Once Upon A Time – A Forest growing under Clough

Leicester City may have caught the imagination of the world for an underdog story. But in this same English football, there was a time when a newly promoted club had gone on to win the title. And that’s not all, they went on rule the continent as well albeit for a short duration. It’s the story of that unprecedented planning, perseverance and execution. It’s the story of Nottingham Forest, our English Black Swan, presented to you by Debojyoti Chakraborty at Goalden Times.

What comes to our mind when we hear of Nottingham? Robinhood, for most of us. However, avid football lovers would know that the city also has a football team. That team, Nottingham Forest, hold a unique record – they are the only team to have won more European trophies than the domestic league. And that count of domestic honor stands at one! Though today they languish in the Championship, the second tier of English football, things were not so gloomy for the club always.

Early Days

Nottingham Forest FC were founded in 1865 and the club were one of the early entrants in the English Football League, which featured clubs from both England and Wales. Founded in 1888, the league remained the oldest such competition in the world till 1992, when the concept of Premier League emerged in English football. Nottingham Forest had some early success as they won the FA Cup way back in 1898. But for most part of the nineteenth century, their major contribution to the game has been off the pitch. They donated a set of football kits to a north London club in 1886 to help them establish themselves; that club is now known as Arsenal. Forest’s philanthropic activities continued further up north and the two Merseyside clubs – Everton and Liverpool were also among those who received their favours.

The journey in twentieth century remained a turbulent one for Forest. Several times they got relegated from top flight, occasionally even to the third division. Football was taking baby steps in those days and the administrators did whatever they could to keep up the fans enthusiastic. Forest were eventual beneficiary more often than once because of their sizable fan base. Once they were allowed to stay back in the division even after finishing with wooden spoon. They were also one of the automatic choices for re-inclusion in the upper tier when the size of the league expanded. Another FA Cup honour followed in 1959. But by mid 1970s Nottingham Forest was struggling in the lower divisions and was far from making a mark in the English football scene.

C for Clough

It was festive season in England. Christmas and New Year celebrations were on full swing. In those chilly winter days of 1974 Forest were playing in the second division and even there failed to set the stage on fire. But things became too much to handle following a 2-0 derby loss to Notts County. Enough was enough and Forest committee appointed Brian Clough as the new manager.

Leeds United Sack Brian Clough After 44 Days [Source – The Sportsman]

It looked like recipe for disaster. Clough was out of job since September, 1974 after being sacked in an unceremonious fashion by Leeds United after a horrendous 40-odd-day stint. But there was no one to take charge of a sinking ship like Nottingham Forest who were in the thirteenth position at that time in the old second division. However, Clough was much more than a mere manager – he was an emotion. In a nutshell, Clough was captivating, candid and controversial. His style of winning matches while playing attracting football has motivated and still continues to inspire modern day managers. Never a great admirer of foreign players in English football, he once famously said, “I can’t even spell spaghetti never mind talk Italian. How could I tell an Italian to get the ball – he might grab mine“[1]. Even though a great tactician himself, Clough was more of a manager than coach. He was quite ahead of his time as he understood the value of man management at the highest level, a topic so prevalent in today’s coaching world.

Clough was a darling to the media for his character and cheeky one-liners. He was in fact the first celebrity manager in England. People used to gather in press conferences for his witty comments. On the other hand, Clough was a visionary who understood and manipulated the media to his own advantage. He was once famously quoted “Rome was not built in a day but then I wasn’t on that particular job. [2]” But Clough had his own priorities set, he treated his job as a job and not as his life. Even in his prime, he had deserted teams to go for a mid-season holiday. But while on job, boy, he was at the job or what!

Building a Team

However, even Clough took his time to steady the ship at Forest. And to understand the difficulty of the work at hand, we have to look at the circumstances under which Clough was asked to lead the “club”. Forest had to organize a cheese and wine event that summer to raise a few quid [3]. The training ground was difficult to find as it was actually a soggy piece of public grass just outside the Trent.

Clough was joined by one of his closest friends and long standing assistant coach Peter Taylor in 1976. Fighting in the ferociousness of a dog-eat-dog world of the English second division, Forest got promoted to the first division in 1977-78.  During this period, English football was being ruled by Liverpool under the astute supervision of Bill Shankly. They were a formidable force in Europe winning continental honours virtually every year and back home, they went on to win four first division titles between 1976 and 1980. The season they failed to win the league was 1977-78. That was also the season when Forest were promoted to the top flight.

