Cast your thoughts back to May 2016. One of the biggest days in Premier League history, possibly only rivalled by Manchester City’s last gasp Aguerooo strike. Yet, the consistency in Leicester’s performances made it seem like they had been challenging the title for years. They won the league that season at an impossible 5000/1 outside bet. Can you believe it was safer to gamble on Piers Morgan becoming Arsenal manager? Bonkers!
What is even more astonishing about the feat, is that Leicester were relatively new to the Premier League, only clinching promotion in 2014. Fast-forward to March 2017 and The Foxes were narrowly beaten 2-1 by a resolute, high-pressing Atletico Madrid side in the quarter-final of the Champions League. What a story!
But what if I was to tell you that there is a football narrative which eclipses Leicester’s achievements? A story in which Claudio Ranieri has since claimed far outweighs the fantastic foxes’ victory.
The story of Nottingham Forest at the end of the 1970s and its illustrious coach Brian Clough has so many extraordinary details; I feel I have already wasted time trying to compare it to Leicester 2016 Premier League campaign.
Engraved in football history
The craziest statistic of all is that Nottingham Forest is the only team in football history who have won more Champions League trophies than national titles. If you are wondering, Forest, have two back-to-back European titles and a single Division One trophy.
Similar to Leicester, the East-Midlands club rose to success by climbing up the English league tier. However, when Clough adopted the club in 1975, they were languishing sixth from bottom in the Second Division. Nevertheless, Forest ferociously surged up the league rankings, and in 1977 they managed promotion to the First Division. Bizarrely, Forest were not even the best team in the Second Division, finishing third. Even the charismatic Clough brandished his club as ‘a team on their last legs.’
Tipped to be the whipping boys of Division One, no one predicted Forests upward trajectory. After gaining promotion, the masters of rallying the troops for war, Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor had eyes on an unthinkable prize. Signing Kenny Burns for £150,000 from Birmingham City before the season began, bolstered the side. Burn’s was an enforcer on the field and a lunatic off the pitch. Clough was fundamentally against the signing, yet Taylor insisted that Burns could keep the reds in the division.
Clough accepted Taylor’s plea, but there was to be a compromise. Burns would change his position from striker to centre-half. A stroke of genius from Clough, as Burns won the Division One player of the season award in their promotion season. Adding to the ranks in goal was arguably Clough’s greatest signing. England’s most capped player of all time, Peter Shilton who arrived from Stoke for £275,000. What a bargain!
Archie Gemmill, who became a fans favourite at The City Ground, was also signed from Derby County. For the diehards out there, you will remember the Scottish midfielder’s iconic goal against the Netherlands in 1978 world cup.
Forest began the ’77 campaign in scintillating form which surprised pundits alike. They registered a 3-1 victory against Everton and then went on to record three straight wins in the league and cup without conceding a goal. Feeling the pressure of the step-up, Clough’s Forest took a 3-0 schooling from Arsenal in September.
The reality of First Division success looked extremely unlikely. Nottingham Forest then kept at a steady pace, and by October they were back at the top of the table. The dizzy heights of being the creme de la crème did not seem to affect Forest. Clough made sure their feet were kept firmly on the ground. Reports suggest that Ol Big’ Ed (Clough’s self-proclaimed nickname) gave his modest men a dressing down in their debut game against Everton, telling them to get their head out of the clouds, despite winning the match.
November hit and Forest, unfortunately, lost two games against Chelsea and Leeds. Their league position was in jeopardy with favourites Liverpool breathing down their neck. Albeit, from there, the men from the East-Midlands had tunnel vision. The Tricky Trees did the unthinkable and went on a 26-game unbeaten run. Amongst the run, Forest secured two draws against holders Liverpool and thrashed Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford.
Forest then won the trophy in April pipping the European elite, Liverpool to the title by seven points. Forest gained promotion to Division One and snatched the title from the dominant Liverpool side. No one guessed it, but Merseyside’s dominance was about to be thwarted for the time being.
As mentioned, Liverpool were the powerhouses of England and Europe in the ’70s. Players such as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and Steve Heighway played in the season that Forest won their first league title. During the ’70s the reds from Merseyside won the First Division four times, The Champions League twice and the FA Cup once.
Liverpool’s exploits made Forest’s accomplishment even more staggering. Clough managed to destabilise Liverpool, who had a plethora of talent. Bob Paisley famously called The Tricky Trees ‘that team,’ as Forest became Liverpool’s bogey side for the next two seasons.
It began in 1977-1978 when Forest won the First Division and beat Liverpool 1-0 in a replay to lift the league cup. Then qualifying for the European Cup for the first time in 1978, Forest drew Liverpool in the first round.
Garry Birtles, the Nottingham Striker, recalls that no one gave Forest a chance, considering Liverpool were going into the ’78 European cup back-to-back winners. Nonetheless, Forest triumphed against the Liverpool legends winning 2-0 at The City Ground.
Goals from Birtles and Barrett was enough to take a convincing lead back to Anfield. After the game, Liverpool god, Kenny Dalglish admitted that Forest made Liverpool look like European novices.
In the second leg, Liverpool were still expected to overcome Forest. With a bustling crowd packed into the Kop end, plenty were optimistic that the Scousers would rectify their mistake. Nevertheless, Clough had different ideas and set up a rigid defence where Kenny Burns dominated the black line. His eye-watering challenges kept the likes of Dalglish and Fairclough quiet. The game finished 0-0 and ‘that team’ proved they had enough to put Liverpool to the sword.
However, Liverpool were not the only major European side to fair second best to the tricky trees. Nottingham Forest did the unimaginable that season. So spectacular that their story is regarded as one of the best in football history.
This is only the beginning of Forest’s football tale. Clough’s men wanted more than to destabilise English football. They had their eyes set on conquering Europe…
Click the link for Part 2 following The Tricky Trees’ journey.
Written by @LouisJohnMoore