Reliving The Classics: When Nottingham Forest Won The League In 1977-78 – SoccerSouls

Reliving The Classics: When Nottingham Forest Won The League In 1977-78

The season is 1977-78 and Nottingham Forest have just been promoted from the Second Division, now The Championship. They had finished 3rd behind Wolves and Chelsea.  Forest had only ever won the FA Cup in their history, in 1898 and 1959.  Promotion was a tight struggle too, as they only finished 1pt ahead of Bolton and Blackpool and they had to wait for Bolton to finish their season to see if they would be promoted.  They weren’t and they set about conquering the First Division.

They were managed by Brian Clough, who took over the club in January 1975.  At the time, Forest were 13th in the Second Division.  They finished that season in 16th, and then 8th the following season. Clough had managed Derby and took them from the Second Division in 1967, to win the League in 1972.  Having been sacked by the Derby, he had a brief spell at Brighton and an even shorter one at Leeds.  Then he turned up at Forest with his trusty side-kick, Peter Taylor.

The two had begun to build a good, yet unproven, side as they recruited John McGovern and John O’Hare who’d both been at Derby and Leeds with Clough and Taylor.  Players like John Robertson, Martin O’Neill, Ian Bowyer, Viv Anderson, Frank Clark and Tony Woodcock were already at the club and would play an important part of the club’s eventual success. Clough then made 4 crucial signings who would turn Forest from the 3rd promoted side, to League Champions.

Larry Lloyd was signed from Coventry, Kenny Burns from Birmingham, Archie Gemmill from Derby and, probably the most important, Peter Shilton from Stoke. He also offloaded some of the older ‘deadwood’, as Barry Butlin went to Peterborough, Sean Haslegrave to Preston and Sammy Chapman to Notts County.

The Squad

 Keepers

Peter Shilton (age 28) (43 appearances) Started out at Leicester in 1966, before moving to Stoke in 1974.  Signed for Forest in this season, and stayed till 1982 when he moved to Southampton.
John Middleton (age 22) (6 appearances) Began his career at Forest in 1974, before moving, during this season, to Derby.
Chris Woods (age 18) (7 appearances, all in League Cup) Signed as an apprentice in 1976.  He spent 3 years at Forest before moving to QPR, Norwich and then Glasgow Rangers

Defence

Viv Anderson (age 22)  (50 appearances, 4 goals) Joined Forest in 1974 and stayed until 1984 when he moved to Arsenal.
Frank Clark (age 34) (19 appearances, 1 goal) Joined Newcastle from Crook Town in 1962m signed for Forest in 1975, retired from playing in ’79.  Returned to manage the club in 1993.
Colin Barrett (age 25) (41 appearances, 1 goal) Began his career at Man City in 1970 and moved to Forest in 1976, before moving to Swindon in 1980.
Larry Lloyd (age 29) (34 appearances, 1 goal) Started his career at Bristol Rovers in ’67, moving to Liverpool in ’69.  In ’74 he moved to Coventry where Clough signed him from at the start of this season.
Kenny Burns (age 23) (55 appearances, 4 goals) Began his career at Birmingham in 1971 where he was a striker.  Converted to centre-back when Clough signed him in ’77.
Dave Needham (age 28) (22 appearances, 4 goals) Started his career at Notts County in 1966, before moving to QPR in 1977.  He only spent 6 months there before Clough signed him.

Midfield

Martin O’Neill (age 24) (52 appearances, 13 goals ) Signed for Forest in 1971 from Lisburn Distillery.  Stayed there till ’81 when he moved to Norwich.
John McGovern (age 29) (42 appearances, 4 goals) Started out at Hartlepool in ’65, before Clough signed him for Derby in ’68, Leeds in ’74 and then Forest in 1975.
Ian Bowyer  (age 26) (37 appearances, 10 goals) Started out at Man City in ’68, then moved to Orient before joining Forest in ’73.
John Robertson (age 24) (56 appearances, 18 goals) Joined Forest in 1970 and played there until 1983 when he was controversially signed for Derby in ’83, by Peter Taylor.
Archie Gemmill (age 30) (36 appearances, 3 goals) Began his career at St. Mirren in 1964, and then moved to Preston in ’67.  Joined Clough at Derby in 1970 and then signed for Forest at the start of this season.

Strikers

Peter Withe (age 26) (54 appearances, 19 goals) Played for 7 clubs in 5 years by the time he turned up at Forest in 1976.  He stayed for 2 years and was then off to Newcastle, before joining Villa in 1980.
Tony Woodcock (age 22) (50 appearances, 19 goals) Joined as an apprentice in 1973.  Played for 6 years before moving to Cologne in 1979.
John O’Hare (age 31) (14 appearances, 1 goal) Began his career at Sunderland in 1964, before joining Clough at Derby in ’67, Leeds in ’74 and then Forest in ’75.

