The football world near and far stood agog two years ago when Leicester City won the league. As I write this in the yaw of the Beast from the East that the media like to thrash us with, my thoughts turned to Hurricane Claudio who whipped up a fair bear in the East Midlands. It was an astonishing achievement as the club slipped through the financial mastodons that stalk the footballing stratosphere to dumbfound the media and probably themselves.
Yet it had a prequel for me. Forty years ago a fellow East Midlands team with an odd name walked the same path and achieved similar levels of agog which spilled up and beyond the Trent. If Richard the Third can do party tricks in a church car park in Leicester, Robin Hood sent the football world a quiver in 1978 to similar disbelief. The Robin Hood, in this case, was probably manager Brian Clough who it should be said had won the league six years earlier with fellow A52 tenants Derby County. The man truly was a one-off and he will hover throughout this story.
Taking myself back to the summer of 1977 the world was dealing with Elvis Presley’s death on the Tuesday before the football season kicked off on Saturday, August 20th. Football wise, eyes were mostly fixed on Kenny Dalglish’s league debut for Liverpool away at Middlesbrough where he obligingly scored in a 1-1 draw. Walking home from what happened to be my own first attended league game, the other notable result was probably Man. Utd’s 4-1 away win at Birmingham which was new manager Dave Sexton’s first victory. Fast forwarding to the present day and thinking in terms of MOTD running order, one game that might have been selected to open up the show could have been newly promoted Nottingham Forest’s 3-1 away win at Everton. MOTD like to do the fresh new face sort of thing on season first days. For the record, the two games we got that night were Ipswich Town v Arsenal and Manchester City v Leicester City.
It was a slightly surprising result. Yes, newly promoted clubs do this sort of thing in opening flurries but Forest had just about scraped promotion and were definitely in the shadow of Wolves and Chelsea who had been the stars of the lower division the previous season. They were fairly unspectacular with no big names but were disciplined and workmanlike from the schooling of their larger than life manager. It raised my eyebrow anyway.
By the first week of September, they had won another two games against Derby and Bristol City and were due to face Arsenal at Highbury. They were roundly dispatched 3-0 and the onlookers and media leant back in their seats content that the flash was limited to the pan. Centre-back and roughhouse character Kenny Burns who had been a Birmingham City forward and was ambitiously being transformed into a defender by Clough had a challenging game. The forest was not going to catch fire.
That, folk thought was that though Clough went out and broke the transfer record for periodic England goalkeeper Peter Shilton eleven days later. Forest simply went from there through the autumn effectively clearing opponents out of the way and were not to taste defeat until two consecutive away 1-0 defeats to Chelsea and Leeds in November. They would be the last that season in the league. Press and observers however like Leicester thirty – eight years later waited for it all to fade. If Leicester’s big moment to be taken seriously was when they beat Manchester City away 3-1 in February 2016 it occurred for Forest slightly earlier in the season – the week before Christmas away to Man United where they literally took the home team apart 4-0. It was on Match of the Day and we watched in disbelief as the men in away yellow stunned a dark and humbled Salford. Their ill-matching yellow shirts and shorts was the only thing that was off key that afternoon.
It was a good time for Clough to lay down one of his great lines in the sand to the media of which we’ll talk about shortly. Interviewed after the game by Barry Davies he laconically patted the pundits on the head – “After this performance Barry, some people just might realise that Nottingham Forest are a good side”.
Manchester United were not a force in the seventies but that was still a huge result which shook the country. Surely champions Liverpool would sort them out after Christmas but a 1-1 draw at the City ground kept the roots steady. It would be wrong to say the country was willing them on in the same way it did Leicester. The game and clubs had not been lacerated and boxed by money the way it is today but they were now on a roll and most folk were delighted with this upstart.
When they beat Arsenal in late January 2-0 they went six points clear and winter pitches clearly hadn’t thrown them out of their stride. The only incidents of note on an orderly and dignified stroll to the title were the collection of the League Cup and an exit from the FA Cup by West Brom – (that West Brom game was featured recently on news items as it showed one of the more famous of the goals from the late Cyrille Regis). In mid-ApriI I remember listening to the title-winning game away at Coventry on the radio as Shilton performed wonders to earn a scoreless draw on a dry and dusty pitch.
It was a fascinating achievement. Losing only three times they used seventeen players and conceded twenty-four goals in forty- two games and won the league with four games to spare. On the face of it they were so ordinary in presentation. Even forty years ago with a less fastidious and microscopic football media, the press hadn’t seen it coming and couldn’t explain it. If you want a modern-day version of this think of Mark Lawrenson continuing to dismiss Leicester until he had nowhere to go. This is probably a good time to reintroduce Brian Clough into the narrative in conjunction with that team.
