Interview: Craig Armstrong

Craig Armstrong is an ex professional footballer, probably most known for his time at Nottingham Forest. Armstrong played for a number of clubs including; Burnley, Watford, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday. He was signed by the late Brian Clough and during his playing career, witnessed the best and worst in football; including a one-man strike and promotion success. As a coach to young aspiring players and a scout for the FA, Craig provides an insight into how the game has changed in the last 20 years. Interview by @sjstapsar [originally published in Liquid Football Magazine Issue Six]

So Craig, what are you up to these days?
At the moment, I work in a college, based at Basford Football club. We run an education programme for 16-18 year old boys, so potentially boys that have been released from Academy’s, for example last year and the year before there were five boys that got released from Notts County under 16s, a lad that got released from Forest. We give them an opportunity to get an education, give them direction but also an opportunity to play within a first team. It’s an opportunity for the lads to get paid a bit of extra money. At the moment we are based at Central College at Clifton two days a week and at the football club three. The idea is that hopefully next year we will be at the football club full time so it’s tailoring them to an environment like they are a professional footballer.

So what’s the end goal, is it to get them a job potentially in a different field?
Yeah. they do a BTEC level 3 which is the equivalent to 3 A levels, on top of that if they fail maths or English they will have to re-do them because it’s a government criteria now. Potentially the government pay for 3 years funding. The idea is to give them an education so they could have a career in sports therapy, sports science or sports coaching. The grades are pass, merit distinction. The higher you get, the more opportunity you have to get into better universities but also, because it’s a football programme you’ve got the opportunity of a sports scholarship in America, so for example, you talked about (outside the interview) Derrick Otim that was at forest and ended up going to America, Mo Adams that used to be at Derby and then you’ve got lads that have been released from Forest such as Joe Boyd the goalkeeper, Richard Dearle so these boys have gone to America straight away so they’ve had the opportunity to get those grades here because they are taught the same qualification but if a club looks at them and thinks they’re a good player, they will offer them a certain amount of money and pay for things such as food and accommodation. They get a great lifestyle, job opportunities and then can come back and fend for themselves here.

If they’re lucky and get in the first team at Basford, professional teams may come down and they may get a chance, for example, there was a lad that was at Notts County, he got released, came to Basford, didn’t even play in the best team, then Martin Carruthers whos an ex pro footballer came in as head of college football, We put him into the youth alliance which is the top league we play in, he played really well, got to the first round of the FA youth cup, Sheffield United came and had a look at him, took him on trial for a week, offered him a scholarship till the end of the season and within a month had offered him a pro contract.

Do you think it’s now harder as an academy player and a young footballer to make it?
If I look back to when I played, if I had the opportunity and the sort of information that the kids get now and the amount of training, I think I would have been more intelligent and understood the game a lot more. But I trained every weekday and played at weekends. I got a train on a Saturday night and played for Forest on Sundays. I learned from playing games, so when I was 14 years old I was playing for county schools under 19s and I was playing against 19 year old boys. I learned from playing against players like that. Now the structure is you can play for your school but you can’t play for anyone else, it’s all about 10,000 hours and I don’t agree with it. I was very lucky because I played for a Sunday side that was run by Colin Todd the ex-England and Derby player. He used to always say, just enjoy yourself. He gave me a little bit of information now and again, so when I played he’d say to me from the touchline, try this and I remembered that. I do believe that it’s harder for the kids to get an opportunity, so for example, at Man City in every age group they have in the academy, every player is exactly the same they’re all excellent, fantastic players.

“The problem is that they all think they’re going to be the next big thing. The reality is that it isn’t the case for 80-90% of players in a youth team”

They’re buying the best in the country and in the world so it’s not like at Nottingham Forest where it’s being proven at the moment that you’ve got boys that are now stepping up because the club is financially in a bit of disarray, they don’t know what direction the club is going in.

