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Nottingham Forest

Rise of the Underdog: Clough & Taylor's footballing fairytale at Nottingham Forest

4:00 AM EDT 4/29/20
Nottingham Forest GFX Underdogs
The coaching duo reunited at the City Ground and helped the unfancied Midlands club dethrone Liverpool as the best team in England – and then Europe

Even today, it's difficult to comprehend the scale of Nottingham Forest's achievements under Brian Clough.

However, try to imagine a mid-table Championship club like QPR earning promotion to the Premier League, winning it at the first attempt, and then going on to claim back-to-back Champions League titles.

It's simply unbelievable; beyond the realms of possibility. With Clough at the helm, though, Forest made their fans' wildest dreams come true.

'Ol' Big Head' is remembered as one of the greatest managers in the history of English football. However, what is often forgotten is that his stock was at an all-time low when he arrived at the City Ground in January 1975.

Clough had won the First Division (as the English top flight was known before the advent of the Premier League in 1992) with Derby County in 1972 but had resigned a year later after falling out with the board of directors at the Baseball Ground.

After a brief spell at Brighton, Clough took charge of Leeds United but infamously lasted just 44 days at Elland Road, after clashing with a number of the club's star players.

After his acrimonious exit, Clough was asked by presenter Austin Mitchell: "What’s going to happen to Brian Clough now? Who’s going to touch you with a bargepole?"

Nottingham Forest, was the answer.

Despite being one of the oldest clubs in England, the Midlands outfit had failed to achieve a huge amount of success before Clough’s arrival, generally flitting between the First and Second Divisions, and claiming only one top-flight trophy and two FA Cups in their previous 97 years of existence.

Most pundits gave Clough little chance of succeeding at Forest and they may well have been proved right had he not been joined at the City Ground by his former assistant coach Peter Taylor, who only arrived in Nottingham in 1976.

Taylor had not followed Clough to Leeds and the results had been disastrous. Belatedly reunited at Forest, though, they quickly recaptured the chemistry behind Derby's first ever top-flight championship.

The reunited duo managed to persuade John Robertson and Martin O’Neill – who had requested transfers under Clough’s predecessor Allan Brown – to stay put, while they were rewarded spectacularly for putting their faith in younger players such as Viv Anderson and Tony Woodcock, both of whom went on to represent England, and making Ian Bowyer central to their plans.

Taylor played a pivotal role in Clough's transfer policy, too, persuading his boss to sign players that were under-rated or suffered from disciplinary issues.

Garry Birtles was signed for £2,000 ($2,500) from non-league side Long Eaton United, Birmingham City striker Kenny Burns – who was renowned for courting controversy – was recruited and converted into a central defender, while Frank Clark was picked up on a free transfer.

Even Forest's biggest deal – the £250,000 ($310,000) signing of England goalkeeper Peter Shilton – proved money well spent.

During his first full season in charge in 1975-76, Clough steered Forest to a decent eighth-place finish in the Second Division but, with Taylor on board for the following campaign, they secured promotion to the First Division by coming home third.

Their goal when the 1977-78 season commenced was simply to stay in the top flight but Forest not only won a first League Cup, they also sensationally romped to the title, finishing seven points ahead of an unbelievable Liverpool team.

It was a staggering achievement, given Bob Paisley's Reds had retained their European Cup crown that season – and then subsequently went on to lift eight of the next 12 First Division titles.

Forest's surprise success had been founded upon the fine finishing of the 22-year-old Woodcock, who won PFA Young Player of the Year after bagging 19 goals – one more than the rejuvenated Robertson.

Forest couldn't have started their maiden European Cup campaign in better fashion, upsetting champions Liverpool with a 2-0 aggregate victory over the Merseysiders in the first round. They then coasted past AEK Athens (7-2) and Grasshopper (5-2) to set up a semi-final against Koln.

Early in 1979, Clough and Taylor felt Forest needed more firepower, so they made Birmingham forward Trevor Francis Britain’s first million-pound player ($1.25m).

In the semi-final first leg in England, Forest, who had already retained their League Cup crown, were held to a 3-3 draw by Koln but Bowyer's solitary strike in Germany saw them progress to the final, where they would face Malmo.

In a tight tournament decider in Munich, Francis paid back his exorbitant transfer fee by scoring the game’s only goal from a Robertson cross, as Forest were crowned European champions.

Birtles, who, prior to that season, had only played one senior game in two years, won European young player of the year and Forest’s player of the year, scoring 26 goals in all competitions, while Robertson, Woodcock and O’Neill all contributed 15-plus.

At that point in history, only six clubs had ever won back-to-back European Cups, but Forest had acquired a taste for history and were soon to become the seventh.

Despite slipping to fifth in the league table during the 1979-80 season, Clough’s side made its way past Oster (3-1), Arges Pitesti (4-1) and BFC Dynamo (3-2) in the early stages of the European Cup before edging out Ajax 3-2 on aggregate to once again qualify for the final.

Taking on Hamburg in the final at the Santiago Bernabeu, Robertson again proved himself as a big-game player with the only goal of the match as Forest successfully defended their title.

In doing so, they became the first and only ever club to win the European Cup more times than their domestic first division.

Since that fateful night in Madrid, Forest gradually declined to a team that failed to compete for league titles, although they did win back-to-back League Cups between 1988-90.

Still, despite being mired in the Championship or below for the past 21 years, Forest will always have their rapid rags to riches story, which is unlikely to ever be surpassed.