When Leicester City rose from the bottom of the Premier League to Champions in little more than 12 months, it took my mind back to the last time a team became unexpected Champions. There is probably a good argument for suggesting that team was Aston Villa in 1981 but they had finished 7th the previous season. Blackburn in 1995 had been bankrolled by Jack Walker so their Championship wasn’t unexpected. I’m talking about Nottingham Forest’s rise from 2nd Division obscurity to Champions in 1978.
Why am I so interested? Because I was there at the start of that Championship season and that match together with the initial shock of what I saw, has stayed with me to this day. I’m not a Forest fan but an admirer of the team that took the First Division and ultimately Europe, by storm.
Brian Clough took over as Nottingham Forest manager in January 1975 with the team struggling in the 2nd division. He had famously taken equally unfashionable Derby County to Championship Success three years earlier. This had earned him a crack at Leeds United, where he lasted 44 days having ordered their players to throw their medals in the bin, telling them they’d won them by cheating. Forest finished 16th that season and the following season 8th. It was in July 1976 that they, significantly, brought in Peter Taylor as assistant manager.
During the 1976/77 season, they flirted around the promotion places without really cementing a place. They banked their first trophy under Clough, winning the Anglo-Scottish Cup in December 1976, beating Leyton Orient 5-1 over two legs. Despite the competition being much maligned, Brian Clough considered it massively important as it meant his team were ‘winners’.
As the end of the season closed in, promotion was far from certain. Forest, having completed their season were on their way to an end of season holiday to Majorca when news came in that Bolton had lost to Wolves, confirming Forest’s promotion by just one point. As if to confirm their ‘unremarkable’ promotion, their finishing total of 52 points had been the 5th lowest of a promoted 2nd Division team in history. Little was expected of them the following season.
Close season strengthening
It was to be a significant close season as key signings were expected. Brian Clough was an eccentric figure, allowing drinking prior to games and prone to offering cases of beer to opponents dressing rooms and outspoken during the early days of TV punditry. His style centred on discipline and man management. He would often praise his players in defeat and criticise them in victory. His task for the summer was to strengthen his team ready for the challenge of the top flight. His first signing was in defence. A striker called Kenny Burns, who had scored 20 goals for Birmingham City the season before signed for £150,000. Eyebrows were raised with the signing, not just because he would be converted to a central defender. Burns was considered a bit of a loose cannon, unpredictable and maybe a little crazy. His reputation as a hard drinking, hard gambling wild man went before him. Clough and Taylor even had Burns followed to a dog racing track to check on the extent of his alleged gambling. Called ‘Kenneth’ by Clough he saw enough in Burns to make both him and ex Liverpool player Larry Lloyd the heart of his defence.
Prior to the start of the season, Forest weren’t given much chance of success with many tipping them to be relegated. Favourites for the Championship that season were Liverpool with both Ipswich and Manchester City tipped to run them close. Manchester United had a good team and Everton, who had reached the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-final only months earlier were also tipped to have a good season. Forest weren’t mentioned as contenders at all as they were considered a team made up of misfits and journeymen. Even the normally confident Martin O’Neill confessed to wondering whether they would be good enough to survive. Most media outlets wrote the side off.
Off to a flier – Everton v Nottingham Forest
The background to the game centred on the decision to reduce the capacity of Goodison Park from 56,000 to 35,000 under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act (1975). The club were required to make £250,000 worth of safety improvements to entrances and exits to bring the capacity back up but didn’t make the improvements in time. A reduced capacity of 38,000 attended.
Everton were parading new signings, Goalkeeper George Wood from Blackpool and Left winger, Dave Thomas from Queens Park Rangers. The teams lined up as follows:
Everton Nottingham Forest
George Wood John Middleton
Terry Darracott Viv Anderson
Mike Pejic Frank Clark
Mike Lyons John McGovern
Mark Higgins Larry Lloyd
Dave Jones Kenny Burns
Roger Kenyon Martin O’Neill
Andy King Ian Bowyer
Duncan McKenzie Tony Woodcock
Jim Pearson Peter Withe
Dave Thomas John Robertson
From the off, Everton went at the Forest defence, forcing them to defend heroically for the first 20 minutes. It was a fine, sunny day and the crowd were definitely up for the game. Forest players have since have spoken about the hostile atmosphere that day. In the 20th minute, Forest made one of their rare breaks and forced a corner. John Robertson fired it in and boyhood Evertonian Peter Withe, as he would do on many more occasions that season, nodded in the opener.