The opening day of the season and Forest are at Goodison Park to play Everton, a team who had finished in the top half of the table for the past 4 seasons.  Fortunately for Forest, Everton were without their star striker, Bob Latchford, who ended the season with 30 goals.

Forest’s play that day went on to become the blueprint for their success.  A tough battling display to wear their opponents down, and then the football began.  Midway through the first half, Peter Withe got Forest’s season off and running, with John Robertson making it 2-0.  Robertson increasingly made life difficult for Everton’s right-back that day, Dave Jones (the former Wolves, Southampton and Cardiff manager).  Everton pulled one back before the break, but Forest weren’t to be denied and with 10 minutes until full time, Martin O’Neill sealed a 3-1 win.

Saturday 20th August 1977 was not only notable for Forest’s win in their return to the First Division.  It also heralded the start of one a legendary career as a certain Kenny Dalglish scored on his debut for Liverpool in a 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough.  Another notable result that day was at Portman Road where Ipswich beat Arsenal, 1-0.  Those of you who know your football history will understand the significance of that result later in the season. Forest’s next two matches were against Bristol City and Derby County, both of whom had battled relegation the season before.  The Bristol City game represented Forest’s first home game of the season as Peter Withe scored the only goal in a 1-0 win.  Forest were again at home the following Saturday when local rivals, Derby, were the visitors.

This particular East Midlands derby was eagerly anticipated.  Forest had begun with 2 wins from 2 games, they were managed by the man who had brought Derby County their first league title just 5 years ago.  The Derby side that lifted the trophy again in 1975 were arguably still Clough’s team.  Whilst Forest had been languishing in the Second Division since, their nearest rivals had been playing in places like Rome and Madrid. A volatile game saw Peter Withe give Forest the lead in the first half.  He doubled the lead in the second period and now had 4 goals in the opening 3 matches of the season.  John Robertson then rounded off a fine win as he made it 3-0.

League tables are generally a waste of time after just 3 matches, but not for Forest fans this season.  They were top.

Next up was Arsenal.  Before that they beat West Ham5-0 in the League Cup, and then travelled to Highbury.  Forest were brought down to earth with a bang as Arsenal won 3-0 with 2 goals from Frank Stapleton and a penalty from Liam Brady. This result seemed to galvanise Forest as they went on a 9-game unbeaten run. The following weekend and Forest were again away from home as they travelled to Molineux.  Goals from Bowyer, Woodcock and another from Withe gave Forest a hard-fought, 3-2 win.

Clough then pulled off the masterstroke that arguably took them from plucky newcomers, to potential European champions.  Stoke City had been relegated as Forest were winning promotion last season and they had the England goalkeeper playing for them, Peter Shilton.  It is remarkable to think that a player who probably became the best keeper in the world was bought for just £250,000.

Shilton made his debut at home to Aston Villa, but had little to do as Robertson and Woodcock gave Forest a 2-0 win.  They then travelled to Filbert Street to meet Leicester City and came away with a 3-0 win, thanks to goals from O’Neill, Woodcock and Robertson. At the end of September, Forest was one of 3 clubs on 12pts, along with the top 2 from the previous season, Manchester City and Liverpool.

October began with a 1-1 draw at Norwich, as Kenny Burns scored his first goal for the club.  4 days later they welcomed Ipswich Town to the City Ground.  Beaten just once and conceding 5 goals in their 8 matches so far, Ipswich were certainly a team to test Forest.  Or so everyone thought.  4 goals from Peter Withe saw off the Tractor Boys in a 4-0 win. Forest had now hit the top of the league.  They wouldn’t be knocked off for the rest of the season.

0-0 draw at West Ham was preparation for the visit of Manchester City.  It was 1st v 2nd, in front of the biggest crowd of the season so far at the City Ground.  Brian Kidd gave City the lead, but Tony Woodcock and Peter Withe won it for Forest and now people were starting to sit up take notice. When Forest won 2-0 atQPR, they opened up a 2pt lead as the Merseyside derby had ended 0-0.  They then turned their attention back to the League Cup and beat Notts County, 4-0.  Ian Bowyer scored another 2 goals in that game, to add to the 2 he scored in the previous round against West Ham.  The goals were flowing as they ended November beating Middlesbro, 4-0, with Viv Anderson bagging a brace with his first goals of the season.  With Liverpool losing 1-3 to Man City, Forest were 4pts clear, and were now top scorers in the league.

