The Tricky Trees: Forgotten Forest In Europe

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The story of The Tricky Trees and how Nottingham Forest lifted the European Cup is astonishing - zicoball

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The Tricky Trees: Forgotten Forest lifting The European Cup

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 (The Tricky Trees) 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 story of The Tricky Trees and how Nottingham Forest lifted the European Cup is astonishing. Almost unbelievable, actually...

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.’

The Whipping Boys

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 Dizzy Heights

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 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.

‘That Team’

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.

The story of The Tricky Trees and how Nottingham Forest lifted the European Cup is astonishing. Almost unbelievable, actually...

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.

European Novices

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…

After winning the First Division and League Cup in 1978, Forest were brimming with confidence. Yet, no one expected what was to come. It is well documented that Forest had an easy run-in to the final after beating Liverpool. European powerhouses Juventus were knocked out in the first round by Rangers. Furthermore, Club Brugge, who were beaten in the final the previous season, also lost in the first round to Wisla Krakow.

Tricky Trees in Europe

The next opponents in the round of sixteen were AEK Athens. Forest won a close first-round tie 2-1 and then thumped the Greek side 5-1 at The City Ground, pulling off a 7-2 aggregate scoreline. The cup favourites, Real Madrid, were surprisingly defeated in the round of sixteen by Grasshopper. Alongside Koln of Germany, Forest were now being tipped as favourites to lift the trophy, but Clough made sure his men took each tie at a time.

Next up in the quarter-finals was the Swiss outfit, Grasshoppers. They were relatively unknown in the European cup but of course, promised a tricky tie having beaten Real Madrid in the round before. Claudio Sulser gave the Swiss outfit an early lead which initially stunned Forest. Albeit, Clough’s men had The City Ground faithful rallying them on and managed to find themselves at 2-1 coming into the closing stages of the game. The young forward Birtles was again amongst the scorers. Grasshoppers applied the pressure and smashed the upright twice. Not to mention, the catlike Shilton flung himself across the goal line on various occasions.

Forest were the masters of keeping a tight defence and soaking up pressure. That pressure released when the Scot, Gemmill, broke free and scored in the 87th minute. Two minutes later, a header from Lloyd gave them a commanding 4-1 victory to take back to Switzerland. Typical resilience from Clough and Taylor’s men saw them comfortably draw the second leg 1-1, which set up a semi-final clash against the Germans, FC Köln.

Keep it tight

Nottingham Forest were unfortunately missing their talisman Burns for the first leg of the tie. Furthermore, his defensive partner Viv Anderson was also forced to sit out. It showed early on as Köln took a 2-0 lead in Nottingham. The semi-final stage appeared to be getting to Forest who only had a League Cup final to compare the dizzy heights of European competition to. The 70’s equivalent of Jose Mourinho worked his magic at half-time, whipping his underdogs into shape.

With half-an-hour remaining on the clock, Forest found themselves 3-2 up with goals from Bowyer, Birtles and Robertson. The crowd were in disbelief how the game had turned on its head. Nevertheless, those cheers were soon silenced as a Japanese International embarrassed England’s number one. Yasuhiko Okudera’s shot slipped under the body of Shilton in the final moments of the match. His head sunk, face down in the mud. Forest knew they had a mountain to climb in Germany.

Both Burns and Anderson returned in the second leg which produced the usual rugged Forest performance. Köln’s forward, Dieter Muller, had impressed in the tournament, but was kept quiet by the two centre-backs. In the 65th minute, Clough and Taylor embraced each other on the bench as Ian Bowyer headed home the winner to stun fans of a Köln persuasion in the crowd. Forest couldn’t believe their luck; they were heading into the Champions League final having only been promoted to Division One the season prior. Clough’s Tricky Trees were in dreamland.

Malmo in Munich

Going into the final against Malmo, the stadium in Munich was nowhere near full. Both teams were shock finalists and conjured up a far from pleasing European final. Each side had similar styles of stopping flamboyant outfits from playing football. It wasn’t one for the football purists. However, the famous story of the final is that of Trevor Francis.

Francis signed for Clough in February 1979 as the first British £1million player, off the back of Forest’s title-winning season. Yet, due to European rules, Francis was not eligible to play for Forest in Europe for three months after the transfer. The date was May 30th, 1979. The stage was set. Guess what happened next?

