When the Winter of Discontent descended in 1978/79, Britain froze, both literally and figuratively. Ice-age weather buried the country beneath a blanket of snow, hail and frost, while a decade of political and social upheaval culminated in widespread civil unrest and industrial action. Nationwide instability and a faltering economy eventually crippled the ruling Labour government, paving the way for a Thatcher-led Conservative Party to sweep to power in May 1979. All things considered, there were very few reasons to be cheerful. Yet, despite this turbulence, domestic football in England found itself in the middle of a golden age – on the pitch, at least.
Pre-season, much of the attention was focused on perhaps the most audacious transfer coup of the late ‘70s: Tottenham Hotspur’s double-swoop for Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa. According to Nick Harris of Sporting Intelligence, “The Argentinians’ arrival received plenty of positive coverage in the newspapers on Tuesday 18 July. It was rare, at the time, for such news to spread beyond the ghetto of the sports pages but the pair soon found themselves on the news and features pages. There they shared space with other items of international interest, including the countdown to the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby, which was a week away.”
Elsewhere, there were equally interesting moves taking place. Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town made their own headlines by signing Ajax midfielder Arnie Mühren while, in October, Ossie and Ricky’s compatriot Alberto Tarantini somehow found himself wearing the blue of Birmingham City a matter of months after winning the World Cup. (It didn’t end well). Another Argentine, Alejandro Sabella, pitched up at Second Division Sheffield United, and it even emerged in 2010 that Arsenal manager Terry Neill, always in touch with the latest trends, had attempted to pinch an adolescent Diego Armando Maradona from Argentinos Juniors. English football was expanding its horizons and, for the most part, the natives seemed to welcome this influx of talented foreigners.
Hospitality, however, was not necessarily a byword for fandom in England at the time. Football stadiums were ideal hunting grounds for those looking to corrupt and recruit young, disaffected men to their cause. As Ed Vulliamy wrote for The Guardian, “these were days of National Front leaflets at the turnstiles”. Race, therefore, was always going to be an issue during the 1978-79 season, given that by the start of the campaign there were estimated to be 50 black players in the league; a huge increase on the relatively whitewashed eras that had come before.
Particularly displeasing for the lunatic fringe of right-wing society was the emergence of a gifted trinity of black players under Ron Atkinson at West Brom. Known as the “Three Degrees”, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson lit up the league from start to finish, thrilling a local crowd that almost unilaterally backed their men against those who routinely barracked them at grounds up and down the country. Alongside the Baggies trio, players like Garth Crooks and Viv Anderson had also gained prominence thanks to their prodigious talents; their collective reward was to endure overt hatred whenever they stepped onto a football pitch.
“The noise and level of the abuse was incredible”, Batson said in 2014. “At times, it was almost like surround sound in the grounds. But it was such a regular occurrence, you almost got used to it.
“We’d get off the coach at away matches and the National Front would be right there in your face. In those days, we didn’t have security and we’d have to run the gauntlet. We’d get to the players’ entrance and there’d be spit on my jacket or Cyrille’s shirt. It was a sign of the times. I don’t recall making a big hue and cry about it. We coped. It wasn’t a new phenomenon to us.”
In 1978, the contribution of England’s growing crop of black players was finally recognised by the FA when, on November 29, Viv Anderson was capped for his country. It was the first time a black player had won a full England cap, and within a few years, Regis and Cunningham had both followed suit. Anderson and the Three Degrees did as much as anyone to change attitudes towards black footballers in the country, and 1978/79 was the year when their influence reached its peak.
But for West Brom fans, that season was about much more than just the Three Degrees. Ron Atkinson’s side approached the campaign with an attacking intent, and had the squad to back up this ideal. A young Bryan Robson patrolled the midfield alongside the heavy-scoring Tony Brown, while full-back Derek Statham augmented the already potent attack with marauding runs down the left flank. As the season unfolded, it was clear that Atkinson – and his predecessor – had created a powerful, skillful outfit.
