By the end of Nottingham Forest’s 150th anniversary season, the club will have played a further 46 league games and three more cup matches in our long history. Like so many matches, few, if any, will burn a permanent impression into our minds. However, some matches will remain in our psyche forever – for what happened, what could or should have happened – or sometimes what they meant to us as human beings. Most matches become mere statistics, but here’s a guide to the matches which I think have defined the modern Nottingham Forest.
It’s hard to imagine that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Notts County, spearheaded by Tommy Lawton, were the top team in Nottingham – getting bigger crowds. So we’ll start in 1957 (with considerable help from my dad, John, a supporter of 66 seasons) and plot the games that have become the signposts of the modern Nottingham Forest story – a rollercoaster ride of hope, tragedy, glory and disappointment.
12th October 1957: Nottingham Forest 1 Manchester United 2 – Division One
Starved of top flight football since 1925, promotion back to Division One was a dream come true for Forest fans in the 1950s who looked forward to seeing legends such as Nat Lofthouse, Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews at the City Ground. But it was the visit of The Busby Babes in October 1957 which was the unforgettable game. A then-record attendance of 47,804 supporters made it almost a spiritual experience and marked the birth of modern Nottingham Forest as they came up against Roger Byrne (England captain), Tommy Taylor (England centre-forward) and the most exciting young talent of the day, Duncan Edwards. Already a great player, Edwards was destined to become the complete footballer – imperious in every skill and position.
My dad and grandad arrived three hours before kick-off to secure a good view to the right of the Trent End goal, while young boys sat around the running track. Despite a goal from Stuart Imlach, Forest lost 2-1 but it was perhaps the most glorious and unforgettable defeat in Forest history. My dad feels this was because the fans loved both teams as they fought out a titanic contest – the best Forest team in a generation, managed since 1938 by Billy Walker, against a team loved and respected by the footballing world. The Munich air disaster just months later robbed football of Edwards and most of his wonderful team. Forest were United’s first league opponents at Old Trafford after the disaster – a highly charged occasion. But Forest fans were forever grateful they did get to see Edwards and company show their skills for one of the final times. A defeat yes, but one that proved that football is truly just a game.
2nd May 1959: Nottingham Forest 2 Luton Town 1 – FA Cup Final
Forest were now established in Division One under the management of Walker, but had not won the FA Cup since 1898. The FA Cup winning team and its story is special to my family as we knew the goalkeeper Chic Thomson, who often used to tell us his stories. The Cup run almost didn’t get off the ground. In the third round Forest scrambled a 2-2 draw on a frozen and rutted pitch against non-league Tooting and Mitcham. After a 3-0 win in the replay, Forest were again stalled by two hard-fought draws against Birmingham City in round five. The 5-0 win at Filbert Street in the second replay was perhaps the finest Forest display of the era. My dad sat on steep, wooden-benched seating as a physical Birmingham were swept aside.
However, in the 1950s, the final was the showpiece. Younger supporters will find it difficult to imagine that it was the FA Cup which provided the glory and glamour. Forest looked set to repeat the Birmingham drubbing upon Luton as fine goals from winger Roy Dwight and centre-forward Tommy Wilson gave rampant Forest an early cushion. However, this was an era before substitutes and Dwight later broke his leg, leaving Forest with 10 men. Luton pulled a goal back leaving Forest fans (and Dwight in his hospital bed), watching Forest incredibly hold on. I have watched the game in full myself and it is still nerve-wracking. You are willing Thomson in goal to waste more time over his goal-kicks – but this was an era completely different to our own – he was too gentlemanly for that. Forest held on and captain Jack Burkitt lifted the Cup. A crowd of 200,000 people greeted them back in Nottingham in what was a wonderful occasion. Although Brian Clough was to take Forest to European heights, the FA Cup was to elude him. Only one member of the team survives to this day, midfielder Jeff Whitefoot – the last representative of a team whose achievement has been so enduring and so difficult to repeat.
8th April 1967: Nottingham Forest 3 Everton 2 – FA Cup Round 6
The 1960s was a golden era for Forest as manager Johnny Carey built perhaps the best non-Clough Forest team. Terry Hennessy, Bob McKinley, Ian Storey-Moore, Frank Wignall and Joe Baker were bona-fide superstars and captured the glamour of the swinging Sixties. They went toe-to-toe with Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best. The climax of this era was the 1966/67 season in which Forest reached the FA Cup semi-final and finished second in the League. Had they completed a deserved double, they would be revered in the same light as the Clough team.
It was the FA Cup quarter-final against Everton which was this team’s finest hour, with Ian Storey-Moore scoring the hat-trick that made him a Forest legend. But it was a first-half injury to Joe Baker, one of Forest’s greatest-ever strikers, which was to prove so costly in the weeks ahead. Baker (nicknamed as Zigger-Zagger) was the Stan Collymore of his era and his electric pace and clinical finishing put fear into opponents. In the semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur, Frank Wignall was also lost to injury as depleted Forest exited the Cup and came runners up in the League. The following season, the biggest-ever City Ground crowd (49,946) saw the fit-again Baker and Wignall both score to defeat Manchester United – despite the best efforts of a brilliant George Best. In another away game against Stoke City in 1966, Baker scored two individual goals, one running from his own half, beating three men – with my dad fortunate enough to be standing next the goal at the Victoria Ground. In the 1960s, no silverware came to Trentside, but sometimes great memories are just as important.
As football fans know, golden eras do not last forever. Just two seasons later, declining Forest finished 18th after signing wayward ex-superstar Jim Baxter. The Main Stand at the City Ground was burnt down in 1968 and Forest had to play games at Meadow Lane (Forest never won a ‘home’ game there). The early 1970s was a lean time for Forest. Storey-Moore joined Manchester United and Forest were relegated in 1972. In Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, Duncan Hamilton wrote:
‘Forest were unappealing: a rusting tugboat of a club with leaks everywhere – thirteenth in the Second Division, with plenty of seats that hadn’t regularly seen a backside for years. The average gate was 12,000, and Forest were sinking slowly under the unimaginative Allan Brown, who left sourly: ‘The board want Clough – good luck to them,’ were his parting words.’