They were a team who represented his footballing persona and ideals on the pitch more than almost any other manager that I know – well beyond Wenger, Mourinho and Ferguson teams. They were hugely positive ideals. This is probably due to the many-faceted characteristics of Clough that permeated that team. You should know that Clough had a fairly poor opinion of the football media. It was a distaste that he backed up. It wasn’t a contrived, toxic or manipulative relationship that the likes of Mourinho cultivate. It was based on the fact that they couldn’t see what he saw in players or the game. He saw the game as simple and to be played on the ground. He tolerated the media because he understood the obligation of his job as leader of the club to the fans. But they continually seemed unable to grasp things so he treated them as imbeciles.
His team moved the ball effortlessly from back to front based on intelligence, technical ability, hard work and good and correct players in the correct positions. It was a fairly experienced team with quite a few who had been ‘around the block’. Defensively this intelligence and hard work enabled them not to play in extremis. Diving in and last-ditch tackles were rare across the team. Dissent to referees was an absolute ‘no no’. These two features avoided injuries and suspensions. Referees loved getting Clough teams. His reasoning was if his players have to connive and pressure the ref his team weren’t good enough though he was a stickler for good behaviour and standards generally.
In front of the impenetrable Shilton, Burns and Lloyd worked well together as centre-backs. Lloyd was the less mobile ‘height’ of the pair but still was the old-fashioned stopper. Burns was a hard tackler who kept it simple and read the game well. His ex – forward’s ability on the ball was a bonus. Right back Viv Anderson who was to be the first English black cap that season just ate up the ground with legs that went on forever. Colin Barrett kept it simple and steady at left back. That defence weighed in with thirteen goals.
In midfield captain John McGovern who had won the league with Derby and had been with Clough at Hartlepool looked like a Boy Scout Sixer. In actuality, he was one seriously underrated leader who was the essence in simple straightforward football. Beside him, Archie Gemmill was a bald, perpetual engine with the right pass. He was the main link switching defence to ruthless attack. The flanks were more than well marshalled. No number seven jersey possessed more nervous energy than Martin O’Neill’s. The future cerebral passion he would show as a thoughtful manager was harnessed into busy activity and a sense to maintain width and goals.
On the other side, one of the game’s best purveyors of the left wing trade was epitomised in the freakish John Robertson. His crosses were the stuff of legend. Without blinding speed, he was able to beat right- backs from a standing start and send over cross after accurate cross. His head and upper body hung over the ball as he lazily caressed the ball with his right foot before deciding what way he would beat his opponent. His capability with either foot was devastating. If he used his left foot it was a perfect cross. If he used his right foot the ball tended to hit the left-hand corner of the opposing net. It never changed and yet no team was ever able to quell this threat which was clearly obvious. The era also had Dave Thomas who did something similar for QPR and Everton and alongside Stevie Coppell perhaps were the wingers to watch. But Robertson was the best. Just give him the ball. Feed him they did and for me he was the most important outfield player in that team.
Up front, Peter Withe was a fairly unspectacular forward but he did what you need from a big physical target man and he did it well. These days teams with his ilk up front tend to lump it forward. Watch Forest from that time and see how football should be played utilising that sort of player rather than relying on him. He was to repeat the role for Aston Villa’s league title three years later. He held the ball up, tied up defenders, provided aerial presence, extended the play and scored goals. Four in one game v Ipswich. He simply got on the end of things. Tony Woodcock beside him excited the media probably most of all due to the fact he was young and English. But he was fast, clever, scored goals and ran the channels.
The back-ups were by and large experienced. Dave Needham was a steadfast centre-back who came in from QPR and added goals. Frank Clark was a dependable left – back brought in from Newcastle. Ian Bowyer was a midfielder who was somewhere between Gemmill and McGovern and scored seriously important goals. John O’Hare was another midfielder who followed Clough from Derby.
Critically, they were all prepared to follow the Clough mantra. Martin O’Neill has admitted to the odd difficulty with his boss as you might imagine but he more than respected him. Every player brought something to the side and played a role that complemented the rest of the team. A bit like England’s 1966 side, some of the team weren’t the most brilliant individuals but were outstanding team players.
This ordinary ‘men doing what they are paid to do’ message that Clough peddled worked in actuality as well as a fly swat to the media who wanted to find out ‘the secret‘ to it all. As far as Clough was concerned there was none and more fool them for thinking otherwise. Quite simply he was the manager of a group of individuals who played football as their profession and their job was to win games. I would love to have seen him deal with today’s media circus. As someone who loves to see the ‘lesser’ clubs do well I was delighted that spring of 1978 and to have Ipswich beat Arsenal to win the FA Cup was further cream bun territory. There you have it – the Charity shield that year was Forest v Ipswich. 5-0 to Forest as it turned out. Imagine that today!
2016 East Midlands Ecstasy! The test run happened in the forest nearly forty years ago.