“To be fair, the groundwork was done by Johnny Giles”, said Brown in 2012. “He drilled into us the value of possession. When Ron came in, he wanted us to move the ball a bit quicker.
“Those two values worked with that group and especially with Ron around. He was a brilliant motivator. We just worked on the basis that we would score more than the opposition.”
By mid-October, Atkinson’s team found themselves in fourth place behind the Merseyside duo of Liverpool and Everton, and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. At that point, the only team outscoring them were Liverpool, the reigning European champions, who were busy laying down a gauntlet to the rest of the division. Bob Paisley’s side found the net 33 times in their first ten matches – including nine from Kenny Dalglish – and had doled out thrashings to the likes of Manchester City (4-1), Spurs (7-0), Norwich (4-1) and Derby (5-0). Forest, defending their First Division hegemony and considered Liverpool’s main rival in the title race, had started solidly but less spectacularly; they were undefeated, but had drawn six of ten.
Although Clough’s team failed to thrill the crowds in the opening stages of the season – domestically at least – they remained steadfast in their resistance to losing football matches, and by the time Saturday 9 December rolled around they were unbeaten in the league for 42 games across two campaigns. That day, however, their opponent was a rampaging Liverpool clear at the top of the table. The match finished two-nil in favour of the league-leaders, with defeat signalling the end of Forest’s incredible run. Not for the first time that season, Forest had struggled to convert chances; after 17 matches, they’d scored just 19 times – a remarkable contrast to Liverpool’s 44.
It was evident then that despite their reliable base Forest needed to improve their options up front, and a few months after the loss to Liverpool, they did exactly that. Clough, searching for an enhancement to his regular attacking combination of Birtles-Robertson-Woodcock, eventually found one in Birmingham City’s Trevor Francis. The Plymouth-born forward soon became England’s first £1million signing when, in February, he agreed a famous move to the City Ground. According to Simon Briggs in The Telegraph, “it felt like the sporting equivalent of putting a man on the Moon… the reporters who gathered around the signing ceremony on Feb 9, 1979, had a breathless sense of history in the making.
“Clough, typically, put his own spin on events. He turned up in a bright red sports jacket, and with a squash racket in his hand, as if to suggest that his social life was far more important than this minor business formality.”
Francis didn’t have the immediate impact on the club’s domestic fortunes for which Clough must have hoped. The former Blues striker was tried, writes Briggs, “up front with his back to goal, or breaking forward from the right side of midfield”, but it didn’t quite work out the way anyone wanted, and the goals didn’t come with any degree of regularity. Still, Francis would have his moment in the sun a few months down the line. (More on that later).
The season thus far had been played out against the backdrop of weather so inclement as to be considered malicious. The elements pelted Great Britain with furious anger, freezing playing-fields and submerging terraces up and down the country. In an effort to counter the wrath of nature, QPR went so far as to sheathe the Loftus Road pitch in a “Giant Condom” – to little effect – while Ron Atkinson invested in a shipment of astro-turf boots to help his men retain their footing on the slippery surfaces. Atkinson later hailed it as a masterstroke on the back of a few decent results in snowy conditions, but in reality his team had begun to slide away from the summit of the league as the winter months passed.
Back in January, after the first round of fixtures of 1979, West Brom had topped the league thanks to a game in hand over Liverpool, but by March they were languishing eight points behind Paisley’s team. Liverpool had simply switched on the afterburners in the New Year, swatting aside most opponents with consummate ease. In February they beat West Brom 2-1 at Anfield and subsequently remained unbeaten until mid-April, by which time they had all but sealed the title.
Liverpool were exceptional, smashing 84 goals, conceding the fewest times in First Division history and racking up a record 67 points. Kenny Dalglish, bought to replace the Hamburg-bound Kevin Keegan a season before, had led the charge with 21 goals, but he was merely one part of a frighteningly efficient whole. In truth, given their dominance, “the interest was principally in who would chase them hardest”, as pointed out by Brian James in that year’s Rothmans Football Yearbook.