Clough set on a mission to strengthen his side and he started from the position under the bar. The foundation of any good side gets laid by its goalkeeper and in September 1977, one month into new life at top division, Peter Shilton was bought as the most expensive goalkeeper in the league. Shilton by that time was a proven shot stopper. An England international and close to 400 appearances in Football League matches – Shilton was pure gold dust for this newly promoted side and worth every penny spent on him.

Next came in Kenneth Burns from Birmingham City. So far he was getting deployed both as a defender and a striker and his alcoholism did not earn him any favour from his coaches either. Against stern warning from the Birmingham chairman, Clough bought him and deployed at the heart of the defense. Not very tall, Burns used his game reading skills to mark his stamp in the pitch. But not every key position was filled in by spending big. For instance, Viv Anderson, playing as a right-back, was part of the first team since 1974 while still in his teens. He then cemented his place under Clough’s supervision and was an integral part of the promotion winning side. A tall man of nearly gigantic  proportions, he was a fine tackler and supplemented the attacks with his pacy overlapping runs, sometimes netting in crucial goals.

In the midfield Forest already had Martin O’Neill, a versatile Northern Ireland international, who was an integral part of the team since 1971. He was joined by Archibald Gemmill from Derby County. Gemmill had already etched his name in the football history when he made an appearance in a Scottish League Cup tie at Shawfield in 1966[4] as the first ever tactical substitute. Apart from that he was an established midfielder capable of dictating the pace of the play with all-round passing and energy to orchestrate a fast counter-attack. Clough already had his influence on Gemmill when he persuaded the midfielder to sign for Derby County in 1970 over a night-long conversation at his home. So it was easy for him to bring Gemmill from the Rams over to the East Midland club when they were promoted.

Another aspect of Clough’s strengthening-the-squad mission was to identify hidden talents from the list of rejects. Scottish left winger John Robertson, with his chip-fat grin and nicotine-laced chuckle was in the club since 1970 but could not find his mojo till 1975. In fact, when Clough arrived at the club, he was transfer listed. Clough later admitted that Robertson did not impress him much with his laid back and unimpressive demeanor but somehow persisted with him. The English manager would later go on to describe him as “… an artist, the Picasso of our game”[5]. A gifted player with trickery, comfortable with the ball on either foot, he always seemed to have that extra – the creative spark to manufacture something out of nothing.

Every team needs a leader and in Clough’s team it was John McGovern. The Scottish footballer was in the club since 1975. McGovern’s work ethic, willingness to go that extra yard to man mark or break an attack meant that he was the ideal man to sit back in front of the back four[6]. Besides, his assured passing, ball control and leadership on the pitch made him a valuable cog in the Forest wheel.

Nottingham forest 1977

The Season

The omens were not really inspiring. Forest got promoted with mere 52 points, the fifth-lowest among any promoted team in history. One newspaper labelled them as “a mix of fresh and well-worn faces who ought to be slogging it out at the bottom of the table. [7]”.

But contrary to popular prediction, with the core of the team firmly in place, Nottingham Forest did not waste time to hit the ground running. They grabbed maximum points from their first three matches to finish the first month of the season atop of the first division table. Their strong run continued in September as well but they started to find out the rigours of top flight as both Manchester City and Liverpool chased them down to the wire. It was time to step up a gear and that’s what Forest did. A strong run of results followed in October resulting in a comfortable breathing space of four points from Liverpool. But, as expected, consistency remained a key concern for Clough’s troop in their first season back in top tier. A shaky November saw them gather only three points from four matches but thankfully their rivals faltered around this time as well. Now the second place in the table got occupied by Liverpool’s Merseyside rivals Everton – ironic how both these clubs were helped in the nascent stages of inception by Forest – followed closely by West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City. Still at this point Forest’s run at the top was seen more as a fad which was thought to lose wind by end of the holiday season. But the first real intent and belief was shown by Nottingham Forest on 17th December, 1977.

Manchester United were no way the Manchester United in those days. That would start happening another decade or so afterwards. But even in those days, the Red Devils were a force to reckon with having just won the FA Cup that year. They had won promotion in the top division couple of seasons back and in their first season back there Manchester United had made a podium finish. Forest were trying to emulate the same feat, or go a notch higher. They were sitting pretty at the top of the table for quite some time now but the pundits were adamant of their impeding decline. Media were mocking them with the tag of caretaker leader. It was as if an elephant was spotted at the top of a tree – nobody had a clue how it reached there but everyone was certain that eventually it was going to fall down.

Then came that chilly day of December Old Trafford. Nottingham Forest was up against the Red Devils at their own backyard which was nothing short of a fortress. The match was expected to be a closely fought encounter where even a draw would have been considered a good result for the visitors. But Clough’s troop left everyone awestruck with their brilliant display en route a rampant 4-0 win.

