Nottingham Forest had to wait for their first trip abroad in the Champions League. As captain John McGovern put it, “We’re looking forward to going to Madrid or Paris, you know. Not Liverpool.”
But having knocked out the two-time defending champions 2-0 on aggregate in the first all-English Champions League tie, Forest were then drawn against AEK Athens in round two with the first leg in the Greek capital on 18 October 1978.
The sides had met in pre-season, drawing 1-1 in the Nea Filadelfeia Stadium. But according to Daniel Taylor’s ‘I Believe In Miracles’, the players’ abiding memory was of the home fans setting fire to piles of rubbish. Ian Bowyer said, “It made us think, if they could do that in a pre-season friendly, what would they do when we went there in the European Cup – set fire to the whole ground?”
Meanwhile, Brian Clough had again employed novel methods of getting his players to relax. After arriving at their hotel a day before the match, he told them to “get changed and I’ll see you in 20 minutes, we’re going to the beach”.
As Kenny Burns says, “We went down there thinking we were going to have a bit of five-a-side. But he had other plans. ‘Right, we’re going to have a game of rugby’”.
That idea was right up Larry Lloyd’s street but Burns’ centre-half partner tripped over the first time he got the ball and “within seconds there were 15 or 16 players kicking sand all over him. Elbows, knees, boots, the lot. He got a battering”.
In the evening, Archie Gemmill had warned the young players to watch themselves around town and in the hotel. Then a power cut caused by an electrical storm threw the hotel into darkness and left Viv Anderson – one of the stars of the defensive masterpiece at Anfield – in a state of high anxiety.
While some of the squad were outside playing cribbage, the right-back had returned early to his room to read a book. When the lights went out, Anderson’s mind started playing tricks on him and he was found by Tony Woodcock locked in the bathroom with his feet up against the door, shouting loudly at his team-mate thinking he was a potential assailant after seeing “a shadow”.
The trip to the ground before kick-off was also eventful due to the notoriously bad Athens traffic. The team bus had the police in pursuit with their driver going the wrong way down one-way streets and overtaking in dangerous fashion. He accepted an on-the-spot fine on arrival at the stadium with the players having a whip round to help pay it.
Like Anfield, the Nea Filadelfeia was an intimidating arena and Clough’s approach was again to face the fear head-on, holding his team-talk in the middle of the pitch as the home crowd geared up for kick-off.
Managed by Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas, AEK were less frightening on the field than Liverpool and McGovern opened the scoring in the ninth minute, bundling the ball home after good work from Woodcock.
Forest’s task was made easier when the home side had their Uruguayan international Milton Viera sent off midway through the first half for, somewhat foolishly, taking a swing at Burns. And they made their numerical advantage count a minute before half-time when John Robertson sent the rejuvenated Frank Clark away down the left and he squared the ball to Garry Birtles who calmly sidestepped the keeper to make it 2-0.
AEK pulled one back from the penalty spot after a reckless Burns challenge, but a 2-1 lead – and two away goals – to take back to the City Ground was certainly a good night’s work. And the home fans had limited their litter pyrotechnics to mere sections of the stadium.
Clough’s men were still on their lengthy unbeaten run in the league with Birtles proving a more than adequate replacement for Peter Withe, and Robertson in scintillating form. And they had little to fear from AEK in the return leg.
While Puskas was a playing great, his man-management skills were not in Clough’s league. With Forest’s players watching AEK’s training session on the eve of the return leg, goalkeeper Nikos Christidis had to pick the ball out of the net repeatedly as the 51-year-old former Magic Magyar sent fierce shots flying past him.
That was a sign of things to come for Christidis as Forest ran riot 24 hours later. David Needham, deputising for Burns, scored the first with a spectacular diving header after 12 minutes. Ten minutes before the break, Woodcock headed home after some typical wing wizardry from Robertson.
It was all over as a contest before half-time as Anderson, fully recovered from his Greek nightmares, scored a beauty to make it 3-0 on the night and 5-1 on aggregate. There was still time for Woodcock to be denied the clearest of penalties as he was tripped by Christidis.
AEK pulled one back five minutes into the second half, but two goals in the space of six minutes from Birtles completed a 7-2 aggregate triumph. Forest were into the last eight in style. And another fine Anderson performance saw him become the first black footballer to represent England later that month against Czechoslovakia.
Afterwards, Clough expressed his delight at “getting a breather” with the quarter-finals taking place in March. The squad was at full stretch due to injuries with the gaffer even asking John Motson if he could fill in at right-back.
Those injuries took their toll and Forest were finally beaten in the league a month later. After 42 games without defeat, they went down 2-0 at Liverpool on 9 December 1978. Incredibly, they had lost just once in 63 matches in all competitions before their Anfield denouement.
But that was a mere blip for the Reds who were still fighting for silverware on all fronts as Big Ben rang out to mark the dawn of 1979.
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