As Nottingham Forest’s 150th anniversary season approaches its climax — ahead of the unofficial celebration on Saturday — Paul Severn looks back at some of the matches that truly defined the club
In the first part I looked at some of the games which started to define Nottingham Forest as a modern football club. Understandably, it’s easy to think that Forest were born when Brian Clough walked into the City Ground in January 1975, but we have read about older Forest teams fighting on equal terms with the best Manchester United teams of Sir Matt Busby. Stars like Ian Storey-Moore and Joe Baker are rarely mentioned in greatest-ever Forest teams, but provided some of the greatest moments of the club – watched by massive crowds of over 40,000, the biggest of any era.
But a decline in the early 1970s had set in. Forest needed a charismatic leader to reinvent the club again and drag it into a new era. Brian Clough proved to be that man and so much more. In today’s sacking culture of managers, it’s interesting to remember that early in his reign Brian Clough went 15 games without a win. Food for thought for our current situation. In fact it wasn’t until Peter Taylor arrived that this amazing duo started to move Forest forward. Promotion was achieved in 1977 and then miracles really did happen, which takes us to our next game…
17th December 1977: Manchester United 0 Nottingham Forest 4 – Division One
In all sporting miracles, as we are seeing with Leicester City, for a long time everyone expects the underdog to quietly exit and the normal order to be restored. This was certainly the case as promoted Forest stunned Division One. There is, however, always a game (like Leicester’s recent thrashing of Manchester City), where pundits realise that the underdog is actually a contender. When Forest, led by the rampaging Archie Gemmill and the clinical Tony Woodcock destroyed Manchester United at Old Trafford, you can hear Brian Clough’s nasal-whine chastising John Motson and co for failing to believe in his brilliant new team. In his new book, Forest Forever, official club historian Don Wright remembers:
“In their yellow away strip, Forest captured the imagination with flowing, one-touch football that swept a full-strength United away and, as Match of the Day commentator Barry Davies remarked, made them ‘look pedestrian’.”
Forest were for real, and on 22nd April 1978, secured their first and only League Championship title after a 0-0 draw at Coventry City.
13th September 1978: Nottingham Forest 2 Liverpool 0 – European Cup First Round, 1st leg
25th April 1979: Cologne 0 Nottingham Forest 1 – European Cup Semi-Final, 2nd leg
When picking the games that define a football club, it seems bizarre to leave out two European Cup Finals. However, for two reasons, I will do just that. Firstly, the Malmo final is so brilliantly covered in the recent film and book, I Believe in Miracles. Secondly, and more importantly, when you analyse the two Cup wins, it was these two games which were the key to it all. Drawing the mighty Liverpool was perhaps the most disappointing Cup draw in the club’s history – but provided opportunity for Clough and Taylor to employ their famous reverse psychology. The first leg saw the emergence of Garry Birtles, who scored one and played a huge part in the decisive second goal by full-back Colin Barrett – aside from Des Walker’s only goal against Luton, probably the most unlikely goal in Forest history.
If that was a great win, it was probably eclipsed by the semi-final win in Cologne. Again, a 3-3 draw in the home leg allowed Clough and Taylor to use their relentless positivity to turn around a seemingly hopeless situation. The wins against Malmo and Hamburg will always be remembered more, with the gleaming European Cup held aloft by John McGovern, but it was Ian Bowyer’s header in Germany that was the critical moment that made it all possible. And Brian Clough’s satisfied, gleaming smile in the post-match interview showed that he knew it too. The European Cup was there for the taking, not once, but twice.
15th April 1989: Liverpool v Nottingham Forest – FA Cup Semi-Final: match abandoned
When you look back at the games which have defined Forest, the wins, draws and defeats all create different emotions. But these emotions were all just superficial after one of the darkest days in football history. Like with the Munich disaster, Forest were to be linked with tragedy as 96 Liverpool fans died at the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough. For once the score didn’t matter, the FA Cup didn’t matter, football didn’t matter.
I was only eight years old at the time and didn’t really understand what had happened as I rode my bike outside my house. It was only in 1996 when I watched Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough drama when I realised how awful this day really was for the families and fans involved. As Forest fans, after Hillsborough we must forever be glad that win, lose or draw, it’s just a privilege to watch our favourite team on a Saturday afternoon with our friends and family.
18th May 1991: Tottenham Hotspur 2 Nottingham Forest 1 AET – FA Cup Final
Unfortunately for Forest, an FA Cup Final had always eluded Brian Clough as he looked to complete his set of medals. A new team had been built to rival the European Cup winners with Stuart Pearce leading a talented side containing England internationals Des Walker, Steve Hodge and Brian’s son, Nigel. Roy Keane was the best young midfielder in the league, apart from a certain Paul Gascoigne.
Unfortunately Forest were to be hindered by some of the worst refereeing I have seen by Roger Milford. Gascoigne was carried off (rather than sent off) with a serious knee injury after atrocious fouls on Garry Parker and Gary Charles. In his book Walking on Water, a still bitter Clough said: ‘A Cup final produces a lot of memories but, for my retirement, Gascoigne’s behaviour dominates the recollections of a disappointing day.’
It all started so well for Forest when Pearce opened the scoring with a trademark free-kick, and Mark Crossley saved a Gary Lineker penalty. But eventually, Forest lost their way, conceded an equaliser and then in extra time, there was that own goal by Des Walker. As a heartbroken 10-year-old, I learnt that losing was part of life, and sometimes, even the greatest of us make mistakes. Walker did not deserve it, Clough did not deserve it and the Forest team which enjoyed a number of Wembley wins in that era, couldn’t quite capture the trophy. I still haven’t got over it.
