As a highly sought-after teenager Nigel Jemson had the option of joining either Manchester United or Nottingham Forest, both came with the opportunity to play under a legend of the managerial game. Looking back he says he has no regrets about his choice.
It would be understandable for him to be a little bitter at some of the treatment he got from manager Brian Clough – which included a punch in the stomach – but nothing of the sort.
“I loved every minute from first to last,” he said. “It is a myth that I never got on with the boss.
“People think that because he once punched me that he did not like me!
“But most of what he said was just banter. It was his way of keeping a cheeky 20-year-old in check.
“Brian and his wife sent my mum and dad a Christmas card every year. Would he have done that if he didn’t like me..?
Jemson began his career with his local club Preston North End whom he joined after originally been taken on as a YTS trainee. New manager John McGrath led the club to promotion with important contributions from Jemson.
McGrath opted for some experience up front and Jemson lost his place to the veteran Frank Worthington. But by that stage he had already done enough to attract the attention of some top flight clubs and Alex Ferguson invited him to train with United for a couple of days.
“I wasn’t a United fan so I wasn’t that keen,” admitted Jemson. “I went the first day but I didn’t enjoy it, so I didn’t bother telling them that I wasn’t going back!
“That night Brian Clough phoned and said ‘I hear you want to sign for me. See me at the City Ground at 9am. Don’t be late.’
“I went down with John McGrath and my mum and dad. What happened next was quite bizarre. Cloughie told me to take his dog for a walk and his PA, Carol, showed my parents around the Lace Market. John McGrath did the deal. There were no agents in those days.”
Jemson’s Forest debut came in a 1-1 draw at Luton Town and soon after he scored his first goal for the club in a 2-0 victory at rivals Derby County.
Jemson was starting to make a name for himself, scoring one of the goals as Forest won an exciting League Cup quarter-final at Spurs 3-2 and then netting the only goal of the final against Oldham Athletic.
Jemson started the next season on fire, scoring five goals in the first four games and earning selection for the England U21 team. But injuries would halt his progress however, and despite banging in a hat-trick against Southampton in a FA Cup replay, by the time of the cup final he was not in the side as Forest lost to Terry Venables’ Tottenham.
The writing was on the wall for Nigel with the arrival of new signing Teddy Sherringham, and he was soon on his way to Hillsborough for £800,000. Jemson says he never wanted to leave the City Ground but the opportunity to play under Trevor Francis, and alongside striker David Hirst at Wednesday was just too good to turn down.
“Yes, he sold me to Sheffield Wednesday, but I wasn’t pushed out of the door. I could have stayed.”
Wednesday went on to finish third in his first season at Hillsborough, but Jemson was only a peripheral figure. He was involved in a nasty car crash which kept him out for most of the season and his place in the team went to Mark Bright.
Jemson never recovered the form and promise he showed at Forest and his career went in a mostly downward trajectory, with spells at Notts County, Rotherham, Oxford, Ayr United, Bury and Shrewsbury among others.
There were some highlights – such as scoring both goals for Rotherham in the 2-1 Auto Windscreens Shield win over Shrewsbury at Wembley, and doing the same for Shrewsbury in a famous FA Cup win over an Everton side that featured a young Wayne Rooney – but the toll of injuries meant the Jemson never quite fulfilled all that potential.
Clough once said that Jemson was the only player in football who had a bigger head than him.
“He was unpredictable, a one-off,” said Jemson. “He never told me the reason he left me out of the Cup Final. He just said, “because I wanted to.”
“But I am proud to have played under him.
“People talk about Sir Alex Ferguson but in my opinion Brian Clough was the best.”