Time Machine: Nottingham Forest and the glory years under Brian Clough

Brian Clough glory years Nottingham Forest

On the 29th of May 2022, Nottingham Forest secured their return to the Premier League following a 1-0 victory against Huddersfield at Wembley. Following a 23-year absence, the team from Nottingshire are back in England’s elite and given their pedigree in English football and history of success in the years gone by, their return to the top flight is seen by many as a welcome and long-overdue one.

Let’s rewind the clock to their glory years, specifically when Brian Clough was manager, and take a look at why those times were so special for the Nottingham Forest fans.

Clough’s arrival – the beginning of something special

Brian Clough was appointed as Nottingham Forest manager on January 6th 1975, just four months after his infamous exit as manager of Leeds United.

Having brought back John Robertson and Martin O’Neil from the fold, and after making talented defender Viv Anderson a regular in the Forest team, they’d go on to finish the rest of the 74/75 campaign in 16th place.

Following an 8th place finish in the 75/76 season, Clough brought in Peter Taylor to become the club’s assistant manager, as he had been during their league winning campaign at Derby County years before.

After assessing the players, Taylor told Clough “that was a feat by you to finish eighth in the Second Division because some of them are only Third Division players”.

When looking through the early years of Forest’s success, a lot of the success behind the scenes was often attributed to Taylor. Some of which included getting John Robertson on a diet programme that would see him become a regular first-team player and turning Tony Woodcock, who wasn’t fancied by Clough, into a 42 cap England striker.

On the transfer market, Taylor was responsible for bringing in striker Peter Withe for £43,000 in September of 1976 and selling him to Newcastle United for £250,000 just two years later.

Withe was replaced by Gary Birtles after being scouted by Taylor playing for non-league side Long Eaton United, Birtles would go on to represent England. In October of the same year, Clough, using the advice from Taylor, signed Larry Lloyd £60,000 following an initial loan spell.

In the 76/77 season, Clough and Taylor’s first campaign together at Forest, the couple would take the club to its first trophy success since 1959, winning the Anglo-Scottish Cup after beating Leyton Orient 5-1 on aggregate in a two-legged final in December 1976.

After winning the trophy, Clough stated “Those who said it was a nothing trophy were absolutely crackers. We’d won something, and it made all the difference.”

Promotion and the glory that followed

The 1976/77 season saw Clough and Taylor guide Forest back into the first division following a third-place finish and one of the lowest points tallies to earn promotion with 52, as it was two points for a win in England until 1981).

Taylor brought in centre-forward Kenny Burns for £150,000 and converted him to a centre-back, in which he won FWA Footballer of the Year for the following 1977/78 season.

Forest started their return to the top flight brightly, winning four of their opening five league and cup games including an impressive 3-1 against Everton on the opening day of the season.

Buy this iconic Brian Clough and Peter Taylor poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy this iconic Brian Clough and Peter Taylor poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

Clough and Taylor then brought in Peter Shilton for a record £350,000 for a goalkeeper, Taylor argued that “Shilton wins you matches”. John Middleton, who was Forest’s first choice keeper, was sold to Derby County as a part exchange with £25,000 going to the Rams for Archie Gemmill transferring to Forest. Gemmill was also part of Clough’s league winning Derby team.

The duo would successfully guide Forest to the 1977/78 league title, seven points clear of second-placed Liverpool, and become one of the few teams to win the First Division title after gaining promotion from the second tier.

Clough also became the third of four managers to win the First Division Championship with two different teams, conceding just 24 goals in 42 league games along the way.

Clough also managed to pip Liverpool to the 1978 League Cup final replay, winning 1-0 despite Shilton, Gemmill and new signing David Needham missing out. Meaning Forest won an amazing league and cup double in their first season back in the top flight.

Forest started the 1978/79 campaign in style, winning the FA Charity Sheild 5-0 comfortably against Ipswich Town while in the European Cup, Clough’s men were drawn to the competition’s last two winners Liverpool.