Forest is probably the club to be at because an opportunity would come for academy boys similar to what it was like when Brian Clough was there. Brian Clough had the money but still played the kids, where if Forest had the money now, they wouldn’t play the kids. I think the hardest thing for them is reality, so I work in a college, they all have this grandeur of playing professional football and the reality of it is, that isn’t going to happen.

You’re talking about 1 in a million might get an opportunity to go back into football but what I try and teach them is that if you turn up on time for training, if you apply yourself correctly, if you try and learn, it will make you a better footballer but also when you go into the real world, you can’t turn up late everyday as you won’t get a job. The problem is that they all think they’re going to be the next big thing and the reality is that it isn’t the case for 80-90% of players in a youth team. You’re there to facilitate maybe one or two to progress, a bit like an Oliver Burke or a Tyler walker. At Forest you have Jordan Garbriel, Ryan Yates, Adam Crookes. These boys are capable of playing in that first team but it’s about the opportunities and if they don’t get the opportunities, it’s about them going somewhere else to get them.

“I know for a fact there are players in this country that are capable of winning the world cup and winning European championships but it’s about the moment”

If you look now at the national game, the perception is that the players aren’t as good as they were a few years ago. There used to be excitement around the national game and watching England because you thought they might achieve something, when you look at the players England have now like Jack Wilshire, do you think the mentality has changed towards the game from a young footballer perspective which inhibits performance?
I think what’s changed is the whole game. So you used to have the Alan Shearers and your Paul Gascoignes and your Stuart Pearces, Gary Linekers, Gary Pallisters and these types of players, the players we have now are 100 times better than them. Technically, tactically, they understand the game better. What the older players had like Stuart Pearce is desire and determination. Tony Adams was an ok footballer, he knew his limitations but he headed it, he kicked it when it needed to go. Stuart Pearce always admitted he wasn’t the best player in the world but he played with heart, he played for pride in everything he tried to achieve, he wanted to be the best he could. The Paul Gascoignes that are maybe like your Wayne Rooneys have to do something unexpected.

The problem you’ve got at the minute is other countries maybe except Germany and Spain and France weren’t as good then, now all of a sudden everyone is doing something different. I know for a fact there are players in this country that are capable of winning the world cup and winning European championships but it’s about the moment, the opportunities that you take. Yes we didn’t play very well against Iceland but we were 1 nil up, conceded two sloppy goals, and couldn’t break them down. If we were Portugal and finished 3rd in the group and won the European championships by playing crap football, yes we would get slated but people don’t look at that, they look at who’s won it.

“When Beckham kicked Simeone in 1998 and got sent off, West Ham and Spurs fans were hanging dummies with the Beckham shirt on… To come back from that; that’s the type of character you want. Maybe that’s what we do miss”

I think that when you look at it from a fans perspective, there always seems to be a lack of passion, I don’t know if that’s just a public perception. Do you think this is because young players go into football thinking I’m going to be a professional footballer and have the lifestyle that goes with it? You speak to some players and they say ‘I don’t play for the fans, I’m just there to play football and get paid’ this idealism is a very different one than when you look back to players such as Stuart Pearce. The mentality towards the game just seems different. What’s your thoughts?
There’s a few people that have come out and said that too many people get things too young. You will have players at Chelsea that have never played a first team game potentially picking up £35k a week simply on their potential, which then kills that desire but one thing I’ve noticed is that from when I started playing to now, whenever there was a friendly players used to drop out, players don’t want to drop out anymore, they want to play for their country.

So we will talk about my other role that I have. I work for the FA now and I work within the England set up so I work within scouting and recruiting and there are outstanding players there, you will never get 11 Stuart Pearce’s with his desire, they do care, the problem you’ve got is that they get so much limelight at the moment that I feel sorry for them. David Beckham wasn’t the most gifted footballer but what he had was determination. Technically he was outstanding, he wasn’t the quickest but mentally was so tough. When he kicked Simone in Euro 98 and got sent off, he came back stronger. West ham and Spurs fans were hanging dummies with the Beckham shirt on. To come back from that, that’s the type of character you want, maybe that’s what we do miss. We talk about not enough leaders, there are leaders but when you play for your country, you have to take care of yourself first. Players don’t get paid for playing, they play for free. They want to play for their country as they know how important it is. Footballers are in a society now where they are perceived, because of the amount of money they are earning that they don’t care. The thing is, if you speak to any person that criticises players for the amount of money they earn, you have to think that there is enough people in this world that don’t play football who earn billions. Football is a small percentage of wealth. If you look at America, American footballers get £20m contracts, we aren’t the most-wealthy sport. People think because Rooney is on £300k a week he doesn’t care, of course he cares the bottom line is they play for their country because they want to play.

