Brian Clough’s reign at Nottingham Forest -- a very personal flashback

BRIAN CLOUGH -- walked into Nottingham Forest 41 years ago today, and created footballing miracles.
BRIAN CLOUGH -- walked into Nottingham Forest 41 years ago today, and created footballing miracles.

Today’s date, January 6, is etched on the minds of every Nottingham Forest fan worth his or her salt. For on this date, back in 1975, Brian Clough strode into the City Ground and transformed their club beyond belief.

The day heralded 18 seasons of unprecedented success at the helm of a club that travelled from nowhere with nothing to the summit of the European footballing mountain with 12 trophies.

I was 15 years old at the time Cloughie left behind his woes at Leeds United. I was living in Hucknall and, like many youngsters of that age, my appetite for football was insatiable.

I wasn’t a Forest supporter and never have been. Yes, I had been beguiled by the likes of Ian Storey-Moore and ‘Zigger Zagger’ Joe Baker when my dad took me to my first-ever match in 1966. And yes, I had been there that same season, balancing precariously on my stool on the terraces of the old East Stand when Chris Crowe scored a hat-trick in Forest’s 4-1 thumping of Manchester United, Best, Charlton et al.

But The Reds’ subsequent, sudden decline from league runners-up, which culminated in relegation from the top flight in 1972, coincided with the rise, mainly through amazing cup exploits, of Mansfield Town. I was intrigued that such a little club could reach the FA Cup quarter-finals, inclicting a 3-0 defeat on West Ham United and their 1966 World Cup stars Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, in front of 21,000 at Field Mill. I was fascinated how they could give champions Leeds United an almighty scare in front of the ‘Match Of The Day’ cameras at Elland Road and hold mighty Liverpool to a goalless draw at Anfield. And so I was hooked. I was a Stag for life.

However, I was surrounded by Forest supporters, wherever I went. And when Clough arrived in these parts, replacing the dour Allan Brown, it was impossible not to be saturated by the crest of a wave that the club rode, so unexpectedly but so sensationally.

My teenage years and early 20s were turned into a magical footballing journey, supporting the Stags through two league titles and more cup conquests on a barely credible ascent to the second tier, but also following Forest’s incredible story, packing in as many matches the two clubs played as I could, home and away. Memories of great games, great away trips, great nights out, drama and derring-do are as vivid as if they happened yesterday,

Mind you, Clough did not quite have the instant impact at the City Ground that many assume. OK, Forest beat First Division Spurs in an FA Cup replay in his first match. But they were 13th in the Second Division table when he arrived, and 16th when the season finished, with Manchester United as champions, recovering from their own spectacular post-Busby fall from grace.

In fact, two points and two places above The Reds were none other than across-the-river neighbours Notts County, who achieved a similar feat the following season, finishing fifth while Clough’s side trailed in eighth.

Even when, at the end of the 1975/76 campaign, Taylor was joined by his old sparring partner, Peter Taylor, Forest spluttered and stuttered. And after a 2-1 defeat at home to Notts in March 1977, when I distinctly remember Viv Anderson poking an own goal past ‘keeper John Middleton, the local consenus was that The Magpies were more likely to go up than Clough and Taylor’s troops.

However, if Clough’s reign is defied by miracles, the first one happened a couple of months later when close rivals, Bolton Wanderers, were beaten 1-0 by champions Wolves in their last match of the campaign, handing Forest promotion by one point just as they were landing in Majorca for an end-of-season break.

If you want to know where the phrase, ‘the rest is history’, came from, look no further.

In the summer of 1977, Clough nearly left the City Ground as he was interviewed for the England job which, to the bewilderment of many, went to Ron Greenwood, who’d been in charge of The Hammers at Field Mill that aforementioned night. Instead, arriving at the City Ground were footballing colossuses in the shape of Peter Shilton, Kenny Burns, Larry Lloyd and Archie Gemmill. Players who helped forge a team that, within months, was riding roughshod over the First Division.

Gemmill was signed for £25,000. Can you believe it? £25,000! Burns and Lloyd formed the most formidable centre-back pairing I have ever seen. While Shilton was snapped up from relegated Stoke City after they had lost their opening match of the season at, irony or ironies, Mansfield. Yes, the Stags had won the old Third Division the previous season and were plying their trade alongside the likes of Tottenham, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Brighton, Bolton and Hull City, as well as Stoke, in the hottest of hottest second tiers. Can you imagine the excitement that enveloped me that 1977/78 season? It took Mansfield to grounds and Forest to heights neither could have dreamed of.

