When people think of the European Cup or the Champions League, some forget that relative Midland’s minnows Nottingham Forest were once kings of Europe. However, under the managerial of the legendary Brian Clough, the Tricky Trees upset all the odds to win the European Cup twice.
Nottingham Forest qualified for the 1978/79 European Cup for the first time by becoming shock champions of England in 1978. The feat was made the more extraordinary by the fact that they were a newly promoted team. However, under the iconic Clough, the sky was the limit for Forest.
Trevor Francis makes his European debut in the final
In February 1979, Forest boss Brian Clough decided to use some of the club’s prize money from winning the English First Division to make Trevor Francis Britain’s first £1million player when he joined from Birmingham City.
However, UEFA rules meant that the England international could not appear in the European Cup for three months. That meant that Francis made his European debut in the 1979 final. Despite playing out-of-position on the right wing, he had a big impact on the game. More on that later on!
Forest European kings for the first time in 1979
Forest were not just happy with becoming English champions, as, in 1979, the Tricky Trees defeated Malmo 1-0 in the European Cup final in Munich. The team from the Midlands had eliminated two-time winners Liverpool on their way to victory. The triumph meant a third straight European Cup win for English teams.
Malmo were underdogs from kick-off. Their chances of European glory lessened even further when Bo Larsson, Staffan Tapper and Roy Anderson were all ruled out of the final due to injury. Understandably, the Swedish team pragmatically approached the game, hoping to stay strong defensively and create chances on the counter.
The first half saw Forest almost lay siege to the Malmo goal, and it appeared it was just a matter of time before they made the breakthrough. Just as it looked like Forest were set to be frustrated going into the break, they found the breakthrough. Forest’s talisman winger John Robertson took on two Malmo defenders before crossing to the far post, where Francis stooped and headed into the roof of the net.
Malmo offered little in the means of attacking threat. However, Forest should have added to their goal tally, as both Garry Birtles and Robertson himself missed good opportunities. In the end, the misses didn’t matter, and Forest took the European Cup home to the Midlands. Their story was even more extraordinary because they had been plying their trade in the English Second Division just two years earlier.
Retaining their title
Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup once was the stuff of storybooks. However, Clough and his team were back the following season to retain their title, only to add to the story’s legend. Despite a disappointing fifth-place finish in the English First Division, Forest recovered to lift the European Cup for a second time by beating German side Hamburg 1-0 in the 1980 final held at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Some would say they were helped by a comfortable passage into the final, as the men from Midlands saw off the likes of Osters IF, FC Arges-Dacia Pitesti and Dynamo Berlin. Their biggest challenge came in the semi-final when they faced Dutch giants Ajax. Forest recorded a 2-1 aggregate win against an Ajax team that had plundered 30 goals in the competition up until their meeting with Clough’s team.
Hamburg, a team containing England international Kevin Keegan and other stars Manni Kaltz, Horst Hrubesch, and Felix Magath, were installed as favourites for the final after hammering Real Madrid 5-1 in the second leg of the semi-finals.
Hamburg started positively, and Forest goalkeeper Peter Shilton produced a good early save from Felix Magath. Despite their status as underdogs, Forest took the lead after just 19 minutes. Robertson produced an excellent run before finding Birtles, who placed the ball back to the Scot, and the winger fired a low effort past the Hamburg goalkeeper.
Keegan and co. continued to press for an equaliser, with Kaltz hitting Shilton’s post. Shilton produced a sensational save from Nogly and continued to keep the German team out. Birtles broke through on goal at the other end of the pitch, but a last gasp challenge prevented the forward from finishing the chance and wrapping up the game.
The missed opportunity meant little, though, as solid defending and a superb display by Shilton ensured that Forest retained their crown of European champions. The victory meant that English clubs had won the European Cup in four straight years, as the country’s domination of European football’s biggest competition continued.
Nowhere close in the proceeding years
Unfortunately for Forest, they never got anywhere close to repeating their achievements of 79 and 80. The following season the men from the Midlands suffered a shock first-round exit to Bulgarian outfit CSKA Sofia.
Since that campaign, Forest have enjoyed just three more campaigns in Europe, all in the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) Their best performance in the competition came in 1984 when they made it to the semi-finals of the competition, only to suffer a 3-2 aggregate defeat against Belgian team Anderlecht. In 1996, Forest made the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. However, they faced Bavarian behemoths Bayern Munich in the last eight and suffered a 7-2 aggregate loss.
Something that may never be repeated
What Nottingham Forest achieved with those two European Cup triumphs under Brian Clough may never happen again. It seems unlikely that a team will ever go from the second tier of any of the European leagues to winning the Champions League, the gap in quality is just too big in the modern game.
However, those two European Cup triumphs will be remembered by not just Nottingham Forest fans but fans of the European game for decades to come. The wins showed just what can be achieved by hard work and having such a talented manager like Clough.