Do you think that it’s not necessarily the mentality that has changed, it’s just that everything is more visible with social media?
Yeah of course it is. I look at some of the Forest players such as Oli Burke, Matty Cash and everything is through social media. ‘Gutted for the fans today’ etc. it’s a great way of being able to do it but are they really gutted for the fans? You know the problem is that social media is a dangerous thing and I don’t think they should be putting things on social media, By all means apologise if that’s what the fans want to hear but a fan knows when you’re trying. I was at Huddersfield town and if you didn’t run around and didn’t try, win, lose or draw you knew about it. Social media is dangerous because of the society we are in, it gets people in trouble. You can do Q & A session using social media but it’s usually used in the wrong way. For example, Joleon Lescott putting pictures of his bentley on Twitter. He spoke afterwards about being relegated being a relief. I don’t think he meant it like that. What he meant was that it was inevitable that they were going down, and it takes away pressure but he shouldn’t have been allowed to say that.

I guess the problem is that when you’ve had that sort of season, everything will be interpreted the wrong way…
Yeah. I remember playing Wimbledon at home, I was marking Marcus Gayle and I got done, we lost 1-0 and it was my man. I went out at the night to cinema, I was devastated. I didn’t go out drinking, I went for a quiet night but it’s hard because you will have one fan that will say you shouldn’t go out. If you’re going to go out after a heavy defeat than maybe don’t go town, go somewhere else. It does hurt you but you have a life to lead as well.

A question I have been asked to ask you is, what did you and the other Forest players think of Pierre Van Hooijdonk going on strike?
I was disappointed, I had only just got into the Forest team. Pierre was made a few promises, the chairman had promised to bring in better players, so a few Dutch boys were named at the time and Pierre was disappointed so obviously went on strike in protest. I spoke to Pierre when he came back and my argument to his was, if you’re not happy, come back and play and go on the transfer list. If it’s not about the money as you’re not going to get paid for not coming, go on the transfer list. I felt that he let us down and he was a major miss, he should have come in, put a request in and if they weren’t willing to do that then say I’m really sorry but I want to leave the club because I want to be at a club that will challenge and not struggle. He had been made promises and it came at the wrong time. Maybe Pierre going on strike and Scott Gemmill and Colin Cooper not being able to play gave me an opportunity. He maybe should have done it a different way, he was a talented player that was missed.

Dean Saunders has been making headlines recently regarding a story he shared about the late Brian Clough. What are your thoughts on this?
I thought it was a brilliant story, I think it sums up Brian Clough, how he was as a character, how he was as an individual, how he dealt with players and how he tried to get players in. If there’s any criticism of Deano, maybe he might have said that he wasn’t drunk. But everyone knows that Brian had a problem at the time. He might have done that sober, until he said he was drunk, I wouldn’t have thought anything. I think it’s typical of how Clough did things, I’ve heard so many similar stories, never heard about him being drunk when he did it but I thought it was a great way of getting someone to play for you. The bit about him being at Deano’s house when he got home was even better because that would be Brian Clough. He would get someone else to sort it out for him and then he would go and try to do the deal himself. He was a great manager to play for. I did laugh and I didn’t perceive the story as other people did. I know Nigel (Brian Clough’s Son) and the family aren’t happy with how it has been perceived but do you know what? It is what it is and people knew what he was like.