Soon Forest were to complete a remarkable 1977. Earlier in the season they were fighting in the second division and now they were sitting pretty at the top of first division with a clear five point advantage. Their strong run continued even in the new year and the likes of Manchester City and Merseyside clubs were left to do a catching up job. Liverpool succumbed to the pressure and endured a poor run of form in February and early March. They tested defeat four times in five matches and found themselves nine points adrift of Forest who played one game more. Meanwhile Nottingham Forest were knocked out of FA cup. This was probably a blessing in disguise as Brian Clough now had one less competition to worry about and could rally his troops towards league victory with unaltered focus. And focused they were!

It was April 22, 1978. The unthinkable had become a reality. With four games in hand, Nottingham Forest won the first division in England and thus became only the fourth club in history to do so immediately after winning promotion (other instances since twentieth century being Everton in 1931-32, Tottenham Hotspur in 1950-51 and Ipswich Town in 1961-62). Forest remains the last team to achieve this marvelous feat signifying the difficulty of the task. Forest ended the season strongly drawing 0–0 with Liverpool at Anfield finishing seven points clear at the top of the table. It was as dramatic as it could be – knocking the Reds off their perch (a phrase that would be subsequently coined by Sir Alex Ferguson much later) – in their own backyard. Since that stutter in November, Forest went on an incredible run of 26 unbeaten league matches. They remained unbeaten at home, making City Ground a fortress and their tally of only three losses in the league season was a highlight of their successful campaign.

What made the Difference?

Forest under Clough was just like any other good team – strong defensively, solid in the midfield, with a creative spark in attack. But more than anything they were flexible. They countered the long-ball approach of English game, which was becoming redundant elsewhere with his patient passing approach. “A team blossoms only when it has the ball.…Common Sense tells you that the main ingredient in football is the ball itself. [2]” As per the common standards in those days, Forest played some of their most scintillating games on wet, muddy grounds where the players might have been at risk of  serious injury. Yet Forest, at their peak, passed the ball as though they were playing on a bowling green.

Tactics wise Clough kept it simple and minimalistic with a basic formation of 4-4-2. Clough believed that his players, having been handpicked by himself and Taylor, were intelligent enough to give responsibility and tweak their duties on the field of play. One other aspect of his playing philosophy was blending attacking flair with ball retention. So while one winger stayed wide the other generally played in a withdrawn position tucked in with ball possession as the prime objective. That’s why Robertson, the tricky winger down the left, always hugged the touchline. O’Neil compensated for Robertson’s lack of tracking down ability by playing more as an inverted winger and making an extra man in the midfield with McGovern and Ian Bowyer. Width on the right was provided by the rampaging right-back Anderson, something unheard of fullbacks in those days. Up front, it was Peter Withe who would hold up the ball for Tony Woodcock to cash in. It was a deadly partnership as they netted twelve and eleven goals respectively, topping the charts for the club.

One vital aspect of Nottingham Forest’s incredible title run was where they gained ground over their direct rivals. As seen in the table below, they did not do incredibly well against other top six teams in the league. In fact, Liverpool actually did better and Arsenal were too close for comfort.

Head-to-head among teams who qualified for Europe

But Clough’s team were lethal against teams which were the bottom of the table. While their fellow title contenders stumbled, particularly away from home, Forest dropped only a solitary point in ten matches. Things would have been more accentuated in today’s context when a win fetches three instead of the two points back in these days.

Performance against bottom teams

Also Forest had a defense to envy. They conceded only 24 goals during the season – a meagre eight of those at home – which laid the foundation for this incredible campaign.

Players and Recognitions

Apart from Clough’s tactical genius and man management skills, it was the players who rose above ordinary to make the dream a reality. Shilton was outstanding throughout the season. One incident stands out, in the match against Coventry City towards the end of the campaign. When Mick Ferguson had headed powerfully from a close range, Shilton was slightly off position and a goal seemed ievitable. However, Shilton thought otherwise. He got across and palmed the ball over the bar in what the critics consider as his greatest ever save. To put it into context, that save clinched a point and the league title for Forest at the end of the day. Later that year, Shilton was voted as the best player of the league by the media and the players (PFA Players’ Player of the Year 1977–78).

