After retaining the League Cup and winning their Champions League quarter-final against Grasshopper Club Zurich, the goals which had largely eluded Nottingham Forest in the 1978-79 came in a glut. Going into their semi-final clash with FC Cologne, Forest had netted 19 times in a run of five league wins out of six.
Trevor Francis scored in all of the last three games as he started to find his feet after his one-million pound transfer from Birmingham City. But he would not be able to play in the Champions League unless Forest reached the final. Luckily, Tony Woodcock and Martin O’Neill were in prolific form in front of goal.
There were no teams left in the competition who could match Liverpool’s strength on paper but the German double winners had made smooth progress to the last four. They took a 1-0 lead to Ibrox in the quarter-finals and Dieter Muller’s away goal just after half-time left Rangers needing to score three. The Scottish champions managed just one, through Tommy McLean, four minutes from time.
On the eve of the first leg on 11 April at the City Ground, Peter Taylor was less than impressed with the visitors. As O’Neill recalled in Daniel Taylor’s ‘I Believe In Miracles’, the assistant manager said, “There are two things I look for: can they head the ball? No. Are they quick? No. They have got no pace and we’ll murder them. And just wait until they see the state of our pitch.”
There was barely a blade of grass on the field but that did not bother the German outfit. With Kenny Burns not deemed fit enough to start and Viv Anderson suspended after being booked in both legs against Grasshoppers, the usually formidable backline looked ill at ease from kick-off.
Ian Bowyer started at left-back with Colin Barrett switching to the right in Anderson’s absence. But Belgium winger Roger van Gool was revelling in the mud and stretching Forest’s defence this way and that.
Van Gool, who had been the first player to attract a transfer fee of one million Deutsche Marks, fired home the opener after just six minutes. And he gave Muller the easiest of tap-ins for Cologne’s second in the 20th minute. O’Neill and his team-mates shot Taylor an angry look with the Ulsterman later reflecting, “They were the quickest team we had ever played.”
Forest dug in and Bowyer saw a fierce effort come back off the crossbar. Moments later, David Needham headed John Robertson’s deep cross back across goal and an unmarked Garry Birtles rose to nod home.
Six minutes into the second half, Forest were level. Another right-footed Robertson delivery was cleverly headed down by Birtles and Bowyer’s low drive fairly flew into the net.
Forest definitely had a team which was greater than the sum of its parts and no one epitomised that ethos more than Ian ‘Bomber’ Bowyer. After making his first-team debut for Manchester City in November 1968 aged 17, Bowyer was discarded just over two and a half years later. He spent two years at Second Division Leyton Orient before Dave Mackay snapped him up during his short tenure at Forest.
Despite being signed as an attacking midfielder, Bowyer could operate pretty much anywhere with the exception of centre half. The ITV commentator Hugh Johns called him a “man of all parts” and Clough said he was “one of the most genuine pros I ever worked with”. He even performed heroics as an emergency goalkeeper at Oxford United in September 1975, keeping a clean sheet in the second half after John Middleton had broken his nose in a 1-0 victory.
Bowyer’s goal that night had the City Ground on its feet and the place was rocking after 62 minutes when Birtles turned Bernd Schuster on the byline and Robertson flung himself to meet his cross and make it 3-2. It was a rare headed goal from the brilliantly gifted winger whose brother had been killed, along with his wife, in a car crash the previous weekend. After telling Clough he wanted to play, Robertson went straight back to Scotland for the funeral the following day.
There was one final twist in the tale on a special night of European football. With 10 minutes to go, Cologne introduced Japanese forward Yasuhiko Okudera to the fray. With his first touch, Okudera let fly from 20 yards and the ball somehow crept under Peter Shilton’s body into the net. As well as becoming the first Asian to score in the Champions League, Okudera prompted a plethora of back page headlines with variations of ‘Forest sunk by Japanese sub’.
With three away goals in the bag, Cologne were strong favourites to reach the final but Clough was defiant. Birtles said, “He was calm. He told us straight away, ‘You’re better than them, they think they are through but we are going out there to win.’”
The boss seemed far from distraught in his post-match interview after what he described as a “magnificent game for the people watching”. He focused on the effort to come back from two-down and how he was not over-impressed by the Germans’ defending.
Then came his parting shot, delivered with a smile directly at the camera rather than reporter Gary Newbon: “I hope anybody’s not stupid enough to write us off.”
Once again, Clough was hoping to defy the odds and Taylor was so confident he placed a bet of £1,000 on Forest to win the second leg. The players were boosted by their manager’s faith in them and Cologne had all the pressure on their shoulders.
Forest warmed up for their trip to Germany with a 2-0 win at Birmingham City thanks to goals from Birtles and Robertson. Burns and Anderson played a full 90 minutes as Forest kept yet another clean sheet. Cologne, who had already printed their tickets and booked their hotels for the final, experienced a less than ideal preparation as they went down 5-1 at Bayern Munich.
In ‘I Believe In Miracles’, Woodcock recounts Clough’s pre-match team-talk as, “It’s going to be a tough one, all right. Clean sheet, as usual, keep it nice and tight. We’re going to take 0-0 at half-time, come out in the second half, go 1-0 ahead and then we’ll close the door again and get off out of here.”
Sure enough, the first half was goalless with Cologne’s main goal threat Muller having to be substituted five minutes before the break following a strong Larry Lloyd challenge.
As the clock ticked towards the midway point of the second half, Forest took the lead. It was a simple but effective set-piece routine with Birtles flicking on Robertson’s corner at the near post, and that man Bowyer heading home from inside the six-yard box. The travelling fans inside the Mungersdorfer Stadium went wild, and Forest – expertly marshalled by captain John McGovern – withstood the Cologne response to book their place in the Champions League Final.
This was the match that put Nottingham Forest on the map in international terms. In the days before YouTube and extensive television coverage, many of the team were previously unknown quantities outside of England. The retired German midfield great Gunter Netzer said afterwards, “Who is this McGovern? I have never heard of him, but he ran the game in the second half.”
Not only had Clough worked his magic yet again, but Bowyer, operating in the centre of midfield, had also proved his immense value to the squad. The utility man had not done enough to keep his place in the side, however, with Francis returning for the next league match at home to Liverpool. As usual, he had “no complaints”.
With that game ending 0-0, Forest’s slim hopes of retaining their First Division title had all but disappeared . But they had a Champions League Final to look forward to against a Malmo side who had also confounded all expectations to make it to Munich’s Olympiastadion.
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