Brian Clough was everything Nottingham Forest fans despised. The Middlesbrough native had unfastened arch-rivals Derby County from the depths of the second tier to the top-tier title and the grand heights of the European Cup semi-finals. And during that six-year stay at the Baseball Ground, which ended in 1972, Old Big ‘Ead’s verbal missiles had irked the Forest fans with military regularity.
But when Clough was linked with the Nottingham club’s vacant hot-seat in January 1975, it was not met with widespread disapproval. Forest were desperate – a 2-0 defeat at home to Notts County had descended Forest into 13th place and danger of slipping into the English third tier – and they had grudgingly witnessed the miracle Clough had worked less than 15 miles down the road.
Two days after his appointment, Clough masterminded a 1-0 win away to top-flight Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup third-round replay, before Forest won at Fulham in his first league match at the reins. It was prelude of what was to come. Forest finished eighth in the Second Division in Clough’s first full season at the Country Ground, before earning promotion the following campaign.
Back in the First Division for the first time since 1972, and having gone up in the last promotion place behind Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea, it was taken for granted that Forest would find it tough to survive.
Yet maximum points from their first three games – including a 3-1 win at Everton on the opening day – swiftly established that the Nottingham outfit were going to be a genuine threat to reigning champions Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City in the title race. And, indeed, a 3-0 loss at Arsenal in Round 4 proved a momentary blip. For, thereafter, Peter Shilton, Larry Lloyd, Kenny Burns, Viv Anderson, Martin O’Neill, Archie Gemmill, John Robertson, Tony Woodcock, Peter Withe and Co went 21 matches unbeaten to move on to the cusp of becoming the 23rd English champions.
All they required was a point at Coventry City, 35 years ago to this Monday, to clinch the trophy with four rounds to spare. And though Forest didn’t play well at Highfield Road, an infallible display by Shilton, which included one exceptional save from a Mick Ferguson header, ensured them a goalless draw.
Clough had emulated Tom Watson and Herbert Chapman and become only the third manager to win the English crown with different clubs (Kenny Dalglish has since become the fourth). Forest had become the fifth side to lift the trophy the season after getting promoted. No team has ever done so, however, having finished as low as third in the second flight in the campaign previous to becoming English champions.
“It was an extraordinary achievement down to an extraordinary manager,” reflected O’Neill decades later. “Can you imagine a team coming up and winning the Premier League in their first season nowadays? It possibly won’t ever be repeated. And that Liverpool (who finished second) team was a very strong one.
“But Clough truly had it all. He was the greatest motivator there has ever been and you would believe anything was possible. Liverpool at Anfield or the bottom team, it didn’t matter, every player went out there and gave it their all throughout. He was a unique genius.”
It proved the start of a halcyon period for Forest. The 26-game unbeaten sequence with which they finished 1977/78 would form part of a 42-match run without defeat in the league – a record that stood until Arsenal’s so-called ‘Invincibles’ broke it in 2004. The club whose only major achievements prior to Clough’s arrival was two FA Cup triumphs would go on to win back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980.