Francis started the match due to a falling out between Gemmill and Clough. The former Birmingham City man had to start in an unfamiliar role on the right-wing. Though, this would be the perfect position for Francis to make history. Jon Robertson, who Clough had threatened to axe for being overweight in the Second Division, weaved his way down the left-wing past two Malmo defenders, before hitting a back-post cross to Francis.

Trevor Francis at the back post

Francis looked as if he was going to take a tumble, but managed to stay on his feet, and headed the ball into the roof of the net. The Forest fans in raptures fell about the stands.

Trevor Francis Headed Goal at the back post

Francis’s goal was enough to beat Malmo, who never looked like scoring. The final whistle blew, and Nottingham Forest had achieved the unthinkable. The city with a population of less than 300,000 had overcome European elite to win the Champions League in their debut season.

Their maverick manager had achieved beyond expectation, but this triumph would not be the last in Clough’s glittering career. Forest went on to beat Barcelona 2-1 on aggregate in the European Super Cup, and retained the League Cup title. Staggeringly, Brain Clough’s soldiers managed to set a record of 42 games undefeated the same year, a record which stood for over two decades.

Unfortunately for Nottingham, their European success came at a cost, and they were unable to retain their First Division title. Forest finished second, conceding the title to arch-rivals Liverpool. Albeit, Forest qualified for the European cup as winners. This is where the story gets even more remarkable…

Forest celebrating with the cup.
Bob Thomas/GETTY

Back-to-Back Brian

Going into the 1979-80 season, Clough’s men were on top of the world. The East-Midlands club had managed to win five trophies in two seasons. Unfortunately, the fan favourite, Archie Gemmill left the club due to his disappointment with Clough leaving him out of the ’79 European Final. Additionally, Tony Woodcock departed for a substantial £1.13million, to German outfit Köln. But ever the optimist, Clough signed attacking midfielder, Stan Bowles from QPR and left-back, Frank Gray from Leeds.

Forest began the season in good domestic form, on top of the Division One table after winning their first three matches. Similarly, they prevailed in the European Cup by beating Swedish side, Oster, 3-1 on aggregate. Liverpool, however, did not start in the same manner. A slow start in the league and subsequently dumped out of the European Cup by Dinamo Tbilisi. The demise of their nemesis seemed to spur The Tricky Trees on.

Forest got into the Semi-finals of the European Cup by beating both Romanian side, Arges Pitesti, and Germany’s BFC Dynamo. However, the success in Europe and the number of games over the two seasons appeared to slow down Forest in the league where they were thrashed by East Midlands rivals Derby County 4-1.

Forest were an excellent cup side, and Clough appeared to be the chief of mind-games in the big competitions. Their game against the Dutch master’s, Ajax, was one of his most pleasing results. The team who were the architects of ‘total football’ now in debt to Forest. Ajax were simply unable to display their suave and Nottingham ended up winning 2-1 on aggregate.

Europe Over League Form

Poor results continued in the league for Forest, where they saw themselves slump to fifth. Forest stayed glued to that position, and would finish there come the end of the season. Aside from Forest’s exploits in the league, a promising League Cup campaign saw The Tricky Trees face Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final. Forest dominated the game. Francis, Robertson and Birtles all squandered some great opportunities. Wolves managed to match Forest and played them at their own tight defensive game. Wanderers managed to win the game 1-0. Clough fell short in adding more silverware to the trophy cabinet, but Forest had their eyes on a much bigger prize further afield.

Hamburg were the obstacle to overcome in the final of the European cup to retain their title. Hamburg boasted an impressive record in both Germany and on the continent. Their poster boy, Kevin Keegan, had just won the Ballon d’Or, and although Forest were the holders, most expected Hamburg to prevail.

The story of The Tricky Trees and how Nottingham Forest lifted the European Cup is astonishing. Almost unbelievable, actually...

Tricky Trees Not Too Pretty

In their usual manner, Nottingham Forest were far from pretty. They just edged the game at the Bernabeu, where Keegan didn’t display his usual threat. Instead, in the 20th minute, John Robertson drilled a neat strike from outside of the box. The destination? The bottom corner of the Hamburg net.

Animated on the side-lines, Clough and Taylor gave their team strict instruction to see the game out. Forest did precisely that. The final whistle blew, and the men in red dropped to their knees. Nottingham Forest won back-to-back European trophies against all the odds. Their triumph of winning more European trophies than top-flight league trophies has found a home in football’s history books – a go-to for a football pub quiz.

