Miracle Men: European Progress, More Silverware, and a Million-Pound Signing

Updated: 12/04/2024

With Merseyside and Greece conquered, Nottingham Forest were through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in March 1979. Their league title defence was stuttering although they had played fewer games than their rivals due to their European exploits.

Brian Clough's men lay sixth in the First Division, 11 points behind leaders Liverpool with three games in hand but these were the days of two points for a win. Forest had been beaten just twice in the league but goals were thin on the ground with just 28 coming from 24 games. The defence was doing its job but, after drawing half of their games, retaining the title looked out of reach.

At the end of February, their FA Cup hopes were dashed by a 1-0 defeat at home to Arsenal. However, they were one win away from retaining the League Cup after beating Graham Taylor's upwardly-mobile Watford, then in the Third Division, 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals. Southampton would be their opponents at Wembley later in March.

Following Forest's victory over AEK Athens in the second round, Clough claimed his squad were stretched to “breaking point” by injuries and that he was struggling in the transfer market saying “good players are very hard to come by”.

assistant manager

But one good player did arrive at the City Ground in February 1979 amid something of a fanfare. Trevor Francis had asked to leave Birmingham City who put him on the transfer list with an asking price of one million pounds, double the previous national record transfer fee. And despite Coventry offering higher wages, Francis signed for the champions.

According to Daniel Taylor's ‘I Believe In Miracles', Clough's first act was to make sure Francis and Burns, who had not got on while together at Birmingham, made their peace. Then he gave the 24-year-old forward his debut in a parks match in front of a “maximum 20 people”.

It took him 45 minutes to receive his first tongue-lashing from the boss, for not wearing shin pads. Although they were optional back then, Clough informed him that Forest had spent an awful lot of money on those legs so he should find himself a pair straight away.

Francis' first-team debut at Ipswich on 3 March also resulted in a ticking-off. After 85 minutes of the Portman Road faithful chanting “What a waste of money” and with the score at 1-1, Francis punched the ball into the net and it was disallowed.

If he had not been aware of Clough's insistence on fair play at all times, he certainly was after “one of the biggest telling-offs that I've ever had in my footballing career”.

Francis recalls Clough telling him, “You're a Nottingham Forest footballer now. What you did there was bordering on cheating. We don't cheat here. We play with respect, we play to the rules, we don't give referees a hard time. Don't ever let that happen again. Get in the shower.”

Unfortunately for Forest, the timing of Francis' signing meant he could only take part in the Champions League should they reach the final. Four days after being on the receiving end of Clough's ire, he was making the tea for his colleagues during their quarter-final first leg at home to Grasshopper Club Zurich.

The Swiss side had stunned Real Madrid in the last 16, winning the second leg 2-0 to go through on away goals with the aggregate score 3-3. In fact, it was a pretty unfamiliar looking quarter-final line-up with the tie of the round seeing Rangers up against Cologne.

The Scottish champions had scored excellent victories over Juventus and PSV Eindhoven. But they were to find the Germans just too strong, going out 2-1 on aggregate.

Forest were clearly one of the favourites to lift the trophy with Liverpool manager Bob Paisley placing a bet on them to go all the way after analysing their first-round exit. Despite assistant manager Peter Taylor's warning that Grasshoppers were a decent side, Larry Lloyd wrote them off as “the little green things that jump around your garden”.

That complacency was quickly punished in the first leg at the City Ground as the prolific Claudio Sulser beat Shilton in the 10th minutes for his 10th goal of the campaign.

But Forest soon knuckled down and they were level after half an hour when Tony Woodcock turned smartly and teed up Garry Birtles for the equaliser. Then two minutes after the break, John Robertson sent the goalkeeper the wrong way from the spot after a Grasshoppers handball.

Having conceded an away goal, Forest knew they needed more ahead of the return leg in Zurich. But they were frustrated by the visitors and Peter Shilton denied Sulser a second after he had been put through by gifted playmaker and future Forest signing Raimondo Ponte.

With three minutes to go, Forest had the goal they needed. Lloyd's cross led to a scramble in the box and Archie Gemmill drove low into the net. And in the dying seconds, Lloyd headed home from a corner for a sizeable 4-1 cushion.

But four days before the second leg, there was the small matter of the League Cup Final. Clough's pre-match preparations had become the stuff of legend but even he might have overdone it the night before. In his autobiography ‘Walking On Water', Clough revealed he had the players drinking champagne, waking up the “usual grumpy Gemmill” who had already retired to bed.

He told him, “It's going to be a long night because everybody is staying right here until you drink that glass of champagne.” Gemmill held out until 11.30pm when Kenny Burns – who would not play due to a long-standing knee injury – said, “I'm ready for bed, Gaffer,” before addressing his fellow Scot with, “If you don't drink that bloody champagne, I'm going to choke you with it.”

The players were still a little worse for wear the next day with Birtles sporting grazed knees after falling on the stairs on his way back to his room. And Southampton led 1-0 at half-time thanks to David Peach.

Clough tore a strip off his team in the dressing room saying, “Don't any of you say that was anything to do with last night. How dare you underperform with all your families and all our supporters in the stands?”

The team-talk had the desired effect. Six minutes after the restart, Birtles robbed a sleeping Chris Nicholl inside his own six-yard box to equalise. The young forward then had what looked like two good goals disallowed for offside.

Eleven minutes from time, Colin Barrett, making just his second start since damaging knee ligaments in September, won the ball in midfield and found Tony Woodcock who turned the ball on to Birtles. His pace took him clear of the Saints defence and a cool sidefoot finish made it 2-1.

Four minutes later, Forest all but secured back-to-back League Cups when Woodcock clipped home Gemmill's low pass into the area. Southampton pulled one back to make the last two minutes interesting but Clough's men became the first side to retain the trophy since its inception in 1961.

There wasn't much time to celebrate as the team were soon off to Switzerland for the return leg against Grasshoppers. While Zurich's fans were not nearly as lively as AEK Athens, this was no cakewalk for Forest with the Swiss having already shown their mettle in Europe.

The home support were given reason to hope in the first half-hour as Anderson was harshly penalised in the box and Sulser converted from the spot.

But their hopes were quickly extinguished as Martin O'Neill finished from close range after good work from Birtles to restore Forest's three-goal advantage. And that was pretty much that as the English champions went through 5-2 on aggregate.

Forest had proved without doubt that they were no one-season wonders. The League Cup had been retained, and now they were in the semi-finals of the Champions League. But things were about to get a good deal tougher.

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