1st May 1993 Nottingham Forest 0 Sheffield United 2 – Premier League
One of the implications of the FA Cup Final defeat may well have been to delay the retirement of Clough, and sadly, his powers waned quickly afterwards. Alcohol and a declining ability to sign top-class players had forced the great man to retire in the face of humiliating relegation. A limp 2-0 defeat was no way to sign out at the City Ground, but Clough was ill and the team dubbed ‘too good to go down’, were in fact going down. In Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, Duncan Hamilton captures the aftermath of the match and the man’s feelings brilliantly – leaving a lump in your throat – so I’ll hand over to him:
‘In one photograph, Clough, on the verge of tears, appears in the centre of the passionate thousands who were determined not to let him go. Afterwards, he accepted a flower from a young girl, as distraught as a mourner at a funeral. He looked at her, his head on one side, and said tenderly: ‘Hey beauty, no tears today, please’.
‘Can I have a word with you, Brian,’ asked a desperate TV interviewer outside the ground. ‘Of course,’ said Clough, walking briskly away. ‘Goodbye.’’
30th April 1994 Peterborough United 2 Nottingham Forest 3 – First Division
After the incredibly sad end to the Clough-era, a new team was fashioned by Frank Clark and was on the cusp of promotion as they visited lowly Peterborough United looking to wrap up promotion. In typical Forest fashion, we went two goals down but sometimes in football you have a perfect day. I wasn’t lucky enough to be there but remember the squealing commentary on Radio Nottingham as Stan Collymore’s brilliance secured promotion. Pearce, who had stayed loyal to Forest despite relegation scored the equaliser with a diving header through a ruck of flying boots – a perfect sight only eclipsed by the Collymore solo goal to secure promotion. What a day.
18th May 2007 Nottingham Forest 2 Yeovil 5 AET – Football League One play-off semi-final 2nd leg
Yeovil. The name of a Somerset town and football club that strikes fear into the heart of every Forest fan. The fact Forest were playing Yeovil showed how far Forest had fallen. Forest became a yo-yo club, getting relegated, promoted and relegated again by 1999. Poor management from David Platt returned Forest long-term to where Clough had found the club. Joe Kinnear and Gary Megson combined to take it into League One. But, we had made the League One play-offs and a trip to Wembley seemed appetising, especially after winning the first leg away 2-0 against unfancied Yeovil.
Enter Arron Davies. He terrorised Forest with his slalom runs from start to finish in the return leg, but with minutes left, it was still 1-1 and 3-1 on aggregate. Fans sang cautiously of Wembley, but then witnessed the worst implosion in the history of the club. Bewildering substitutions, a needless red card and four goals were conceded in the dying minutes and extra time. Forest crashed out 4-5 on aggregate.
I don’t remember a lower sporting moment than the final whistle in this game. It was a humiliation, a sign of how low a great club could fall. The only positive was to see Yeovil applauded off by Forest fans. A classy response befitting of Forest that was to be repeated a few years later against Blackpool. Outside the ground, I felt like shedding a tear, but tried to hold it in. I turned to see a huge, tough-looking skinhead in his 40s blubbing away. It was comforting. Sometimes people ask how I cope with some of the ups and downs of football supporting. The answer is always the same: “I went to the Yeovil play-off semi. I can take anything.”
5th May 2008 Nottingham Forest 3 Yeovil 2 – League One
Yeovil. The name of a Somerset town and football club that strikes fear into the heart of every Forest fan (have I read that somewhere before?). Yes, Yeovil were back a year later, this time as would-be party poopers as Forest hoped to overhaul Doncaster Rovers and steal the final automatic promotion slot. No one wanted the play-offs. This time Arron Davies was safely on our bench too…
The mood turned with one tackle. Julian Bennett brought back memories of Stuart Pearce with a thunderous tackle and left-foot shot which instilled the belief we could banish the green and white ghost of Yeovil. Two more local players, Kris Commons and Lewis McGugan scored superb goals as we nervously turned our attention to Cheltenham Town where Doncaster were struggling. Yeovil refused to lie down and got back in the game at 3-2. That’s what Yeovil do…
But a perfect day of redemption fell into place when Colin Fray shouted through everyone’s earphones “Cheltenham have scored!” As news of the Donny defeat came through and the seconds ticked down, I remember vividly, a feeling sweeping the City Ground that even Forest weren’t going to blow this one.
Some of the nicest photographs from the day are those of Nigel Doughty celebrating in the dressing room. A great day for a Nottingham owner, for Nottingham fans, made possible by Nottingham players – with a huge thank you to Cheltenham Town.
Football is about enjoying the good moments to the full. Forest’s history is packed with great victories and painful defeats. Many of these moments are made all the more poignant by tragedies such as the Munich disaster, Hillsborough and the death of Nigel Doughty, which teach us to cherish the good times. We have seen miracles happen at our club under Brian Clough but we have also seen it reborn thanks to managers such as Billy Walker and Johnny Carey in the 1950s and 1960s which resulted in memories and achievements comparable in many ways to Clough. We are now in position where the club needs to be reborn again, but our history shows it can be. As fans, we must push in our own small way to ensure the Nottingham Forest story has more defining chapters in the coming years, building on our history – using it as inspiration, win, lose or draw.