There are, in general terms, two types of great manager: those who build a club from the ground up, and those who win bucketloads of trophies. That’s the reason that Sir Alex Ferguson is probably the best of them all, because he did both. Brian Clough at least belongs in the conversation though, because not only did he take a fairly irrelevant provincial club from the Second Division to the league title, but he did it twice.
At the start of the 1977/78 season, it seemed rather absurd that Nottingham Forest would win the First Division, and with good reason. They had scraped promotion the previous season, and their team was significantly comprised of players that were there when Clough arrived in 1975, in the nether regions of the Second Division. But the likes of John Robertson, Viv Anderson, Tony Woodcock and Ian Bowyer were augmented by the signings of Peter Shilton, Archie Gemmill and a new, fairly brutal centre-back pairing of Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd. Nevertheless, even these additions convinced few of what was to come.
At the start of the season, while the return of Clough to the top flight, three years after the debacle at Leeds, little attention was paid to Forest. The summer had seen significant managerial upheaval, with firstly Tommy Docherty dismissed by Manchester United over his affair with Mary Brown, the wife of physio Laurie (“I have been punished for falling in love,” claimed Docherty) and replaced by Dave Sexton, himself released by QPR initially to take a job as a coach at Arsenal.
And a few days later, Don Revie resigned as England manager, causing ructions by not only quitting to take over as Saudi Arabia coach, but selling the story of his resignation to the Daily Mail. “Nearly everyone in the country seems to want me out,” he wrote. “So I am giving them what they want. I know people will accuse me of running away and it does sicken me that I can’t finish the job by taking England to the World Cup Finals in Argentina next year. But the situation has become impossible.” Alan Hardaker, secretary of the Football League and a man with famously spicy views on foreigners, said: “Don Revie’s decision doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Now I only hope he can quickly learn to call out bingo numbers in Arabic.”
Dugouts saw departures, but on the pitch one of the most significant arrivals in English football came at Liverpool, as they paid a British record transfer fee of £440,000 for Kenny Dalglish, the response to which shows there is little new under the sun when it comes to complaints about modern football. “How can football ask for government help, when a club spends this kind of money for just one player?” asked PFA chairman Derek Dougan, even though Liverpool were actually in profit that summer as they had sold Kevin Keegan to Hamburg for £500,000. Still, some things most definitely have changed: in October Chelsea chairman Brian Mears took part in a sponsored walk, in order to raise funds for a luxury coach to take them to games. His efforts gathered £125.
Liverpool, despite their status as title-holders and their big-spending – in addition to Dalglish they spent just shy of £400,000 on Graeme Souness – suffered a league season in which patches of terrible results cost them their title. They lost just one of their first 12 games, but a run of three straight defeats in October and November put them down to sixth place, and then after clambering back to third and four points off the top in mid-January, they lost four from five to effectively end their chances. After the last of those, a 4-2 pasting at Derby, Bob Paisley said: “If I were in the horse racing world I would be hauled before the stewards for putting out non-triers.” They were also beaten in the League Cup final by their newest bete noire Forest, losing in a replay to a disputed penalty.
They would of course have a significant ‘consolation prize’, by winning their second European Cup and becoming the first English club to retain a continental trophy. On paper, their passage to the final at Wembley was fairly straightforward: after a bye in the first round (a benefit of being defending champions), they beat Dynamo Dresden, Benfica and Borussia Monchengladbach by aggregate scores of 6-3, 6-2 and 4-2 respectively, setting up a final against Club Brugge. Paisley’s side dominated the final, more than the 1-0 scoreline suggested, the victory secured by a dinked Dalglish finish just after the hour. Brugge took it well, though, manager Ernst Happel commenting after the game: “Liverpool seemed only a shadow of the side we played two seasons ago. I was disappointed with them, but they deserved their victory although we were handicapped by injuries to two players.”
Liverpool would represent England’s only success in Europe that year, nobody else making it past the quarter-final stage. Manchester United lost in the second round of the Cup Winners’ Cup, but their campaign was most notable for having to play the second leg of their first round game against St Etienne at Home Park in Plymouth, after trouble at the game in France. In the UEFA Cup, Newcastle lost to Bastia and Barcelona knocked out both Ipswich and Aston Villa.
Back with domestic matters, in November talks began for Arsenal and Tottenham to leave Highbury and White Hart Lane to share a new ‘super stadium’ on the site of Alexandra Palace in north London. The Daily Express called it a ‘great step forward’ and declared that ‘soccer must move with the times to secure its future, the dream yesterday began to take shape’ as a ‘joint board meeting’ of the two clubs took place. Talks continued for a couple of months, which included a mooted idea that England would play at the new ground, and even included plans for a monorail from Finsbury Park which, like the fine towns of Ogdenville, Brockway and North Haverbrook, would surely have put that part of London on the map. Alas, the idea was eventually scuppered, with Horace Cutler, leader of the Greater London Council, declaring it “neither desirable nor practicable.” Arsenal, perhaps reeling from this snub, threatened to challenge for the league but never got higher than third, then lost the FA Cup final to Ipswich, the only goal scored by Roger Osbourne who promptly fainted, and had to be brought round with smelling salts.
In October Clough, a man who could make dockers blush with some of his language in private, launched something of a crusade against swearing on the terraces, arranging a sign to be paraded at the City Ground which read ‘Gentlemen: no swearing please – Brian.‘ When he was interviewed for the England job a few months later, the fans retorted with a similar sign saying ‘Brian: no leaving please – the Gentlemen.’