I remember that, despite a flying start, it took a long time for many in football to accept the Forest phenomenon. But after witnessing them demolish Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town 4-0 one October night, with Peter Withe scoring all the goals, I was instantly converted and convinced. The dismantling of Ipswich, who had finished third the previous season, took Forest to the top of the table, where they remained until crowned champions, five games early, in a goalless draw at Coventry City where Shilton’s heroics underlined his value to the side. Clough duly became the first manager since Herbert Chapman, more than 40 years earlier, to win the league with more than one club. Only Kenny Dalglish has achieved the double since.

The roll-call of Forest matches to revisit under Clough and Taylor that campaign is too plentiful to list. But few will ever forget the 4-0 win at Old Trafford when John Robertson and Tony Woodcock ran riot. The effect was so rampant that, nine days later, I was one of hundreds locked out on Boxing Day for the home match with Liverpool that attracted a crowd of 47,218 to a City Ground packed to the rafters. It was the only time I’ve ever failed to get in a stadium.

The next time Clough’s cavaliers met Liverpool was in the league cup final. Forest had dismissed Leeds United in the two-legged semis with a couple of superb performances to warm the winter cockles. Bob Paisley’s European champions were a different kettle of fish, and we travelled down to Wembley knowing that Forest were without the cup-tied Shilton. However, teenage deputy Chris Woods had a blinder in a goalless draw that necessitated a replay just four days later and another trip to Old Trafford.

My abiding memory of that night is the unstoppable support Forest fans gave their side. Plus, of course, the controversial winning goal, a Robertson penalty, awarded for a foul by Phil Thompson, now veteran Sky Sports pundit, on John O’Hare. I was standing direct in line with the trip and not for one fleeting milli-second did penalty go through my mind. O’Hare was miles outside the area. But who cared? Referee Pat Partridge pointed to the spot and Clough had the first trophy of his dynasty.

Partridge also disallowed a perfectly good goal by Terry McDermott that night. The furore triggered arch rivalry between Forest and Liverpool supporters that lingers to this day. And it hardly calmed down in the opening months of the following season (1978/79) when the two clubs were, remarkably, drawn against each other in the First Round of the European Cup. It wouldn’t happen nowadays, of course, thanks to seedings, but how glad we were that it happened then. In an upset that rocked the football world, Forest beat the holders 2-0 in the first leg at the City Ground, thanks to goals from left-back Colin Barrett and rookie striker Garry Birtles, and held them to the kind of ‘park-the-bus’ goalless draw that Cloughie had templated long before Jose Mourinho came along.

Liverpool exacted some revenge by regaining the league title that season, even though Forest suffered only three defeats, one of which ended their astonishing unbeaten run of 42 league games, bettered since only by Arsenal in 2004. But The Reds went on to land another league cup, coming from behind to beat Southampton 3-2 on another unforgettable Wembley day out, and of course, most notably, they continued to take Europe by storm.

Finances and exams dictated that I didn’t make it to Munich for the 1-0 final win over Malmo. But compensation was ample. I was in the 41,000 crowd at the City Ground for the semi-final, first leg against Cologne and, to this day, consider it to be the greatest match I have seen. For the first 20 minutes, Forest were ripped to shreds by the Germans, spearheaded by the brilliant Dieter Muller, and trailed 2-0. But the comeback of all comebacks was capped by a diving header by Robertson at the far post that I can picture now. Cue jubilant scenes until, somehow, a schoolboy error by Shilton let in a late equaliser from Cologne substitute Yasuhiko Okudera, spawning the priceless newspaper headline ‘Forest Sunk By Japanese Sub’.

Shilton was redeemed by Ian ‘Bomber’ Bowyer in the second leg and then in the final by Trevor Francis, whose stooping, winning header repaid every last penny of the monster transfer-fee Clough paid Birmingham City three months earlier when he became the game’s first £1 million signing.

