Sat on the fringes of the Championship play-offs, it’s hard to think of Nottingham Forest as two-time European Cup winners as fans come to terms with yet another season of what might have been.
Turn the clock back 30 years to 1989 though and Forest were among the big boys in English football. With Brian Clough (Sir Brian to supporters of the clubs he managed) still riding on the crest of a wave from their European glory in the late 70s, the Trentside boys were a force to be reckoned with.
Trophyless for nine years, Forest claimed a double of sorts in 1989. In the days when five or six cup competitions were up for grabs, Cloughie’s son Nigel bagged a brace as Forest won the League Cup for a third time, defeating Luton Town 3-1 at Wembley.
Just three weeks later, I witnessed my first Forest match aged four, as the Reds claimed a 4-3 extra-time triumph over Everton to win the Simod Cup Final – better known as the Full Members’ Cup. Being four at the time, I don’t have many memories of this game, other than Brian Clough raising the trophy aloft and a man in the row behind having to help me as my foot got stuck when I fell off the seat I was standing on for a better view.
Heading into the 90s, there was a buzz on the banks of the Trent, but as the Premier League era dawned, the sun was setting on a golden period for Forest and Clough.
Jemson fires Forest to League Cup
Forest were brimming with the talents of Stuart Pearce, Nigel Clough and Steve Hodge, and they retained the League Cup in 1990 as Nigel Jemson grabbed the goal to see off Oldham Athletic 1-0. In the league, there was little to shout about as Clough’s men finished down the table in ninth.
19-year-old Irishman Roy Keane made his move to Nottingham in the summer from Cobh Ramblers and Forest had a talent beyond his years. Having impressed in a pre-season tournament in the Netherlands, Keane was handed his debut as Forest travelled to Anfield in the second match of the season.
A 2-0 defeat to Liverpool was the outcome, but Keane showed encouraging signs and as the season progressed so too did his game time. There wasn’t much to shout about for Forest in the league again as they finished in eighth, but once again, it was their cup form that kept them in the headlines.
Clough’s FA Cup agony
A first, and only, FA Cup Final beckoned for Clough as the Reds took on Tottenham Hotspur after thrashing West Ham United 4-0 in the semi-finals. Confidence was high in the Midlands of another trophy, despite a Spurs side which included England internationals Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne.
As my parents headed off to Wembley, I had to stay home this time. I was gutted but settled in for the match, one that would become more famous for Gascoigne’s rash challenge on Gary Charles than the actual result.
Fired up for the match after helping to see off North London rivals Arsenal in the semi-finals, Gascoigne was going in hard on his tackles and was lucky to escape action from referee Roger Milford. His tackle on Charles was one step too far and resulted in, not only a thumping Stuart Pearce free-kick that gave Forest the lead, but also the end of his own match.
Despite getting up to defend the free-kick, Gascoigne was back on the deck moments later and left the field on a stretcher, scans later showing a cruciate ligament tear which would rule him out for nine months.
It looked like it would be Forest’s day when Mark Crossley saved a Lineker penalty after bringing the Spurs man down but Paul Stewart took the tie to extra-time with a 55th-minute leveller.
There was heartache for Clough when Des Walker headed into his own net to give the Londoners a 2-1 triumph and it would prove the only major trophy to evade Clough in his managerial career.
Wembley woes put to bed
As was customary for Forest at the time though, it wouldn’t be long until the next trip to Wembley and the side was bolstered by then-record signing Teddy Sheringham, who signed from Millwall for £2.1m. Another mid-table finish gave the Forest faithful little to shout about but two trips to Wembley certainly did.
The Zenith Data Systems Cup (formerly Simod Cup) was in its final year – the FA deciding to scrap the competition in 1992 – but Forest landed their second Full Members’ Cup with a 3-2 extra-time victory against Southampton.
Scott Gemmill and Kingsley Black had put Clough’s men on the victory trail before the break, but – what is now commonplace for Forest fans living in 2019 – Southampton clawed their way back into the match; first a youthful Matt Le Tissier reducing arrears in the 64th minute, before Kevin Moore levelled six minutes later.
Forest had learned their lessons from the Spurs defeat a year earlier though and it was Gemmill who led the victory march after clinching the trophy with a 115th-minute volley beyond Saints keeper Tim Flowers. Redemption.
Just two weeks later, Forest sought a fifth League Cup title as they went up against Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at Wembley. Ferguson’s men were competing for the double, a title battle with Leeds United going down to the wire, and they sealed the first part when Brian McClair slotted home after 14 minutes.
It would be the only goal of the game as Clough had to settle for four domestic cup titles from six finals as the curtain came down on his reign at the City Ground. The double would elude United as Leeds held out to clinch the title by four points.
End of an era as Clough resigns
As the 1992/93 season began, football as we knew it would change forever. The launch of the Premier League. It would also prove to be Clough’s last season at Forest.
Forest started the season brightly as they defeated Liverpool 1-0 in the first televised Premier League ‘Super Sunday’ match on Sky Sports but it was to be the only positive in an otherwise dreary season.
Six successive defeats and the sales of Teddy Sheringham and Des Walker left the Reds rooted to the foot of the table. Performances improved but three wins in 21 matches by the end of the year made for bleak reading as Forest found themselves six points from safety on New Year’s Day 1993.
A run of five wins in seven games gave Forest hope of survival as they clambered out of the relegation zone on goal difference but it was short-lived and just two further wins in the final 14 games of the season saw them relegated to the First Division.
Clough tendered his resignation before the final game of the season, away at Ipswich Town. As Forest prepared for life after Clough, a 2-1 loss at Portman Road, coupled with saying goodbye and thank you to one of English football’s greatest ever managers, made it an emotional day for Clough’s Red Army.
Look out for part two of the Nottingham Forest in the 90s series in the coming days, where we will look at how Forest faced up to life after Clough and an unexpected trip into Europe.