The Nottingham Forest side that dominated the continent towards the end of the 1980’s achieved something that we will probably never see happen ever again.
Brian Clough took the team from the second tier to European Cup glory within such a short space of time, and I was lucky enough to speak with two of the key players from that victorious squad.
Garry Birtles explained to me how Clough first brought him to the City Ground:
I was at Aston Villa when I was 15 years old, then I had to find a job. Clough signed me up from my local team when I nearly went to Mansfield for £110 per week.
Forest went on a remarkable unbeaten run of 42 games, and the striker was full of praise for his manager:
The management gave us so much self-belief. The manager instilled it into us better than anyone else, he respected the opposition better. We never did set pieces in training, and we felt that we could beat anyone. We were winning comfortably, gaining confidence. We had real balance. Martin O’Neill and John Robertson scoring goals. Peter Shilton was the best goalkeeper ever.
However, the two never always saw eye-to-eye:
There was a bit of a fallout when I went to Manchester United, but he brought me back.
Birtles then spoke about the first European Cup final, and how special it was to him:
They were all over six foot and they wanted penalties. It wasn’t great to watch, but it was a privilege. All of our family were over there.
Another pivotal part of the team was Trevor Francis. He explained how he was following Forest before he even wore the famous red shirt for them, with particular regards to their unbeaten run:
I was at Birmingham City at the time. At full time, I would check the results of Plymouth as that’s where I grew up. I then found myself asking how Nottingham Forest did, as I was fascinated by the journey that they were making from the second division.
Francis, like most footballers, shared both good times and bad times with the manager. He talked about how much of a character Clough was:
He was a huge leader. Brian Clough was a great goal-scorer and a very good striker. He demanded performances from us as individuals.
On the other hand, the two had a dispute when Francis was moved away from the centre and out wide:
I got frustrated. I played for nine years as a striker for Birmingham City and England. I was asked to play wide right, and I understood why as there was a good strike partnership.
The mini-feud resulted in Francis being dropped from the starting eleven:
We lost the League Cup final 1-0 to Wolves. I thought I was going to play, but O’Neill did with Birtles. All the attention deflected to me for the defeat.
At one point, the dressing room almost crumbled:
We flew to Berlin on the Monday for the European Cup quarter-final. We thought we were going to lose.
All good teams show great strength when they overcome barriers. And that’s exactly what Clough managed to do with his record man:
Clough came to me on the pitch for the first time since Wembley. He asked me where I wanted to play, and I told him in the centre. He said to me to make sure that I start the game there and finish the game there. I scored two goals in the first half and we were 3-0 up at half-time.
The European Cup final also brought back fond memories to the Englishman:
The day I played the European Cup final there was huge pressure. I had to try and justify my inclusion in team because Martin O’Neill was benched for me. I played and did well, scored the goal and it lifted enormous pressure.
Whilst winning two consecutive continental titles is a major achievement. Francis perhaps has an even greater accolade, becoming the first ever player to be bought for £1,000,000.
There is always pressure. When you smash the record by twice as much, over £500,000, it is quite something.
I had to ask him about the myth of the £999,999 fee, in which it was rumoured that Clough reduced the price by £1 in order to reduce the pressure on Francis’ shoulders:
Brian was incredibly gifted at manipulating the media. A close friend of mine John just happened to be part of the team who sold me. The fee was actually £1,150,000!