Clough almost left Forest on several occasions over the years, but the England job was possibly his least likely destination: the FA nearly didn’t give him an interview, and he had annoyed so many people at Lancaster Gate (including an ill-timed pop at Bert Millichip, then West Brom chairman and future head of the FA, just before his interview) that his candidature was never particularly realistic. Still, Clough was confident, and according to Jonathan Wilson’s biography of him ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’ he told Peter Taylor that the interview “went brilliantly. If it’s straight, we’ve got it.” Whether you’d call it ‘straight’ or not, the FA went with Ron Greenwood, who had been in temporary charge since Revie’s departure, partly on the basis that, according to Dick Wragg, vice-chair of the selection committee, the job “was a question of international diplomacy. We needed someone to restore the good name of the FA. Clough wasn’t that man. He never was, nor could be, a diplomat.”
Diplomat or no, Clough was doing fine things with Forest. They started their return to the top flight in fine fashion, with a 3-1 win at Everton, after which they were given a talking to by a local dignitary. “The dressing room was usually sacrosanct,” recalled Forest captain in Johnny Owen’s brilliant film and Danny Taylor’s equally exceptional book ‘I Believe In Miracles’. “Clough wouldn’t even let in the chairman, but when he swung open the door his face changed. “Come in,” he said, “delighted to see you.” We couldn’t see who it was at first, but he said it like it must be the Pope or the Prime Minister.” It was actually a man held in even higher regard across Stanley Park, Bill Shankly, who proceeded to address the Forest players for the next 15 minutes and advised them how they might go about winning the league title.
Such talk was fanciful at that stage, and for the first part of the season at least, it seemed everyone was waiting for, as the BBC’s Bob Wilson put it, the ‘Forest bubble’ to burst. In his report from Goodison, the Guardian’s Paul Wilcox tucked both thumbs into his lapels, leant against the fireplace and addressed the nation, writing: ‘The Nottingham Forest manager did not get carried away by his team’s demonstration of their abilities on their return to the First Division after five years, and neither should anyone else. Forest beat Everton well, and there can be no dispute that they have talented players who work selflessly for the collective good, but one cannot go overboard yet.’ When Arsenal beat them 3-0 in the fourth game of the season, the great doyen of the press box Geoffrey Green in the Times called Forest ‘unadventurous’ and ‘hardly championship material’, sniffly speculating that ‘Perhaps, deep down, the provincials were overawed by the marble halls of North London.’ “It is magic how they’re doing it,” said Danny Blanchflower at one point, “but how long can the Forest miracle last?”
Not that these doubts were illogical, of course, and they were given some credence in November when Forest lost two away games to Leeds and Chelsea; after the latter Julie Welch noted in the Observer that ‘Forest, surely, must soon start to falter.’ But as it turned out the defeat at Stamford Bridge would be their last of the season, and a few weeks later those who regarded this team as a bunch of chancers were put in their place reasonably emphatically, as Forest simultaneously put on an exhibition and a raised giant V-sign at Old Trafford.
The final score was 4-0, but it could have been double, treble that. Tony Woodcock got two, John Robertson one and the other a Brian Greenhoff own-goal, while one report noted that right-back Viv Anderson might’ve scored a hat-trick. Barry Davies called it “The best display I have had the privilege of seeing this season”, Manchester United boss Sexton said Forest “don’t play with 11 men. They seemed to have 16 or 17” while in the Guardian Paul Fitzpatrick wrote: ‘There has been a widely held feeling that Forest’s success so far has been slightly phoney, based on doubtful virtues that would eventually be exposed. But there was nothing false about Forest.’ “We showed all the clever clogs in the media that we were good enough to win the title,” said Clough. “I enjoyed that.”
A win over Newcastle in in late December put Forest five points clear – Clough remarked that “the last time Nottingham were five ahead of anybody was in a cricket match” – and by that point the prevailing opinion had turned. Manchester City manager Tony Book said that “it might take an earthquake to crack them”, while McGovern was confident enough to say that “nobody will catch us now.”
And nobody did, as challengers City, Liverpool and Everton all eventually fell away, Bob Paisley saying in March that he was “not conceding anything. The Forest players’ legs might drop off,” while Everton manager Gordon Lee admitted defeat after losing to Coventry in April. And it was at Highfield Road a couple of weeks later that Forest did clinch it, player of the season Peter Shilton producing a near-miraculous performance to secure a 0-0 draw and the point Forest needed.
“You see all these pictures in the modern game of after-match hysteria, champagne being tossed everywhere and people yelling and screaming,” Shilton said in I Believe In Miracles. “We just sat down and had half a glass of champagne each, as though it was another day’s work.” The next morning, Clough got up early to help out in his brother’s newsagent. And the season after, they did something even more extraordinary than merely win the title.
1, Nottingham Forest – 64 pts
2, Liverpool – 57 pts
3, Everton – 55 pts
4, Manchester City – 52 pts
5, Arsenal – 52 pts
West Ham United, Newcastle United, Leicester City
Winners: Ipswich Town
Winners: Nottingham Forest
Runners-up: Club Brugge
CUP WINNERS’ CUP
Runners-up: Austria Vienna
Winners: PSV Eindhoven
FWA Footballer of the Year
Kenny Burns (Nottingham Forest)
How will Nottingham Forest fare in Europe? How will Liverpool respond to this new domestic challenge? And is it time for Chelsea to stand up and make their presence known? Join us next week for 1978/79.
You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)