To celebrate BetBright’s partnership with Nottingham Forest, we’ll be looking back at the club’s two consecutive Champions League triumphs over the course of this season’s competition. Here, Rory Jiwani recalls how a Forest side inspired by Brian Clough and Peter Taylor qualified for the first Champions League Campaign, by winning the 1977-78 First Division title.
Nottingham Forest’s achievements at the end of the 1970s will never be matched. While Forest were far from footballing minnows, they were hardly giants. Second place in 1967 was the closest they had come to winning the league title, although they had FA Cup victories in 1898 and 1959 to their name.
When Clough was appointed in January 1975, the club was languishing in the lower reaches of the Second Division and their new manager was on something of a redemption mission himself.
Twelve weeks after leaving Leeds United, Clough went to the City Ground with his assistant Jimmy Gordon. He quickly took John Robertson and Martin O’Neill off the transfer list and re-signed John McGovern and John O’Hare who had previously played under him. Viv Anderson also became a first-team regular.
Clough’s first full season with Forest ended in an eighth-place finish, but he was still missing Taylor’s eye for a player. Brighton had just missed out on promotion and, despite Taylor’s ambition to retire by the seaside, Clough knew he “would leap at the chance to help manage Nottingham Forest, his home-town club”.
Sure enough, Clough and Taylor were reunited and his lieutenant’s first assessment, according to Taylor’s 1980 autobiography ‘With Clough, By Taylor’ was, “that was a feat by you to finish eighth because some of them are only Third Division players”. Taylor put Robertson on a diet and converted Tony Woodcock from an out-of-favour midfielder into a striker.
Forest bought Peter Withe to play up front and he soon had a young Garry Birtles challenging for his starting spot. They won the Anglo-Scottish Cup in December 1976, the club’s first silverware since the 1959 FA Cup. In Duncan Hamilton’s memoir ‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me’, Clough recalls, “Those who said it was a nothing trophy were absolutely crackers. Our lot tasted champagne (for the first time) and found they liked it.”
They ended the season with 10 points out of a possible 12 – capped by a 1-0 home win over Millwall – to move into the third and final promotion with rivals Bolton still to play their final game. Champions Wolves beat them 1-0 to seal Forest’s return to the top flight after five years away.
Ahead of that first campaign back in the First Division, Forest signed striker Kenny Burns from Birmingham City despite the Scot’s hard-living reputation. Taylor even followed Burns to his favourite dog track to find the label was unfair and approved the transfer.
Burns was moved to the centre of defence, where he had started his career, alongside Larry Lloyd. And their formidable partnership helped Forest make a superb start to the season. They conceded just one goal in winning their opening four games which included a 3-0 victory over Derby. A 3-0 defeat at Arsenal was a setback before they beat Wolves 3-2 at Fortress City Ground.
Then came a real signal of intent.
Forest paid cash-strapped Stoke, who had been relegated the previous season, £270,000 for the services of Peter Shilton. England U-21 goalkeeper John Middleton had been Forest’s number one for the previous three seasons but Taylor, a keeper himself, had long dreamed of signing Shilton. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I had been obsessed with him since he was 19 and already a fixture in Leicester’s first team.”
Archie Gemmill, another title winner under Clough at Derby, arrived from the Baseball Ground in exchange for Middleton and £25,000, and the jigsaw was complete.
Those were the only three additions to the side which had finished third in the second tier the previous season, but what a difference they made. As they had done previously, Clough and Taylor had turned a small club into title contenders.
When you look at how Clough and Taylor performed apart, it is easy to see why. Clough’s man-management and simple philosophy of how football should be played (“Get the ball. Give it to your mate or try to go past someone. Score a goal.”) turned journeymen into very good players. But a great side needs serious talent, and Taylor was perhaps the best judge of a player English football has ever seen.
Forest were magnificent that term. The Arsenal loss was followed by eight wins in 10 games. After 1-0 defeats at Chelsea and Leeds in November, the talk was of when the bubble would burst. But a convincing 4-0 triumph at Old Trafford silenced the critics and Clough’s men would be beaten just once more that season, a 2-0 reverse at West Brom in the sixth round of the FA Cup.
With Shilton cup-tied, 18-year-old Chris Woods started in goal for March’s League Cup Final against Liverpool. After a 0-0 draw, Woods kept another clean sheet in the replay as Robertson’s penalty secured Forest a 1-0 triumph and their first major trophy for 19 years.
But the league title was the one they wanted. And on April 22nd 1978, a 0-0 draw at Coventry sealed Forest’s first championship in their history with four games to spare. They finished seven points clear of Liverpool, scoring 69 goals and conceding just 24. Burns was named Football Writers’ Player of the Year with Shilton scooping the PFA equivalent.
Clough became the second manager (Herbert Chapman being the first) to win league titles with different clubs, and Forest pulled off a rare championship success immediately after promotion.
What the club did next will forever be the greatest story football has ever seen.
The Champions League did exactly what it said on the tin back then. You had to win your domestic league to qualify with the one exception being the defending champions.
Having been denied a hat-trick of league titles, Liverpool retained their Champions League title with Kenny Dalglish scoring the only goal of the game against Club Brugge at Wembley.
And fate conspired to pit the two English rivals against each other in the first round of the 1978-79 competition.
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