Garry Birtles EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: I was living the dream, but I would trade everything for my wife to be healthy

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Once a week on Thursday, four of Nottingham’s great men got together for a drink and talked about great days.

Garry Birtles, John Robertson, Frank Clark and Colin Barrett together have six European Cup medals from their days in Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. But it is friendship, not glory, that sustains them.

Especially Birtles needs his friends now. His wife Samantha dies of pancreatic cancer.

Garry Birtles experienced European Cup glory with Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980

Garry Birtles experienced European Cup glory with Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980

Birtles stated that he would trade that success for his wife Samantha (pictured) to be healthy

Birtles stated that he would trade that success for his wife Samantha (pictured) to be healthy

Birtles stated that he would trade that success for his wife Samantha (pictured) to be healthy

The Covid pandemic has put those weekly meetings on hold, but the sport that gave Birtles a career he never dreamed of has kept him close.

‘You hear people talking about the football family, but you only really know it’s there when you need it,’ says Birtles Sportsmail‘My phone rings all the time and it will be one of my old teammates or someone from another club or the PFA.

‘It could take a few minutes or half an hour. It lifts you up. It makes you realize that love is out there. ‘

Birtles has been married to Samantha – his second wife – since 2008 and they have a daughter, Elyshia. He has three children – Natalie, James and Nina – from his first marriage.

Birtles's wife, Samantha, dies of pancreatic cancer and was diagnosed two years ago

Birtles's wife, Samantha, dies of pancreatic cancer and was diagnosed two years ago

Birtles’s wife, Samantha, dies of pancreatic cancer and was diagnosed two years ago

Birtles now hopes to raise as much money as possible for the Treetops Hospice

Birtles now hopes to raise as much money as possible for the Treetops Hospice

Birtles now hopes to raise as much money as possible for the Treetops Hospice

Until Samantha’s diagnosis at the age of 54 two years ago, life was good. Birtles enjoyed a burgeoning career in the broadcast media until his phone rang when he left a game at Burnley.

“She got the forecast,” he recalls. ‘Anxious. Your world will collapse in the blink of an eye. ‘

Samantha has already confused the predictions. She was initially given to live until March last year. Nevertheless, her condition is terminal.

Birtles has taken a break from work to become her 24-hour caretaker and the couple hope to at least enjoy a few summer days in the garden while raising as much money as possible for the Treetops Hospice close to the Nottingham / Derby border where they live.

Gareth Southgate is one of those who donated a signed shirt to the Treetops Hospice

Gareth Southgate is one of those who donated a signed shirt to the Treetops Hospice

Gareth Southgate is one of those who donated a signed shirt to the Treetops Hospice

Again, football has not failed them. Since his fundraising went public, Birtles has received a stream of signature shirts from the likes of Gareth Southgate, Manchester United and City, Everton, John Terry, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, Jack Grealish and of course Forest.

On June 29, a charity match between Forest old boys and a celebrity squad will take place at Basford United in Nottingham.

Nigel Clough will lead a team, while Robertson will kick off the game. Kevin Keegan plans to attend, along with vocalist Jake Bugg and Line of Duty star Vicky McClure, both fans of Notts County.

“Bos has been huge, but so have all the clubs that have heard it,” says Birtles. ‘My kids have worked wonders for me and the PFA was incredible too. Gordon Taylor was on the phone directly. Samantha and I would have struggled financially without them, since neither of us earns.

“All the money we raise by auctioning the shirts goes straight to Treetops. Samantha’s girlfriend Sally started a JustGiving page for them.

“They’ve been there to support us and need £ 4.3 million a year to keep going.

‘I try to stay strong. Brian Clough taught me how to do that. But there are dark moments – normally at night when I’m trying to do a crossword or read a book – when the tears come. Then you need people and you realize how lucky you are to have been in this profession. ‘

Birtles was at the Palais nightclub in Nottingham in 1975, when a petition went round calling for Clough to become Forest’s next manager.

Birtles was a carpet layer at the time and played non-league football for Long Eaton. Four years later, he won the European Cup.

“It was a very long sheet of paper that went right across the dance floor,” he recalls.

‘I drew it clearly – and a year and a half later I drew for Brian, which still feels bizarre.

‘He had come to see me and later said that the half time was better Oxo than my performance. But he must have seen something.

‘You just don’t expect that in four years from laying carpets and floors on construction sites to representing your country. I was named Young European Player of the Year, played for England, won two European Cups, a Super Cup, a League Cup. It’s just ridiculous. ‘

In the campaigns of 1978-79 and 1979-80, Birtles played no fewer than 136 matches

In the campaigns of 1978-79 and 1979-80, Birtles played no fewer than 136 matches

In the campaigns of 1978-79 and 1979-80, Birtles played no fewer than 136 matches

Clough changed many careers at Forest, but few stars emerged as quickly as Birtles. That said, he almost left for Mansfield before winning anything.

“I was on the Forest reservations for £ 60 a week and Mansfield offered me £ 100,” he says. ‘I thought maybe I should go, but Frank (Clark) saw me sitting there all by myself on the reserve team bus and came to talk to me. He advised me to stay and I am eternally grateful to you. You don’t forget things like that. ‘

Forest won both European Cup finals 1-0 in 1979 and 1980, against Malmö and Hamburg. The second was a defensive effort, with Birtles running his legs forward to provide water while his team defended Robertson’s early goal.

Birtles played no fewer than 136 games in those two seasons. On his return from the Hamburg final in Madrid, he was treated to exhaustion.

“Brian Clough treated every game as if you were playing against Manchester United,” explains Birtles. “We once performed a testimony in Plymouth. The weather was awful, the field was awful.

‘We were late and 3-0 behind at half time. The gaffer went nuts and said he would fine us all for every goal we got after that point. He was obsessed. So that night against Hamburg tapped me over the edge. Cloughie told me afterwards that I had covered more miles than the runner Emil Zatopek.

‘It felt like that, but it was my job and I wanted to do it for him. I loved it. ‘

There are few better men in football than Birtles. He doesn’t want sympathy and neither does Samantha. But they do want people to have worrisome medical symptoms monitored.

Birtles has fond memories of working under Brian Clough who changed many careers

Birtles has fond memories of working under Brian Clough who changed many careers

Birtles has fond memories of working under Brian Clough who changed many careers

“Don’t be put off, keep knocking on doors,” he says. Samantha was told she had IBS five years ago. But was that the start of this cancer? We’ll never know – but we wonder.

However, the NHS has been great. It makes you realize how lucky we all are to have it. ‘

For now, Birtles’ commentary work with Sky, IMG and Gravity Media is on hold, but he hopes to get back to it someday. “They’ve all been brilliant with me,” he says.

The couple knows where Samantha’s journey is going, but tries not to look too far ahead.

Birtles only carries classes that his father and even Clough taught. They are about respect and good manners and doing the right thing. Birtles has always been like this.

“My dad took me to Trent End as a kid,” says Birtles.

‘Who would have thought that I would play for that great club?

‘I was the happiest guy there was, but I would give all that away to change things for Samantha.

“You would change the world for it, you know.”

For donations go to https://treetops.org.uk/footballauction or www.justgiving.com/fundraising/sally-pembleton