Nottingham Forest 1977
Peter Shilton – PFA Players’ Player of the Year 1977–78 [Source – Nottingham Post]

Viv Anderson got his first England call up during the 1977-78 season. An outstanding season coupled with his own superb form was rewarded which eventually made him the first ever coloured player to represent the Three Lions. Anderson was not the only one, Robertson was also noticed for a spectacular season. He had one of the finest deliverers of the ball. It was not for nothing that time to time he was getting compared to the magical Brazilians, technically gifted Italians or greats like Stanley Matthews. The icing on the cake for the season was Robertson earning his maiden international cap for Scotland in 1978. Archie Gemmill was another who had an outrageous campaign but unfortunately his heroics for Forest got overshadowed by the goal he scored against the mighty Orange later that year in the 1978 FIFA World Cup. And frankly he should have no complaints about it!

But not everyone was that fortunate. McGovern had put up some world class performances during the season – and after that – but somehow could not manage to break into the Scotland team. It was rather surprising as he was capable of the most difficult job – to do the simple things well. Time and again he had outshone much superior skilled and experienced opponents but strangely was never asked to represent his country.

But the player of the season for Forest was Burns, the Scottish Bobby Moore. After resurrecting his career under Clough and Taylor, Burns’ once-in-a-lifetime display also won him the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award, simply put the best player of the season in English football. A tremendous feat for a player who was more of a traveler for most part of his career, rarely able to cement his place on any side.

No wonder, all these players featured [7] in the Nottingham Forest’s all-time best XI, decided by vote in 1997 and 1998.

The Gamechanger

This was probably one classic example where some players reached their peak, some played that one season of unbelievable quality, but more than anything, the collective zenith of a group of players was spurred on by a mastermind. “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business but I was in the top one, [1]” Legendary Brian Clough did not shy away from self-praise after the title. He had reasons to be over the top – he became only the third manager, after Herbert Chapman did the same more than four decades ago and Tom Watson in the early years of twentieth century, in the history of English football to win the top division title with two different clubs. Clough’s efforts were even more awe inspiring because he took charge in both the clubs when they were in the lower division, got them promoted and then won the league with them. Not surprisingly he is considered one of the greatest managers of the English game. His accomplishments with Derby and Forest, two ordinary small-town clubs with little prior history of success, are rated amongst the greatest in football history. In fact, in their first season back in top flight, Clough had shepherded the Rams too to a very creditable fourth place finish but even then very few could have expected their East Midlands rivals to be this effective seven years later.

I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business but I was in the top one

What happened Next?

And that was not the only honour for Forest in that season. Earlier they had gone on to lift the League Cup beating Liverpool, who else, to complete a memorable double. Next season Clough retained the Cup but this time the Reds pipped him to win the league. Forest more than made up for the loss by conquering Europe (defeating defending champions Liverpool en route) – as they won the European Cup. And just to prove to everyone that it was not a fluke victory Clough retained the title in the next season.

But time ran out for Forest in the next decade. The board could not replace their ageing core group, and the relationship between Clough and his deputy Peter Taylor deteriorated. Forest had a new lease of life later in the decade where some shrewd accusations and youth promotion policy of Clough paid dividend in the form of couple of cup wins. But the league eluded Forest. In 1992-93, the first season of Premier League, Forest got relegated to the first division. This was Clough’s last season at the helm of Nottingham Forest.

[Source – Derby Telegraph]

By his own admission, Clough’s greatest achievement remains Forest’s record breaking unbeaten run of 42 league games – equivalent of a whole season – between 26th November 1977 and 9th December 1978. The record stood the test of time for more than quarter of a century until Arsenal charted a run of 49 games without a loss culminating in August 2004. It seems, more than the effect of chronic alcoholism, this took a toll on the legendary manager as he passed away the very next month. He was perhaps the best manager that England never had. But his legacy remains as he had brought home the only top division league for Nottingham Forest. McGovern aptly summarizes the feeling:

We were like one of those comets you see flying across the night sky. We burned brightly, but it was all too brief. But, boy, did we burn brightly for a while. [3]


[1] The Guardian – Cloughie’s classic quotes

[2] Wilson, Jonathon (2014). Inverting the Pyramid. Orion Books Ltd. p. 304-306. ISBN 978-1-4091-2864-9

[3] The Guardian – Brian Clough and the miracle of Nottingham Forest

[4] Gemmill. Archie, Both Sides of the Border, 296 pages (12 September 2005), Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (ISBN 0-340-89570-5)

[5] Soar, Philip (1998). The Official History of Nottingham Forest. Polar Publishing. p. 196. ISBN 1-899538-08-9

[6] “The things they say: Brian Clough”. FIFA. 1 May 2009

[7] John McGOVERN – Derby County FC – Biography of his football career with The Rams.

Cover Image Credit: ESPN

Debojyoti Chakraborty

About Debojyoti Chakraborty

Debojyoti Chakraborty is a follower of English Premier League and European football. You can reach him at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com