During November, their form dipped.  4 matches and only 1 win.  They lost 0-1 at Chelsea, and Leeds and were held at home, 0-0 by West Brom.  This loss of form seemed to coincide with Liverpool’s, as the champions picked up just 3pts during December and slipped to 5th.  Everton now emerged as challengers. Their League Cup run continued, unabated, as they put Aston Villa to the sword with a 4-2 win.  3 games in and cup and 13 goals scored, and Tony Woodcock had scored in each round.

December was a busy month with 6 matches, including the visit of Liverpool and a trip to Old Trafford.  First up, though was a trip to St. Andrews where Martin O’Neill and Tony Woodcock gave them a 2-0 win.  This was followed by a 2-1 win at home to Coventry, with O’Neill again getting on the scoresheet. Forest’s trip toMan Utd was a stunner.  Having come from behind to beat Utd the month before, they had little trouble this time as Robertson and 2 from Woodcock added to a Brian Greenhoff own goal, gave Forest a 4-0 win.  Coming into the Christmas period, Forest were still top by 2pts from Everton.

That game saw the debut of Dave Needham, who Clough had just bought from QPR.  He had moved there from Notts County and seemed happy to swap a relegation battle for a title challenge back in Nottingham.  He managed to keep Larry Lloyd out of the team until April. Forest were away in 2 of the 3 games over Christmas, but first they welcomed Liverpool to the City Ground on Boxing Day.  Liverpool were chasing a 3rd successive title, but were 6pts behind Forest.  If Clough wanted a real test of his teams credentials, who better than the reigning European Champions to prove it against?

Over 47,000 fans watched as Archie Gemmill gave the home side an early lead.  On 30 minutes, Steve Heighway levelled.  Neither side could break the other down and the game ended, 1-1.  These two met 4 times that season, Forest never lost.  Two days later, Forest were up at Newcastle winning, 2-0 as Dave Needham scored his first goal for his new club.  On New Year’s Eve, he scored again as Forest won atBristol City, 3-1.

Christmas was often a time for goals and this season was no exception.  Here are just 3 games you wished you’d watched on Match of The Day.

Birmingham  4-5  Chelsea
Coventry  5-4  Norwich
Everton  2-6  Manchester United

That Everton result was a real surprise.  They were 2nd in the table, and United were down in 13th. Forest had begun 1977 in 5th place in the 2nd Division, 5pts behind leaders Chelsea.  At the end of 1977, Forest were 5pts clear at the top of the 1st Division.

Two days into January and the top 2 met at the City Ground.  Forest v Everton.  It was a tale of two penalties, both hotly disputed but both converted.  The game ended 1-1 and Forest maintained their 5pt lead. Forest’s defensive strength was beginning to prove a real advantage.  Everton had scored only the 4th goal in 8 games since they lost to Leeds.  The next 3 matches underlined their tightness at the back.  0-0 at Derby, and 2-0 home wins against both Arsenal and Wolves.

The Arsenal game included one of the goals of the season from Archie Gemmill.  It probably summed up Forest’s approach, which was to soak up pressure and then hit them on the break. In between the Derby and Arsenal games, Forest beat Bury, 3-0 in the League Cup 5th Round.  They were now in the Semi-Finals of a competition they’d scored 16 and conceded just 2.  Their opponents would be Leeds United, the last team to beat Forest.  The first leg was at Elland Road and 2 goals from Peter Withe contributed to a 3-1 win.  Withe had begun with a bang, scoring 11 goals in the first 12 games of the season up to 15th October.  It was 8th February when he grabbed the 2 goals in the League Cup Semi-Final 1st leg, and between October and February he’d netted just 3 times.

Withe scored again in the 2nd Leg, as Forest cruised into the League Cup Final, winning 4-2 on the night, 7-3 on aggregate.  Their opponents at Wembley would be Liverpool, who’d beaten Arsenal 2-1 on aggregate in the other Semi-Final. In the FA Cup, Forest had beaten Swindon, 4-1 at home, and then Man City, 2-1 at home.  Before their next league match, they went to QPR in the FA Cup and were held 1-1.

Their final 2 matches of February were draws.  3-3 in the league at Norwich and 1-1 in the FA Cup replay at home to QPR.  In those days replays continued until a winner was found.  On 2nd March a winner was found as Forest finally cast QPR aside as 2 goals from Tony Woodcock gave them a 3-1 win. The fixtures were coming thick and fast, and back in the league at the beginning of March, Forest saw off West Ham, 2-0, but the strain was starting to show.  They won, but were without Anderson, Barrett, Clark, Lloyd and McGovern.  This game was 1 of 3 in a row at home and they won them all, without conceding a goal.  1-0 againstLeicester and 2-0 against Newcastle, with John Robertson scoring a penalty in each match.