It’s hard because the reality of the situation means you have to separate the legend from the person. Nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. It’s like when you look at Gazza and George Best…
Yeah. There’s loads of stories, I have stories about Clough and how he was as a person. I remember when I was a first year scholar, I must have gone MacDonald’s the night before with the lads, and had food poisoning. I was in the dressing room being sick and all I heard as ‘who’s that’ so I came out and said it’s me. He asked what was wrong and I said I had food poisoning, now he could have thought I’d been out on the drink but he said ‘come with me’ he was all suited and booted and I said gaff are you going anywhere nice? He said he had a Board meeting. We walked onto the pitch, the Bridgford stand was being built at the time so there were builders everywhere. He said let’s talk and walk. He asked about my mum and dad because he knew my family because I signed for him so he knew everything about everyone, we were walking around the pitch. He told me to take a deep breath and suck it in, he then took his jacket off, undid his tie and as we were walking around the pitch, he handed me his jacket and started taking his shirt off. He took it off so he was now naked from the waist up, it’s now raining and we are walking round. You can see the builders in the stand looking. There was a rainbow and some fine rain, we had another lap and we stopped at the tunnel and he said, alright Armstrong, I’ve got to go to a Board meeting, give me another two laps and you’re done. He took his shirt and jacket off me and went back down the tunnel. I made sure I finished the laps because you never knew, he might be in the stands. You could say, was he drunk? No he was just Brian Clough. So you go back to Dean Saunders, he could have just said, that’s Brian Clough

Why do you think Saunders focused on the drink part?
He probably just said he was a bit drunk but that was just his mannerisms and how he behaved, it was brilliant to see.

“He rang me up threatening me, and saying he wanted to kill me. He couldn’t handle it but I got my own back”

Back to you and your career. Who was your most inspirational manager?
a) Brian Clough was inspirational because of who he was but, probably the best manager I played under was Dave Bassett. He gave me an opportunity but he was honest. He’d say, go and play football if I give you a bollocking and you don’t think its justified then say but if I’m right then I’ll fine you but if you’re right then I will apologise. He was honest and straight down the line, he was really big on team spirit and team bonding. Bob Houghton, his assistant manager at the time was a fantastic coach and he came in from day one and said I expect you to win the league. You are a better squad than I had at palace where we got promoted and rightly so we did.

and who was your worst manager?
When I went to Gillingham I played for Mark Stimson, an ex-Arsenal and Newcastle player. I thought as a coach he was decent but as a man manger, he was the worst. He treated people badly, he came into the club and brought in quite a few non league players, a few were quite good. He Brought in a left back to replace me which was fine, I accepted that. I had a convo with him and said, if I’m not for you, tell me it’s not a problem. I will go home. I have a wife and children in Nottingham, my sons autistic, I want to be back with them until you give me an opportunity. I got my opportunity by default because he had to play someone in the Johnson paint trophy, as you had to play 6-7 players that had started over 70% of the games. I wasn’t playing, he rang me at ten minutes to five that night realising I had to play. I turned up at the ground not prepared properly but I played well, I played the next 8-9 games then was ill. Then he left me out. I got my agent to find out if I could go, he said yes no problem, he’s been good for me, then for the next month he treated me like crap and made me train with the kids, with the physio then on my own. When I left for Cheltenham, I Let him know how I felt. He rang me up threatening me, and saying he wanted to kill me. He couldn’t handle it but I got my own back. Gillingham got relegated, Cheltenham stayed up in league 1 and I gave his number out to every single fan at the player of the year doo and they all rang him.

In terms of players, the who are best and worst you’ve played with?
The best. probably Scott Gemmill. He was good because you could give him the ball, he always talked in the game and gave good information. I’ve played with Stuart Pearce, Colin Cooper, Roy Keane, Stan Collymore and Brian Roy so I have played with some good players. It’s hard to say who the worst player was, as they might think the same about me. Andrea Silenzi had a tough time at Forest, he got slaughtered from the fans. I don’t think he was the worst player, just that he was at the wrong club at the wrong time. He played upfront with Maradona and Nepali and won the Championship, he was a good player.

Interview by Sarah McLaughlin