In the 1979-80 season, England had two representatives in the UEFA Champions League for the second year in succession. And for the second year in succession, they were Nottingham Forest and Liverpool. But in a role reversal from 12 months previously, Forest were defending European champions with Liverpool the domestic title victors.
Back then, Brian Clough and Bob Paisley’s teams were drawn against each other in the first round with Forest securing a momentous triumph over two legs before going all the way to take the trophy in Munich. This time, Forest landed Swedish champions Osters in round one with Liverpool facing a tricky test against Soviet Top League winners Dinamo Tbilisi.
Following up their superb 1978-79 campaign looked an ominous task for Forest. As well as winning their first European Cup, they successfully defended the League Cup. And despite injuries and fixture congestion taking a toll on Clough’s small squad, they somehow finished second in the league.
The platform for Forest’s success was a strong backline and one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Peter Shilton. In front of him, there was the formidable centre-half partnership of Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd, and England right-back Viv Anderson.
But there was a gap at left-back with Colin Barrett, a key part of the 1977-78 league-winning squad, struggling for form and fitness after injuring knee ligaments days before the second leg against Liverpool in September 1978. Barrett had memorably scored the second goal in the 2-0 first leg win at the City Ground.
And with Frank Clark hanging up his boots after playing in the European Cup final victory over Malmo, Clough went back to former club Leeds United to pay £500,000 for Scotland left-back Frank Gray.
Archie Gemmill’s fury at being left out for the final in Munich led to a transfer to Second Division Birmingham City. In his place came another Scotland international midfielder in the form of Asa Hartford from Manchester City. And young goalkeeper Chris Woods, the hero of the 1978 League Cup Final, left for Queen’s Park Rangers with Shilton unlikely to be dislodged at any time soon.
Trevor Francis, the goalscorer in Munich, had spent the summer at NASL side Detroit Express. It was his second off-season across the Atlantic, an agreement which had been reached while he had been at Birmingham before his one-million pound transfer. Unfortunately for Forest, the England forward picked up a groin injury and had to miss the start of the new campaign.
Apart from that, it was pretty much as you were with John Robertson and Martin O’Neill on the flanks, captain John McGovern marshalling the troops in the middle of the park, and Garry Birtles and Tony Woodcock up front.
Forest started the new league season with three victories, the last of which was a 4-1 win at home to Coventry. But those three games were enough for Clough and his trusted lieutenant Peter Taylor to decide that Hartford was not the man they needed in midfield and he was quickly sold to Everton.
In came the versatile and willing Ian Bowyer, and Forest made it four out of four with a 5-1 victory over Ron Atkinson’s West Brom at the Hawthorns. Birtles scored a hat-trick with Lloyd and Gray scoring the others.
But Clough was still trying to fill that Gemmill-sized hole and even tried to get his former playmaker back, an offer the 32-year-old Scot rebuffed in no uncertain terms. The pair did eventually bury the hatchet with Gemmill later becoming a coach under Clough at Forest. But the wounds took years to heal with Clough employing Bowyer, John O’Hare and Gary Mills early in that season.
After their blistering start in the league, Forest were held by Leeds at the City Ground before a shock 3-1 defeat at Norwich City saw Manchester United overtake them at the top. Despite that, Clough named an unchanged line-up for the start of their Champions League defence against Osters.
The Vaxjo-based club had beaten Malmo to the Swedish title in 1978, a full decade after their first league success. They won it again in 1980 and 1981 before a steady decline culminating in relegation from the top flight in 1998.
Osters’ only previous European Cup experience was a short one in 1969, going down 3-1 on aggregate to Fiorentina of Italy in round one. They knocked out Hibernian in the 1976-77 UEFA Cup second round before going out to Barcelona, but it’s fair to say they were something of an unknown quantity when they visited Nottingham in mid-September 1979.
What soon became clear was that they presented a very different test to compatriots Malmo.
Unlike Bobby Houghton’s physical outfit, Osters preferred to keep the ball on the deck and caused a few problems for the defending champions of Europe.
The visitors, who had future Sweden keeper Thomas Ravelli’s twin brother Andreas in defence, almost took a shock lead with Shilton doing well to deny Peter Nilsson. But then Bowyer converted Woodcock’s cross to open the scoring in the 62nd minute.
With just over 15 minutes to go, Bowyer scored again with a shot which took a sizeable deflection off defender Greger Hallen. And that was that. Perhaps not the convincing win which many expected but a solid victory against useful opposition.
Back in the league, Forest drew 1-1 at Bristol City which restored them to first place before a crunch clash with Liverpool. The champions had won just two out of six league games, and they would have had a tough trip to Georgia in the back of their minds having only beaten Dinamo Tbilisi 2-1 at Anfield.
The hosts rode their luck early on with Shilton and the woodwork coming to their rescue. Viv Anderson embarrassed Liverpool stand-in goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic with a free-kick which sailed over him into the net but, as it was an indirect free-kick, the goal did not stand.
But Forest did take the lead seven minutes before half-time, Birtles scoring with a smart turn and shot which turned out to be the only goal of the game. Clough’s side actually slipped to third with unbeaten Crystal Palace and Manchester United moving above them on goal difference, while Liverpool fell to ninth place having picked up just seven points from seven matches.
Worse was to follow for the Merseysiders as they were beaten 3-0 in Tbilisi, conceding all three goals in the second half. A 4-2 aggregate defeat meant Liverpool had fallen at the first hurdle in Europe for the second year in a row.
Meanwhile, Forest went to Sweden with a two-goal cushion. The home side again impressed with their passing and movement, and gave the holders cause for alarm when Mats Nordgren scored after a rare error from Anderson seven minutes into the second half.
But with 10 minutes to go, Woodcock eased the tension with a looping header from Mills’ cross. That away goal left Osters needing to score twice, and Forest saw it out for a 3-1 aggregate triumph.
Flying high at home – having also beaten Middlesbrough 3-1 in the League Cup third round – and safely through in Europe, things were going well for Clough and co. But while the City Ground remained fortress-like, Forest were starting to look distinctly shaky on their travels.
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