Between the Leicester and Newcastle matches, they had the small matter of a Wembley final.  Forest had only ever played at Wembley once in their history, the FA Cup Final against Luton in 1959.  For those who do pub quizzes, make a note of the first scorer for Forest that day.  Roy Dwight.  Why do I mention this?  Well, Roy Dwight had a rather famous nephew, Elton John.

Anyway, the League Cup Final was a typical Forest v Liverpool game of the era.  Forest soaked up the pressure and then tried to hit Liverpool on the break.  The game ended goalless but gave many of us our first real glimpse of Chris Woods.  The 18-year old keeper had played in all but one of Forest’s League Cup matches as Shilton was cup tied, but this game would give him an opportunity on the national stage.  He didn’t disappoint as he pulled off a string of fine saves to thwart Liverpool. The replay was 4 days later, and contained one controversial goal.  Phil Thompson brought down John O’Hare, and a penalty was awarded.  The controversy was that replays showed the challenge to be outside the box.  Robertson stepped up and scored his 6th spot-kick of the season.

Forest had won the League Cup, 1-0.  Their first silverware for 19 years and people were no longer questioning their ability. Back in the League they were held at Middlesbro, 2-2 which were the first goals they’d conceded for 5 matches in all competitions.

March 1978 had been an historic month for Nottingham Forest and they ended it just 2pts clear at the top of the table.  But, because of all their cup fixtures, they had 3 games in hand over Everton and Arsenal (who were 6pts behind).

They’d won the League Cup, but had been knocked out of the FA Cup in the 6th Round at The Hawthorns, as they lost 0-2 to West Brom and so ended their treble chances.

April

As the season approached its finale, Forest were having to use all their resources and strength to keep going.  They came from behind to beat Chelsea, 3-1 and then struggled against Aston Villa, before Tony Woodcock scored a late goal to give them a 1-0 win.  This result proved even more important with the news that 2nd placed, Everton were beaten at home in the Merseyside derby.  Forest were now 4pts clear with 3 games in hand. They followed this with two draws, 0-0 at Man City and 1-1 at home to Leeds.  Midway through April, Forest were still 4pts clear with 3 games in hand, but more significantly, Everton only had 3 games to go and with just 2pts for a win, Forest were now a win and a draw away from their first ever League title.

Three days after being held at home by Leeds, they were again at home against QPR.  Two years previously, QPR had been minutes away from winning their first ever league title, but were now only out of the relegation zone on goal difference.  This wasn’t helped by yet another John Robertson penalty giving Forest a 1-0win. That win meant Everton could only match Forest’s 58pts, if they won their final 3 matches.  Liverpool needed to win every one of their final 5 games to match Forest’s total too.  The one big advantage Forest had was a goal difference 16 better than Everton and 22 better than Liverpool.

Saturday 22nd April 1978

Coventry v Nottingham Forest

Forest didn’t have to travel far to pick up the point necessary to confirm themselves as Champions.  Liverpool were at home to Norwich and Everton made the trip to Middlesbro. The Coventry game was a bit of an anti-climax, but Clough’s finest signing, Peter Shilton, undoubtedly kept Forest in the game, and one save in particular will be remembered by the fans for many years to come.

The game ended 0-0 and that point was enough to take the title.  Fans celebrated as news of the other results came in.  Liverpool beat Norwich, 3-0 and Everton were held to a 0-0 draw. Since losing to Chelsea on bonfire night, Forest had now gone 24 league matches unbeaten.  This would extend to 28 by the end of the season as they drew 3 and won 1 of their final 4 matches, conceding in just one of those games, 2-2with West Brom. 

Their final match was at Anfield.  Liverpool’s run had seen them unbeaten in 12 matches, but Forest just weren’t to be denied and the game ended 0-0.  Forest ended 7pts clear at the top of the table.  Liverpool, had confirmed 2nd place, which meant a top 2 finish for the 4th season running, but there was to be no 3rd consecutive title.  Not yet, anyway.

Kenny Burns was Football Writers Player of the Year, Peter Shilton the PFA Player of the Year, Tony Woodcock the Young Player of the Year and Brian Clough was named Manager of the Year. An astonishing season which ended with 2 trophies.  They’d only ever won 4 trophies in their 113 year history, 2 FA Cups and 2 Second Division titles.  They would go on to finish 2nd the following year, yet win the European Cup at their first attempt, and retain their League Cup.  In 1980 they retained the European Cup.  Their unbeaten run in the league finally came to an end after 42 matches.  That record would remain until Arsenal overhauled it in 2004.

For a season which was expected to be a consolidation it had been an unprecedented success.  Clough had taken an unfashionable Midlands club, from the Second Division to become League Champions.  The second time he’d done that in 6 years.  A remarkable achievement.

Published in permission with Pete Spencer