Having safely negotiated the first round of their European Cup defence, and seen rivals Liverpool surprisingly crash out, Nottingham Forest had just three weeks before their last-16 tie against Romania’s Arges Pitesti.
Forest returned to the top of Division One with a 3-2 home win over Wolves as Trevor Francis scored on his first appearance of the season after a groin injury sustained playing in the United States, displacing Martin O’Neill on the right-wing.
Their away-day blues continued though as a 1-1 draw at Stoke City was followed by defeat at Manchester City, Polish playmaker Kazimierz Deyna with the only goal just after half-time.
There were no such problems back on home soil with Brian Clough’s men going into a 3-0 half-time lead before beating Bolton 5-2 and that win was enough to take Forest back to the top of the table ahead of the visit of Arges Pitesti.
While the Romanians were little known outside their home country, they had beaten AEK Athens – one of Forest’s victims the previous year – in round one. Arges took the first leg at home 3-0, and just held on in Greece for a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Their star man was attacking midfielder Nicolae Dobrin. At 32, Dobrin – who six years earlier had been unable to persuade President Ceausescu to let him join Real Madrid – was still capable of turning a game. He and his team were certainly less potent away from home however, and they were about to take on a Forest side who had not tasted defeat at The City Ground for 50 matches.
It did not take long for the holders to make their mark. On 13 minutes, John Robertson beat his man in typical fashion and Larry Lloyd headed down his centre for Tony Woodcock to fire home the opener.
Three minutes later, Gary Mills’s through-ball took a deflection into the path of Garry Birtles who finished clinically. Forest failed to add to their tally, despite Arges having defender Mihai Zamfir sent off 10 minutes from time after receiving a second yellow card. Would two goals be enough to take to Romania?
Back to the league and there was yet more woe for The Reds on their travels. Glenn Hoddle celebrated his 22nd birthday with a spectacular volley which gave Peter Shilton no chance as Spurs claimed a 1-0 win to end Forest’s latest stint at the top of the table. Manchester United were back in pole position with Liverpool, wounded by a defeat at Forest and their early exit from Europe, moving ominously into contention.
That made it just two points for Forest in their last five away league outings, but The City Ground remained a fortress. Francis scored both goals in the second half as they defeated Bobby Robson’s Ipswich 2-0 ahead of their trip behind the Iron Curtain.
This was Clough and co’s first visit to the Eastern Bloc in their European travels, and life would not be easy against a capable side with vociferous home support. As recalled in Daniel Taylor’s ‘I Believe In Miracles’, Clough described Pitesti as “Middlesbrough without the glamour”.
There was another problem caused by Forest’s unusual ritual on the eve of the match. Clough had always encouraged his players to have a couple of beers the night before a European game, but the local brew was not quite up to scratch. While some of the team decided to leave their drinks alone, John O’Hare – thinking he would not be playing – mopped up the spares. Five pints later, the midfielder was surprised to find himself named in the starting line-up.
O’Hare said, “It was an afternoon kick-off, because they didn’t have floodlights, and I was feeling so rotten at half-time it was the only time in my life I had to fake an injury.” He told assistant coach Jimmy Gordon he had pulled a hamstring but admitted, “I had to go off – the only time I bottled it in my life.”
Despite O’Hare’s struggles, and by the time he had made way for Mills at the break, Forest were already safely in the quarter-finals. Bowyer kept up his happy knack of scoring goals in Europe with the opener in the fifth minute, pouncing in the six-yard box after Lloyd had headed down Robertson’s corner. And midway through the first half, Birtles slid in to turn home Woodcock’s low cross to leave Arges needing to score five.
Ilie Barbelescu pulled one back from the spot on the hour after a somewhat contentious penalty award, but it was far too little, too late as Forest eased through 4-1 on aggregate.
With a four-month gap before the quarter-finals, Forest had time to concentrate on their league campaign but there was an interesting diversion to come before then in the shape of the UEFA Super Cup against Cup Winners’ Cup holders Barcelona.
Before that, Forest underwent some major upheaval with the loss of a star player, and the arrival of one of football’s most colourful characters.
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