That typified the rest of the game. Everton forcing the play with Forest defending solidly, with John McGovern making them tick from the heart of midfield. Then counter attacking with style and pace. On 38 minutes, a John Robertson shot made it 2-0 before Jim Pearson pulling a goal back for Everton just before half-time. The second half continued in the same vein with Martin O’Neill sealing the 3-1 victory on 77 minutes.
Everton fans were shell-shocked, I know I was. I didn’t know how good Forest were and given their apparently unremarkable line-up, my focus was on how poor Everton were. The reality, of course, was that Everton were beaten by the better team and that team was pretty special. After the game, Dave Jones remarking on his head to head with John Robertson stated he’d had one of his hardest games at fullback. Forest actually could have scored more.
Enter Bill Shankly
Following the Everton game, the players were being given a ‘dressing down’ by manager Clough when there was a knock on the dressing room door. Nobody was allowed to enter the dressing room, nobody would dare try, yet Clough invited the visitor in, the ex Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. Shankly was invited by Clough to continue the ‘rollicking’ he had started. He then spent the next 15 minutes giving the players a different team talk. He was telling them to keep their feet on the ground but at the same time insisting they could win the League Championship. They were also gaining an insight on Shankly’s famous motivational skills. They left the ground that day believing in themselves like never before.
The race for the title
Their winning run continued until a 3-0 defeat by Arsenal gave them a reality check but by October they were back on top of the table. Successive away defeats to Chelsea and Leeds in November were to be their last defeats of the season as a 26 game unbeaten run began. By this time, Peter Shilton had been added along with Archie Gemmill and in December Dave Needham. Most impressive of the performances was on 17th December when they beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford with goals from Woodcock (2), John Robertson and an own goal by Brian Greenhoff. The performance was captured by BBC cameras on Match of the Day. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th goals typifying their style at the time. Ex-Arsenal keeper turned pundit, Bob Wilson amongst others thought it wouldn’t last claiming that the Forest bubble would burst, yet it didn’t.
The League Cup
Success came from more than one area however as a run to the League Cup Final paired them with Liverpool who they beat 1-0 in a replay. Picking up this trophy was particularly impressive as they were without Shilton, Gemmill and Needham who were cup-tied. They had also scored an impressive 23 goals in reaching the final. Stand in for Shilton, 18-year-old Chris Woods was particularly impressive. Only a defeat by West Bromwich Albion in the quarter-final of the FA Cup stopped their clean sweep ambitions but they came away from the season with their only League Championship and a League Cup against the odds.
The title was wrapped up on 22nd April 1978 in a 0-0 draw at Coventry. There were four games to go. In doing so they became the first team since Ipswich in 1962 to win the Championship in the year after gaining promotion from the second division. They only used 17 players all season of whom one was Chris Woods who stood in for Peter Shilton in the League Cup. Kenny Burns was named the Writers player of the year and Peter Shilton the players player of the year. Brian Clough became the first manager since Herbert Chapman to win the Championship with two different clubs. At the start of the following season, they went a further 16 games undefeated to create a record 42 games unbeaten. Five players who were in the side in the lowly days in the 2nd division went on to win the European Cup the following year. They were Viv Anderson, Martin O’Neill, Ian Bowyer, Tony Woodcock and John Robertson.
It could be argued that their attractive, counter-attacking style would be well suited to today’s game. Many were critical of Forest’s style of play using the fact they were incredibly disciplined and consistent to beat them with. Most impressively they played their football on mud heaps of pitches for much of the year, relatively unheard of nowadays. That first game I saw when Forest turned Everton over was the start of an incredible run. Wrongly, I blamed Everton’s poor performance when I should have given more credit to Forest. I wasn’t the only one though as people a lot more qualified than me had written them off early on. Unlike many league games, I went to during that era, I remember it well just as I remember what Forest did over the next few years. Just because I don’t support them, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a great team.
The Nottingham Forest European Cup winning team were finally admitted to the English Football’s Hall of Fame in 2016.