Goals at the City Ground from Birtles and Barret beat Liverpool 2-0 on aggregate and send Forest through to the last-16.

However, it would be Liverpool who would end Clough’s 42 game unbeaten run in December 1978, beating Burnley’s record of 35 games without losing in 1920/21. The achievement stood until 2004 by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side, going 49 games undefeated.

In February 1979, Clough and Taylor oversaw England’s first £1 million transfer signing when Trevor Francis moved to the club from Birmingham City. During their run in the European Cup, Clough’s team oversaw a 7-2 aggregate round of 16 victories over AEK Athens and a resounding 5-1 win against Swiss side Grasshopper in the quarter-finals.

FC Koln awaited them in the semi-final. During the first leg at home, Forest were two goals down with 20 minutes to play, but then all of sudden found themselves 3-2 up before Koln equalised to finish the first leg 3-3, with the Germans ahead on the away goals rule, to set up a thrilling second leg encounter in Germany.

The second leg was more of a tense affair as neither side wanted to give too much to the opposition. But in the end, an Ian Bowyer goal sealed a 4-3 aggregate victory for Forest as they went through to the European Cup Final.

FC Koln player Günter Netzer asked afterwards, “Who is this McGovern? I have never heard of him, yet he ran the game.”

Forest would beat Malmo 1-0 in Munich to secure the European Cup with Francis, making his European debut, scoring the only goal of the game with a back-post header. On top of retaining the League Cup after beating Southampton 3-2 in the final courtesy of goals from Birtles and Woodcock, it was another successful season for Clough and his players.

Twists and turns and the end of Peter Taylor

Nottingham Forest beat Barcelona 2-1 on aggregate in the 1979 European Super Cup in February 1980. In the 79/80 League Cup final against Wolves, their third consecutive domestic final massive confusion between Needham and Shilton allowed Andy Gray to tap the ball into an empty net.

Clough’s side had numerous chances to equalise, but none came to be as they eventually lost the final 1-0.

During their run in the 1979/80 European Cup, Forest beat Oster 3-1 on aggregate in the round of 32, put aside Romanian outfit Argeș Pitești 4-1 in the last-16, and overcame a 1-0 deficit against Dinamo Berlin to beat the East German side 3-1 on aggregate.

Ajax would await them in the semi-final and Clough and his players would see out the Dutch side 2-1 aggregate to progress into their second consecutive European Cup final.

They would face West German outfit Hamberg, which included Kevin Keegan, in the final at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Forest would retain the European Cup after beating Hamberg 1-0 thanks to a John Robertson goal after 20 minutes of play.

In the following season, however, things wouldn’t quite go to plan. Clough’s team were knocked out of the 1980/81 European Cup first round after losing 2-0 on aggregate to Soviet outfit CSKA Moscow.

McGovern subsequently said the double defeat by CSKA affected the team’s self-confidence, in that they had lost out to modestly talented opponents.

They would be on the losing side again during the 1980 European Super Cup after they were defeated on away goals by Valencia after drawing 2-2 on aggregate.

For the third time that season, Forest would lose another international final after they lost 1-0 to Uruguayan side Club Nacional De Football in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo.

The league and European Cup-winning squad were broken up to capitalise on the player sale value. Clough and Taylor both later said this was a mistake.

The rebuilt side comprising youngsters and signings such as Ian Wallace, Raimondo Ponte and Justin Fashanu did not challenge for trophies. Taylor said in 1982.

Peter Taylor would leave the club in the same year and players such as Peter Shilton and John McGovern would also depart in transfer moves, whereas Jimmy Gordon retired at the end of the season.

The 80s and 90s – trying to bring back the glory

In the semi-finals of the 1983/84 European Cup, Anderlecht controversially knocked out Forest when several suspicious refereeing decisions went against Clough’s men.