The 1979-80 season was a monumental success and goes down as a remarkable achievement. Forest punched well above their weight since Clough took over the club in 1975. However, the club’s momentum wained, and Clough’s love of football veered into the grips of alcohol. All good things come to an end, and without Clough, Forest would never be the same.

Life Beyond Brian Clough

In the 1980-81 season, Nottingham Forest crashed out of the European cup. CSKA Sofia defeated Brian Clough and his men in the first round, losing 2-0 on aggregate. Adding insult to injury, Liverpool lifted Forest’s trophy that year. 

Forest’s league form was just as abysmal as they finished in their lowest position since Brian Clough took over the job, seventh. The new boys on the block, Aston Villa, won the Division One title. 

The disappointing loss to Sofia knocked the wind out of Forest’s sails. The now not so Tricky Trees lost both the European Super Cup final to Valencia, and the 1980 Intercontinental Cup to Uruguayan outfit, Club Nacional de Football. 

Clough and Taylor decided to break the successful side up and rebuild the squad. A decision which both men regretted. In 1982, Taylor retired as he felt he had given his all to Forest. Clough was the face of Forest, a wordsmith in front of the media. He was the man you either loved or despised. Yet, Taylor grounded the great gentle and was the brains behind Forest’s resolute, no-nonsense style of play. Clough could hold the dressing room together, but Taylor was a prized piece of furniture at the City Ground. Without him, Forest did not feel whole. 

The story of The Tricky Trees and how Nottingham Forest lifted the European Cup is astonishing. Almost unbelievable, actually...

Clough tried to keep the side going, however, as he aged and his addiction to drink got the better of him, Brian could only muster two back-to-back League Cups at Nottingham Forest. The two pieces of silverware came between 1988-90, while subsequently reaching the 1991 FA cup final. 

Retirement Beckons

Ol’ Big Ead retired in 1993, when Forest were relegated from the new Premier League. Brian Clough is hailed as one of the greatest English managers of all-time and many England fans were disappointed Clough did not get the opportunity to manage his national side. Many ex-professionals believe that Clough had the personality and stature to win a World Cup with England. Unfortunately, he died of stomach cancer in 2004. However, his legend lives on, especially through his son, Nigel, who currently manages Burton Albion.

Frank Clark, who played for Forest in their 1979 European Cup-winning season, took over the side in 1993 where they were promoted straight back to the Premier League. Clark then guided Forest to a third-place finish in the 1993-94 season.

Forest had a few stints in the UEFA Cup, reaching the quarterfinals in 1995-96. Furthermore, the 2004-05 season saw Forest slump to the third-tier of English football, becoming the first-ever European Cup winners to fall to such low league standings. The Tricky Trees are now a stable Championship club, with sights fixed on gaining promotion to the Premier League this season. 

Tricky Trees From The Ashes?

Can ‘that team’ rise again? With the current gulf in spending powers between teams in the Championship and top of the Premier League, it is highly unlikely that the Nottingham Forest will replicate the story of the late ’70s. That’s why the narrative rightly deserves celebration in the history books.

Finally, Forest has produced and nurtured an abundance of recognisable football stars. Roy Keane, Stuart Pearce, Stan Collymore, and Michael Dawson all played at the highest level. Yet, the stars of the ’70s and early ’80s are less renowned. It is evident how forgotten the Forest stars are, none more so than Martin O’Neill, who starred in the side overseen by Brian Clough.

Martin O’Neill is recognised in the millennial generation as a successful manager. He had fruitful stints with Celtic and Leicester. In his time at both clubs, he won two English League Cups with Leicester, and an abundance of Scottish league titles with Celtic. O’Neill has also managed Aston Villa, Republic of Ireland and most notably Nottingham Forest in January 2019. 

Nevertheless, O’Neill’s reign was far less successful than his playing career at the Tricky Trees, as he only managed five months in charge. The tough-talking and no-nonsense mantra that O’Neill and right-hand man, Roy Keane, instilled at the club, was not appreciated by the playing staff.

Forest’s accomplishments are astonishing. The Forest we see today, scrapping for Premier League survival, isn’t quite what a certain generation recalls. Yet, regardless, this once-powerful club taking scalps on the European stage certainly deserve a place in footballing folklore. Don’t forget Forest.

The Tricky Trees: Forgotten Forest lifting The European Cup

Words by @LouisJohnMoore

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