THE various interpretations of the John Robertson physiognomy would suggest that an oil painting may never be commissioned.Certainly, his Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough didn't remember him as the most attractive man on the planet: "If I was feeling off colour, I'd go and sit next to him and I was bloody Errol Flynn by comparison."

His former Forest colleague, Kenny Burns, takes the barbs into cutting edge territory: "Robbo disnae like going into Tescos, 'cos he has as many lines on his face as a barcode – and the machines keep going off when he's near them."

Setting aside all the dressing-room humour, there were and are, of course, redemptive qualities about being John Robertson. As Clough pointed out: "Give him a ball and a yard of grass, and he was an artist: the Picasso of our game."

Those qualities assume even more status when you consider how he insists on living his life nowadays. By rights, he should be an influential component of the world's most profitable football league: England's Premier League. Some months ago, he was presented with an opportun- ity to resume his iconic partnership with Martin O'Neill at Sunderland. The fact he resisted it illustrates a welcome trend of self-sacrifice.

Today, Robertson appears to have weaned himself off the football narcotic. He is comforted by his mem-ories: those great playing days with Forest and Scotland; the all-conquering managerial moments with Celtic.

He plays tennis three times a week – "I wish I played like Andy Murray" – and more if anyone is willing to indulge that passion. He particularly enjoys listening to Bryan Ferry music and watching Clint Eastwood films. But, above all, he ensures his family unit stays tight. Family means more to him than most of his fellow obsessives.

In 1979, his brother Hugh and his sister-in-law died in a car crash. "My niece Gillian, who was only eight at the time, was in the backseat and she survived. As for Hugh, I didn't see him very often, but we always had a drink when I was in Scotland and were close. It leaves a helluva void in your life. In the end, his death killed my dad. He lasted only a year or so after it. He went downhill quickly."

Sixteen years ago this month, Robertson's daughter Jessica, who suffered from cerebral palsy, passed away. "You don't get over that," he says quietly. "The only thing I can say is that it wasn't unexpected. We knew she wouldn't outlive us, but it was still, a terrible, terrible thing. She was a gorgeous little girl. I think about her every day. I go up to the cemetery every week with flowers. I feel that's the least I can do. I have a five-minute cigarette with her. I tell her I love her."

Robertson's mood is fragile. I have no wish to exploit that fragility, but I am attempting to explore the depth of the man. He placed a letter beside her when she was in the chapel of rest. What had he said in the letter? "I put it in the coffin, yeah. I didn't reveal the contents in my book. But, basically, I thanked her for choosing me to be her dad."

Shifting into the here and now, people were looking for conspiracy theories when the O'Neill-Robertson axis failed to re-engage. Their attempts to add two to two ended in farcical multiples of the correct answer. "My son Andrew was just beginning his A levels and I wasn't going to uproot him to go up to Sunderland. I didn't want to be travelling up and down the motorway, either. Besides, I hadn't really enjoyed the last year at Villa.

"I don't know how Martin keeps going like he does. We'd been 16 years together and the only year we had out was when we left Celtic – the year before we went to Villa. It was like a non-stop carousel. I needed a longer time away."

But O'Neill did offer him the job? "Oh, yes, yes, yes. There was no problem about that. It didn't take me particularly long [to say no], though. To do the job like we did at Celtic, we had to be up there, I felt. I just didn't want to do that. I wasn't ready because of my boy's situation, and I think Jessica's death might have had something to do with this: it made me more aware of family responsibilities. I love spending time with them. Jessica's death gave me more perspective. The kids give me great joy. I think that's what we're here for – to procreate and keep the human race going."

If I'm honest, I cannot say I was at all anxious initially to interview Robertson. I relied, in my ignorance, on preconceptions and never believed there was much depth to him. It seemed Robertson was just an adjunct, and a rather silent adjunct, to the voluble and excitable O'Neill; an optional extra, if you like. You rarely saw him interviewed, or say anything substantial.That opinion changed when his book, John Robertson: Super Tramp, came out this year. It's an absorbing autobiography in that it doesn't attempt to scandalise all and sundry. What makes it even more laudable is the fact that his ghost writer is Nottingham journalist John Lawson. Robertson was insisting on repaying a favour. It was Lawson who recommended Robertson when Clough was new in the Forest job. The loyalty card is therefore important to him.

The memory of his first meeting with Clough is at the top of his memory board. "We're all sitting in a square-shaped dressing room. Suddenly, this bloke came flying round the corner out of nowhere and, as he came in, he was whipping his jacket off. This was a whirlwind and you knew this lad meant business."

Clough wasn't exactly complim-entary about him. Didn't he call him a tramp? "Yeah, all the Super Tramp business came from how he described me to people. When he first came, I wasn't doing the best for myself. I was languishing, feeling sorry for myself. Then when Peter [Taylor] came, he pulled me apart when we were in Germany. The gaffer said Pete was going to have a word. The first thing he [Taylor] said was 'You!' I wasn't sure if he was pointing at me or not. But I soon found out. 'You eff off back to the hotel!' I was dumfounded. He said he'd speak to me later. I was to wait by the pool. So I just got up and worried my way back to the hotel. Later, he asked me what my problem was. I said I didn't know what he meant. He said: 'I watched you last night in the warm-up and you did three stretches of one groin and three of the other. You stood around. You're overweight, you're scruffy, so again: 'What's your problem'?"

Robertson's problem was that he imagined the whole world was ganging up against him: self-delusion was at work. He started to watch his weight; he even tried to smarten himself up a bit. "That didn't work out too well, did it? Bryan Ferry's my hero. I tried to model myself on him, but somehow it never worked on me. I don't think I had the shape."

It is time for intemperance. What part did the booze play in his life? "Booze? Listen, anyone who knows me well will tell you that this is all make believe. Whenever I had a drink, I was loud. People used to come up and say: 'I saw you on the whisky last week.' Well, I've never drunk whisky in my life. It's give the dog a bad name. That's why I went for that title on my book.

"It was John [Lawson] who came up with the name. I was a bit sceptical. I was trying to get away from that image, being in management and that. But the problem is people always mention drink. But someone once pointed out that if you get a reputation for getting up early, you can lie in bed all day. So, I thought I'm never going to get rid of this image, so I might as well go for this title."

Burns provides an independent verdict on that consumption. He says Robertson used to drink Campari and soda. So, he was no such thing as a barfly? "No. And anyone who knows me well will tell you that. I'm still the same now. If I have a drink once a week, that's it."

What does (or rather did) he bring to the managerial table? What's his forte? Those are better questions, he decides. "I'm more of a watcher than a coach. I didn't interfere too much in training: we liked it to flow rather than have stop-start situations, because players get stale or fed up when there are interruptions every two minutes. I was a sounding board. My job was done more in the office when we were together. Martin would ask me what I thought and I'd give him my honest opinion."

Sounds like Clough and Taylor? "Well, you could say it was a bit similar. Peter was never one for getting the tracksuit on. A lot of their stuff was done in a room when they were bouncing ideas off each other. You know, they were fantastic people. Their deaths made me extremely sad. If they hadn't come along, I don't think I would have done anything."

l John Robertson: Super Tramp. Mainstream Publishing.