought many of the players back together and inspired them to stay in touch, in the form of this weekly social gathering, which has in turn become its own support network.
It has been an invaluable source of strength for Birtles since he lost his wife Samantha at the age of 56 in 2021, following her desperate and often lonely fight with cancer through Covid lockdowns.
‘It’s been so good for my mental health just being able to go and see my mates,’ says the 67-year-old former England striker now a regular pundit on Sky Sports. ‘You can go home in winter and when you shut the curtains you’re by yourself.
‘I wouldn’t miss this for the world. The interaction and camaraderie. Chewing the fat about the game. It has been so helpful to know this friendship is still there through the years and I know the other lads feel the same.
Robertson (left), who famously assisted Trevor Francis’ winning goal in the 1979 European Cup Final, signs a Nottingham Forest shirt alongside his former teammate Birtles (centre, right)
Nottingham Forest head coach Steve Cooper has been known to drop by from time to time
‘Football is a weird profession and you can lose your way at the end of it. I thought there’d be an automatic job when I finished and it didn’t happen. I went and signed on the dole for the only time. That was one of the worst moments of my life. I felt so guilty and a little bit ashamed. It takes you by surprise.
‘I was lucky because I got a job with the local radio and everything went from there but it can affect you.’
Very few from this generation of footballers walked away from the game with a fortune to set them up for life but they did forge strong bonds of companionship from shared experiences and achievements.
Something they are finding comes in handy as they all learn to cope with the vulnerabilities of the ageing process. Dressing-room humour is still evident. Only they are discussing ailments and medical procedures as much as cars, music and dress sense.
The sudden death of Francis was an enormous shock in July. In Clough’s team, Francis represented the glamour. The £1million footballer, a genuine superstar. At 69, he was among the youngest and he is the first to go.
They appreciate what they have and wonder if the current generation of players will enjoy the same thing.
Robertson admits Thursday is the day he most looks forward to every week.
Back in the embrace of the Forest brethren, giving his family a few hours of respite, he reminisces with an old team photograph of Scotland Schoolboys, taken before an international against England at White Hart Lane.
He is on the front row, Graeme Souness is standing at the back, and he can name every player, where they came from, the position they played and what happened to their careers.
Not all of Thursday’s attendees are former players… Jim McDonagh (far right), didn’t ever play for Nottingham Forest but served the club during his long career as a goalkeeping coach
‘For me, it was reliable, I knew it was there’: Everton manager Sean Dyche (above) occasionally drops in to visit the Thursday Club, having started his playing career at the City Ground
As for his favourite goal, Robertson avoids the obvious one, the winner against Hamburg in the European Cup final of 1980 to reveal he cherishes the winner for Scotland against England, a penalty at Wembley, a year later, more than any other.
The best he played against? ‘George Best’. The best he saw play? ‘Top three, in order, Lionel Messi, Pele and Diego Maradona.’
Someone recalls Clark once played against Pele. ‘What was he like, Frank?’ With the arch of an eyebrow and heavy trace of Geordie understatement, Clark confirms, ‘Aye, he was good, Pele.’ In fact, Pele scored three in 15 minutes for Santos that day against Newcastle, in Hong Kong on an end-of-season tour in 1972.
Clark is the eldest of the group. He was 32 and about to join Doncaster Rovers when Clough tempted him to the City Ground. By the time he retired, four years later, he had won a promotion, the league title, the League Cup twice and the European Cup.
His final game in professional football was the European Cup final in Munich and he has been back to Forest in various roles including manager and chairman. Now 80, he is playing guitar in a band in the pubs around Nottingham.
When Sean Dyche was out of work after leaving Burnley, he got in touch with Clark to ask if anyone would mind if he dropped into the Thursday Club. No-one minded, especially when they realised he was prepared to pick up the bill.
‘For me, it was reliable, I knew it was there,’ says Dyche, not such a frequent visitor since taking the Everton job in January. ‘I’d go down there some days and chat about life, some days about football.
Barrett (right) was forced to retire at the age of just 28 because of a long-term knee injury
Meanwhile, Clark (right) once played against Pele in a match between Santos and Newcastle
‘All like-minded people, all Nottingham Forest so we’d chat about Forest. Sometimes I’d just have a coffee and some lunch. Sometimes I’d pop in for an hour and have a coffee. Sometimes for three or four hours and have a few beers. Just fantastic.’
It is such a simple concept and has proved such a hit that Dyche and Owen have pushed it out via the PFA, the players’ union, in the hope other clubs will seize the idea to do something similar for their former players.
Other teams set to follow Forest
Several clubs have already lodged their interest with the PFA about launching their own version of Nottingham Forest’s Thursday Club after a short film circulated by the players’ union to encourage more of them to engage with former players.
Forest’s weekly social gathering has proved such a huge success, perhaps most importantly by nurturing friendships and helping mental health as players grow older, that those involved are keen to see it become a permanent part of football’s landscape.
‘Footballers have brought us so much joy and this is a simple way to give something back to them,’ said Jonny Owen, film-maker and Forest director, who is behind the link-up with the PFA.
Some already do. At Rotherham, John Breckin established a monthly Memory Club, initially on Zoom to help teammates with dementia during the lockdowns and now at the New York Stadium, where it has grown organically into something broader and spread to Sheffield United and Chesterfield where Tony Currie and Sean O’Neill have taken up the initiative.
‘It can be about turning up and unloading,’ says Dyche. ‘We all know men are rubbish at sharing but in this age of awareness about mental well-being it’s a great place to go and share. And for me, out of work, it was a great place to tap in and feed off the experience of people like Robbo, Frank Clark, Paul Hart and Ian Storey-Moore, sometimes just listening and absorbing their stories. It wasn’t just me telling them my tales of woe.’
Forest boss Steve Cooper and his coaching staff sometimes call in. All are welcome. Ian Storey-Moore is a Forest hero from the era preceding Clough who later returned in recruitment roles. Jim McDonagh didn’t play for Forest but he served them during his long career as a goalkeeping coach, during which time he has worked with 45 full international ‘keepers, including England’s number one Jordan Pickford.
Known to all as Seamus, the Republic of Ireland international spent two years across the River Trent with Notts County during his playing days, which started at Rotherham where he suffered a bad leg break against Chesterfield, which by coincidence was the first game I ever attended.
I cannot remember one of St John’s Ambulance first-aiders collapsing as they carried him from the pitch, dumping McDonagh unceremoniously into the mud where he remained in a heap while Chesterfield fans threw rocks at him from the terrace behind the goal and all medical attention diverted to the stricken stretcher-bearer.
McDonagh, who made 274 appearances for Bolton in two spells either side of a £250,000 move to Everton, makes an unlikely cameo in the Miracles film.
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For Birtles (second left), the club has been an invaluable source of strength: ‘It’s been so good for my mental health just being able to go and see my mates. I wouldn’t miss it for the world’
Forest had finished their fixtures in 1976-77 and were third in Division Two. Bolton still had two to play, however, and could still catch them. At least they could until they lost the first 1-0 at home to Wolves. The score was relayed to Clough’s players as they flew to Majorca.
‘It was offside,’ insists McDonagh in a flash. His reaction speed remains as strong as his sense of injustice and they are falling about laughing again, winding each other up until they realise the afternoon has gone and they ought to be moving on.
The bill is settled, lifts organised and taxis ordered. Barrett joins the back of the queue at the bus stop over the road and waves a cheery farewell.
They’ll be back next Thursday.
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