Paul McGregor saw ‘light and darkness’ in Brian Clough before ‘dreadful’ Ron Atkinson ended his career in the forest

Before reaching the record of an interview of one hour, Paul McGregor explains how he is. Happy and healthy, he says in a normal aside when asking a person how they are.

By the end of the recording, it’s clear how important happiness and health are to McGregor after a life of ups and downs. His football career was good. He still believes it could have been great, but there was a lot of light amidst the dark moments.

Among Nottingham Forest fans, McGregor is best known for his goal against Lyon in 1995 which set up a UEFA Cup quarter-final against Bayern Munich. It could have been the catalyst for greatness, but at the age of 28 he was set to retire after tears streamed down his face almost daily before training at Northampton Town.

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McGregor’s early team days at Forest were primarily under Frank Clark, but he was a favorite son of Brian Clough given his prolific record at youth team level in the final days of the great manager’s tenure. It was a time when all was not well with Clough and that is reflected in McGregor’s experiences with the man.

“Bittersweet, top-down, schizophrenic,” he says after a long pause on the next episode of the Garibaldi Red podcast when asked about playing for Clough. “There were some dark things but also some really really beautiful memories and light moments.

“He liked a goalscorer because he was one himself. If I got a few goals or a hat-trick for the youth team, he’d be shouting down the hall ‘blondie! No practice for you today. Give me a bath Run yourself one too and we’ll have a talk (That was of course said in Clough’s obligatory impression).

“There were some surreal moments with Brian Clough in an ice bath and me in a hot Radox with him asking ‘how are your mum and dad? Do you have a girlfriend?

“I remember we won the double in the youth team, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup Youth Cup and towards the end of the season I think against Sunderland he got us walked around the pitch with the trophies in front of fans. He led us into the center circle and gave us each a big hug and a big kiss. He had tears in his eyes.

“He was so proud of us, so proud of his young team. Yeah, there were darker times that we don’t need to delve into, but I’d be the one making his drinks in the morning, first thing , and I’ll make sure he’s okay in the sauna.

“It was a bit dark at times. He spoke to my dad in a peculiar way during a youth team game. For no reason he launched into a drunken tirade. My dad wanted to murder him .

Paul McGregor after scoring the only goal against Lyon in the UEFA Cup at the City Ground

“To me, he was truly genius. To be around him and the club in that time is a real honour. When you say you played under Brian Clough, it’s crazy. It’s an incredible thing to have made.

“More than the bright or dark times, I remember the pride and honor of playing for Nottingham Forest in that time. Just being with him on a daily basis was special, for better or for worse really. “

McGregor is a Nottingham man, but a Liverpool fan. He was born there but left around the age of three when work dried up for his parents in miserable times for the town. Unofficially, his resourceful dad needed to “get the hell out of Dodge,” McGregor laughs.

He would score four goals in 37 games – 30 of them from the bench – for Forest. The speedy striker’s most memorable season was 1995/96, during the heyday of Brit Pop, when McGregor made headlines for musical reasons as well as football.

A different kind of leader, he was the lead singer of a band he thought was overhyped and with the look of a Gallagher brother there were questions about his focus but he’s adamant football was his objective, no pun intended, although he feels his music career effectively ended his Forest days when Ron Atkinson became manager in January 1999.

“I was in a band since school. It’s the band that people remember the funniest – Merc, it was my school band. We were offered decent gigs but we weren’t ready,” he said.

“We were in the Bizarre pages of The Sun. I was painted in a way that couldn’t have been more wrong. Most of the other young guys were going to the Black Orchid or the Ritzy and I was repeating. Everybody thought I had Liam Gallagher’s life. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I wanted to be a professional footballer for Nottingham Forest. Nothing else. It was crazy though. We went to V 92. The NME had big independent billboards and they said he was the coolest footballer from Great Britain?

“The picture was of me and I looked like Ian Brown or Liam Gallagher. We were in a limo – that sounds gross – and when we got out all the pictures were of me on those billboards.

“Has that tarnished my name as a player? Yes, probably. Ron Atkinson, when he came on the scene, unfortunately he had done an article in Match magazine about two months earlier naming the top five youngsters country attackers.

“Fowler was there. Owen, Heskey. I’m not sure about the other one. I was too much, so I thought he’d play me.

“His first practice in front of everyone, the first words that came out of his mouth were ‘well let’s see what we have here then’. He pointed at me and said ‘because I don’t want any rock stars in my team!’

“The blood drained out of me. I knew my time was up at Forest. A dreadful man. A dreadful one.

“It may sound selfish, but I think if I had been named number nine and had a run of ten games, I would have scored goals.

“I could play on the right wing because I was fast, but I was a goalscorer. I had broken records across all age groups. Forest paid money for centre-forwards, so I had a glass ceiling. You could say that if I continued to score goals in the reserves I would have been thrown out, but I scored goals in the reserves.

“When I came to the first team I did well. Part of me thinks if I had been with Man United in the class of 92 I would have been the centre-forward, but I don’t I’m not precious about that. They’ve bought Bryan Roy and Stan Collymore and I fully respect that Frank Clark didn’t feel what I felt. That’s good.

McGregor spent time on loan at Carlisle and Preston – he is a huge fan of North End boss David Moyes – before succeeding at Plymouth, where he scored 16 goals in a season and was player of the year in 1999/2000 after being released by Forest The final chapter of his career was the most miserable, after joining Northampton Town for double his wages at Plymouth.

“Sixfields is hell. A horrible place. There was a time when I struggled a bit,” he said.

“I was back at my mum and dad, living in trash bags with my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I sat on the end of the bed most days before training with tears streaming down just thinking that I didn’t want to go.

“The money was good and that was it. I remember sitting down and I won’t mention his name because it was awful of him. But I said ‘blunder, I’m fighting. I don’t I don’t want to be a footballer anymore. This club killed my fun.

“It was a Friday and we had to sign balls and pictures in the club shop. By the time I did and came back I was a laughing stock in the dressing room. I had gone to see the gaffer and told him I was having a hard time. He immediately told the senior players what I said. It was awful.”

McGregor retired in 2003 after leaving Northampton and had nothing to do with football for five years, before a friend asked him to help coach an age group Chilwell Vipers team.

The group of children brought him back inside, and McGregor rediscovered his love of the game. These days, he’s a permanent co-host of the Reservoir Red Dogs podcast and a regular viewer of Forest.

His daughter is part of Forest’s women’s under-10 team. After professional football, McGregor toured the world with his band Ulterior, but when he was born he cut the band down when he realized he needed to make more money.

Now 47, he runs two businesses, one building academies, the other creating brands for TitkTok and YouTube stars. He also started playing five again. More importantly, he is happy and healthy.

This article is an excerpt from the full podcast, which comes out Monday morning. You can find it on iTunes, YouTube or other podcast platforms.

Elizabeth J. Harless