Over a decade later, it emerged that before the match, referee Guruceta Muro had received a £27,000 “loan” from Anderlecht’s chairman Constant Vanden Stock. Anderlecht went unpunished until 1997 when UEFA banned the club from European competitions for one year. Muro died in a car crash in 1987.

In terms of domestic success, Forest defeated Sheffield Wednesday on penalties in the Football League Centenary Tournament in April 1988 after drawing 0-0 in the final. The club also made the 1987–88 FA Cup semi-finals and Stuart Pearce won the first of his five successive selections for the PFA Team of the Year.

On 18 January 1989 Clough infamously joined the fray of a City Ground pitch invasion by hitting two of his own team’s fans when on the pitch. The FA responded to this with a fine and touchline ban for Clough. The match, against QPR in the League Cup, finished 5–2 to Forest.

In the same year, Clough’s team were on the verge of a unique domestic treble. After beating Everton 4-3 in extra-time during the final of the Full Members Cup, Forest then came from behind to beat Luton Town 3-1 in that season’s League Cup Final.

This set up a potential treble for the Nottingshire outfit, but tragedy was to intervene.

Forest and Liverpool met for the second season in a row in the FA Cup semi-finals. The Hillsborough disaster claimed the lives of 97 Liverpool fans. The match was abandoned after six minutes. When the emotional replay took place, Forest struggled as Liverpool won 3–1.

Because of the ban on English teams competing in UEFA competitions due to the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985, Forest were unable to compete in the UEFA Cup after winning the League Cup.

Although the season did see Des Walker win the first of his four successive selections for the PFA Team of the Year.

The club were able to retain the League Cup in 1990 after beating Oldham Athletic 1-0 in the final and in the same year, English clubs were re-admitted to Europe for the following season.

However, only in limited numbers so Forest’s League Cup win again did not see them qualify, with the only UEFA Cup place that season going to league runners-up Aston Villa.

Brian Clough reached his only FA Cup Final in 1991, following countless replays and postponements in the 3rd, 4th and 5th rounds.

They would Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley and took the lead thanks to a superb Stuart Pearce free-kick, but the North London side would equalise through Paul Stuart in the second half and it would go down to extra-time.

During the extra-time period, an own goal by Des Walker put Spurs 2-1 up and despite trying to get an equalising goal, Clough’s team would go on to lose the FA Cup Final.

Midfielder Roy Keane declared himself fit to play in the final and was selected in preference to Steve Hodge; years later, Keane admitted he had not actually been fit to play, hence his insignificant role in the final.

Buy this iconic framed Roy Keane poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy this iconic framed Roy Keane poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

The end of the Clough reign

During the summer of 1991, Teddy Sheringham, who was Millwall’s top goalscorer, became Forest’s record signing, for a fee of £2.1 million. in the 1991/92 season, Clough’s side beat Southampton 3–2 after extra time in the Full Members Cup Final.

However, they would go on to lose the League Cup Final 1-0 to Manchester United thanks to a Brian McClair goal. Meaning that Forest had played in seven domestic cup finals in five seasons, winning five of them.

The club would end up finishing eighth that season and would earn a place in the inaugural English Premier League, beginning in 1992/93.

But despite their pedigree, this would be the Clough’s final season in charge. Even though they beat Liverpool 1-0 on the opening day of the season, Des Walker was sold to Sampdoria during that summer and a week after their victory against the Reds, Sheringham moved to Tottenham.

Forest struggled throughout their first Premier League season and finished the campaign bottom of the league with 40 points, relegating them to the second tier and saw Brian Clough end his 18-year spell as manager of the club.

They would bounce back into the Premier League in 1994 and would spend a few more seasons in England’s top flight before being relegated again in 1999.

With the club spending so many years in the wilderness, even a couple of seasons in the third tier, many current generations of Forest fans have grown up with nothing more than mediocrity and false dawns.

But with the Nottingshire outfit back in the big time after 23 long years, many will be looking back to the glory days and finding out if the current forest team can ever be as good as they were under the iconic Brian Clough.