The following season, 1979/80, it happened all over again of course. Another 1-0 victory in a European Cup final, courtesy of a Robertson goal and a grinding, grafting performance by an injury-hit side that nullified Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg in Madrid, and another league cup final, although this one ended in a 1-0 defeat after an horrendous cock-up between Shilton and defender David Needham, who collided, leaving Andy Gray, yes THE Andy Gray, with a tap-in.

By now, opponents were beginning to come to terms with Clough’s trademark style of neat possession and swift counter-attacking, which was light years ahead of its time. And the bust-ups, booze-ups and brushes with authority that so often afflicted his career were beginning to take their toll too.

One such bust-up led to Taylor departing the club in 1982 and returning to boss Forest’s prime enemies, Derby County. By a most sinister coincidence, the two clubs drew each other in the Third Round of the FA Cup the very next season, with The Rams winning 2-0 in a Baseball Ground match languishing very low in my list of live games to recall.

The pain felt by the defeat was exacerbated by the presence in the Derby side of the mercurial Robertson, around whom Clough had fashioned his Forest football before a disappointing exit from the club. And so poor were The Reds that day that many feared Clough’s powers were on the wane, especially as he could no longer count on the wise counsel of his long-time partner. But in fact, his record without Taylor in subsequent years stands up admirably well.

Forest finished third three times and only once through the 1980s and 1990s did they drop lower than ninth until that disastrous inaugural Premier League season of 1992/93 when both the great man’s health and his team hit rock-bottom and inevitable retirement followed inevitable relegation. They also collected two more league cups, with Wembley wins over Luton Town and Oldham Athletic (whatever happened to them?), reached another league cup final, made an FA Cup final, reached two other semis and might even have gone on to UEFA Cup glory but for the later-revealed scandal of the referee in their 1984 semi against Anderlecht taking bribes. In common with only a handful of other managers, Clough also built a brand-new quality side, introducing names such as Stuart Pearce, Roy Keane, Teddy Sheringham, Des Walker, Neil Webb and son Nigel.

As for my personal involvement, it tailed off. Life moved on, other factors came into play and I don’t mind admitting that I became very blase about the club’s status. As someone who was never a Forest diehard in the first place, I felt almost as if they were expected to be a permanent fixture in the top ten of the top league when, of course, 15 or 20 years earlier, nothing could have been further removed from reality.

Maybe the magic wore off, just as it has with the Stags. Maybe, as the cynics might say, I was just a passenger on a bandwagon that came along at the right time. I defy anyone, though, not to have hopped on to a bandwagon of that magnitude when it was waiting for you on your doorstep. Of course, the wagon broke down a few times, and there is no doubt that some of Clough’s management methods and opinions in general would not sit comfortably in today’s world. But I still consider myself privileged to have been a mere eye-witness to the footballing history that Forest and Clough created.

The scale of that never-to-be-repeated history could be measured by the volume of emotion that poured from that last afternoon in 1993 when Forest went down and Clough’s blotched, swollen face told you all you needed to know about his sad decline. He had been ill for some time, noticed most poignantly perhaps in the dressing-room before a league cup semi-final at Tottenham some 15 months earlier. This is an apocryphal story, but it was relayed to me by someone who should know. Clearly worse for wear, Cloughie struggled to name his team or read the teamsheet. When he had finished, one of his sidekicks said something along the lines of: “But boss, you’ve just named Steve Chettle at centre-forward.” Quick as a flash before he had to be ushered away, Clough replied: “That’ll bamboozle ‘em!” Needless to say, Forest won 2-1 and Clough was soon leading his team out at Wembley yet again.

The tale, while funny now, was indicative of the alcohol problems that had Clough in a headlock. And yet, out of sheer respect for the way in which he had carried the club by its bootlaces for so long and with such distinction, Forest refused to sack him. They don’t do that in football any more, or indeed in sport as a whole.

What they do do in sport, a lot, is talk about legacy. The most annoying, over-used, misused word on the planet. A word so despicable that they’ve even tried to tarnish the London 2012 Olympic Games, the most glorious event this country has ever overseen, with warped references to it.

I’ll tell you what the definition of legacy is. It is when a man transforms the football club you support, takes it to places you never thought you could go, turns dreams into reality and creates miracles that, even fully 41 years later, are not only still cherished with pride and affection, they also swamp and smother every move that club makes and every step that club takes. January 6 1975 to January 6 2016, at Nottingham Forest, it’s still all about Brian Clough. And rightly so.