For James, and most others, it had not been runners-up Nottingham Forest who had done so, but rather the third-placed West Brom of Atkinson and the Three Degrees. To some extent, they had stolen the show, upstaging even Liverpool with their attacking verve and charismatic players. As James pointed out in his season review: “Liverpool are surely the team of the decade – they can afford to let Albion be known as the team of the season.”
Further south, it was a relatively bleak year for London clubs. Chelsea were relegated as the worst team in the league, with QPR joining them, while Tottenham – despite Ardiles and Villa – and Arsenal were anonymous in mid-table. The Gunners, however, fared better elsewhere, taking home the FA Cup after a final against Manchester United that ended with a crescendo. The BBC later called it “the most remarkable finish ever seen in an FA Cup final”, and the game would come to be known as the “Five Minute Final”. Here’s how Jon Bodkin described the climax: “Two-nil down with five minutes to go, United staged a stirring comeback and seemed to have forced extra-time. Gordon McQueen scored, then McIlroy equalised after a mazy run, the ball bobbling over the line. Amazingly, though, Arsenal responded with an 89th-minute Alan Sunderland goal and this time United were finished.”
The “other” domestic cup was won by Nottingham Forest; some consolation for failing to defend their First Division title. But for Clough and Forest – and Trevor Francis – there would be another, more momentous late-season reprieve. Despite their modest league form, the Nottingham side had progressed steadily through the rounds in the European Cup. Arguably their most challenging opponent in the competition had been their first: Liverpool. When the two teams faced each other in Round One on September 13, Liverpool were five from five in the league, while Forest were struggling along with just one win from their five matches. Yet it was to be Clough’s men who took the spoils in Europe, with goals from Birtles and Barrett sealing a 2-0 win that effectively ended the tie.
From there, things were almost straightforward for Forest in their procession to the final. AEK Athens and Grasshopper Zurich were dismissed with a combined aggregate score of 12-4 in favour of the English club. Koln, in the semi-final, proved a tougher opponent, but they too succumbed to the might of the men from the midlands.
Awaiting Forest in the final in Munich were Swedish side Malmo, coached by Englishman Bob Houghton. The ex-Fulham player had turned his team into a title-winning machine in Sweden, shifting tactics in that country towards pressing and zonal marking. As detailed by Gunnar Persson in a 2013 article in The Blizzard, Houghton had revolutionised defence in Sweden by introducing the offside trap, which his team perfected to the extent that it infuriated opponents and referees alike.
Little wonder, then, that the European Cup final was, according to Tom Lamont of The Guardian, “a terrible game, heavy on offsides, with the tall, imposing Swedes of Malmo instructed to negate the silky skills of Brian Clough’s exciting Nottingham Forest.” For the most part, Houghton’s men carried out their duties with vigour, but on the stroke of half time, they afforded Forest’s million-pound man the opportunity to justify his price-tag. Down the left, John Robertson had wormed his way past a few Malmo tackles and sent over a back-post cross. Anders Ljungberg, caught ball-watching, left Francis in an acre of space, and the Forest striker duly obliged by nodding in a diving header. For the defensive – and injury-stricken – Malmo, there was no way back.
English football had retained its grip on the European Cup, but made little impact in either the UEFA Cup or Cup Winners’ Cup. Clough and Nottingham Forest, however, would have cared not a jot. The Middlesbrough man had led his team on an astonishing journey from Second Division strugglers to champions of Europe. If there had ever been any doubts about the greatness of Ol’ Big ‘Ead, they were now thoroughly quashed.
1978/79 was a season of significance played against the backdrop of a winter of great hardship. It was one dominated by charismatic managers and revolutionary players, but also by some of the most memorable teams to have competed in the league. The following campaign would have a lot to live up to, but, arguably, it did exactly that.
Can Liverpool retain their title? Can Nottingham Forest defend their European Cup? Has anyone seen Leeds United? Are Everton okay? Join us next week for 1979/80
You can follow Luke Ginnell on Twitter (@HeavyFirstTouch)