It’s impossible to face Nottingham Forest and not think about the legendary Brian Clough, such is the legacy of perhaps the greatest English manager of all time.
City host Steve Cooper’s side this weekend and will no doubt start as favourites with the bookies, but there was a time when Clough’s Forest not only ruled England’s top division, but Europe as well.
The Blues host Forest as European champions for the first time, but back in 1979 and 1980, it would be Clough’s team who would arrive at Maine Road as champions of Europe.
Not once, but twice.
Clough’s achievement with Forest are the stuff of legend, taking charge of a floundering second-tier side in January 1975 and shaping a team in his image over the next few months.
Clough had previously steered Derby County to the First Division title in 1971/72 alongside his friend, trusted confidante, and irreplaceable assistant Peter Taylor.
Outspoken and brash, Clough’s relationship with the Derby chairman Sam Longson deteriorated thereafter and when he and Taylor handed in their resignation on October 15, 1973, in an attempt to force Longson out, the feuding chairman accepted their letters – the bluff had failed, and Clough and Taylor were out of work.
There was a furious reaction from the Derby fans who called for the pair to be reinstated, but the damage was irreparable, and Dave Mackay was given the job as manager soon after.
Clough and Taylor weren’t out of work long, accepting a lucrative offer to manage third tier Brighton, but Clough had a burning desire to manage at the top level again and when Leeds United came in for him during the summer of 1974, Clough accepted the role.
Taylor would remain loyal to Brighton and Clough’s attempts at replacing former City player Don Revie at Elland Road proved to be an abject failure – the first of his career – and his tenure lasted just 44 days before he was sacked.
He would be out of work for 16 weeks, becoming a popular TV pundit with viewers loving his straight-talking, opinionated style – but he craved return management, and in early 1975, Nottingham Forest offered him the chance to do what he did best.
The remainder of the 1975/76 campaign was spent assembling a side made of players he trusted and making those he had inherited better and, crucially, he patched up his relationship with Peter Taylor with the pair reunited for the 1976/77 season.
It seemed neither could work effectively without the other, but together they were unstoppable.
Taylor’s unique eye for talent and Clough’s brilliant coaching and management guided Forest to promotion in their first full season at the City Ground.
Over at Maine Road, Tony Book’s City had missed out on becoming First Division champions by one point that same season, but the Blues were strong favourites to compete for the title again in 1977/78 – Forest, who had scraped promotion by the skin of their teeth, were tipped by many to go straight back down.
But something very special was forming in the East Midlands.
Clough had added Peter Shilton, Dave Needham, Archie Gemmill and Kenny Burns to a squad that already included the likes of a rejuvenated John Robertson, John McGovern, Viv Anderson, Ian Bowyer, Larry Lloyd, Tony Woodcock and Peter Withe.
With 10 games of the new season played, Forest were top of the table, Liverpool second and City third.
Book’s side travelled to Nottingham knowing victory would likely take the Blues top – as well as issuing a statement of intent - and when Brian Kidd hooked home from close range, more than 5,000 travelling City fans went berserk – but Clough’s side would fight back with goals from Woodcock and With – the latter scoring on 86 minutes - to win 2-1.
Bizarrely, the teams would meet again in the FA Cup fourth round a few months later, again in Nottingham, and again Clough’s side would win 2-1 with Kidd on target for the Blues and Withe scoring what would turn out to be the winning goal – a total gate approaching 80,000 had watched both clashes that year.
City were there or thereabouts for much of the campaign, but by the time the teams met in the return fixture at Maine Road, it was Forest who were in the ascendency, having won the League Cup and not lost for 18 league games.
More than 43,000 packed Maine Road, but in a taut battle with few genuine opportunities, the game ended 0-0.
Forest remained unbeaten for the final seven games to end seven points clear of Liverpool, while City finished in fourth – Clough had guided his team to the title in their first season back in the First Division – a rare and remarkable feat.
It was an incredible achievement and the first time Nottingham Forest had been crowned champions of England in their then 113 years of existence.
But the 1978/79 campaign would be even better for Forest.
They would remain unbeaten until early December in the league – a run of 42 matches without defeat in the league – before Liverpool ended their incredible run with a 2-0 win at Anfield.
Their next away game on December 23, 1978, was at Maine Road, and while Book’s team were progressing well in the UEFA Cup having boked a place in the quarterfinals, the Blues’ league form was largely disappointing.
But the symmetrical nature of the previous meetings continued as City and Forest ground out another 0-0 draw in front of a crowd of 37,012.
It was a largely bad tempered affair, too, with Ron Futcher fortunate not to be sent off for flattening a Forest defender with what appeared to be a right-hook in the closing stages.
The fight continued in the tunnel in full view of BBC’s Match of the Day cameras after the final whistle.
Forest would go on to win the League Cup again, but finish runners-up to Liverpool in the First Division while City floundered to a disappointing 15th place finish.
Clough and Taylor had also somehow guided Forest to the European Cup final at the first attempt – an incredible achievement – and the fairy-tale was completed by future City star Trevor Francis who headed home in first half added time to seal a 1-0 win over Malmo.
Nottingham Forest, a Second Division side less than two years before, were now champions of Europe.
It’s fair to say the nation was united in celebrating Forest’s success with many wondering how this unfashionable club had somehow done what Liverpool, Juventus and Real Madrid couldn’t that season.
The next campaign in 1979/80 saw the paths of City and Forest going in vastly different directions.
Clough had added City favourite Asa Hartford to his squad and when Forest arrived at Maine Road in early October, they did so as European champions and league leaders of the First Division.
It was hard to imagine a stiffer test for a City side that were unpredictable at best, capable of both impressive and lacklustre performances in equal measure.
A crowd of 41,683 packed into Maine Road to see City take on Clough’s all-conquering side, but just after half-time, Michael Robinson crossed into the box and Kaziu Deyna thumped the ball past Peter Shilton to give the Blues a 1-0 lead.
Forest came back strongly, but Joe Corrigan was in excellent form and City held out for a single goal victory.
For all Forest’s domestic and European dominance, they left Maine Road for a third successive season having failed to score a goal.
It was arguably the Blues’ season high, as a miserable second half to the campaign saw an FA Cup exit to Fourth Division Halifax Town followed by 15 matches without a win – one of which was a 4-0 drubbing away to Forest with Trevor Francis scoring a hat-trick.
The returning Malcolm Allison’s team restructure had gone badly wrong and only a run of three wins in the final four games staved off relegation.
As for Clough’s men, league aspirations were cast aside as the mercurial manager guided his team to a second consecutive European Cup triumph following a 1-0 win over Hamburg in the final, becoming one of only six teams to successfully defend the crown – the others? Real Madrid, Ajax, Benfica, Liverpool, Inter and AC Milan.
That would effectively mark the end of Forest’s glorious few years, with the team going into a slow decline in the years that followed, but it had been some journey.
As a footnote, Forest arrived as European champions for the second year running at Maine Road in 1980/81 and though Paul Power scored an early goal for the Blues, Francis levelled on 55 minutes to end almost a six-hour wait for Clough’s Forest to score a goal away to City in a 1-1 draw.
The next meeting in Manchester reverted to type with a 0-0 draw so despite Forest’s incredible successes at home and abroad under Clough and Taylor, they never once beat City at Maine Road and scored only one goal in five visits.
The tables, of course, have well and truly turned in recent years, but the memories of that magnificent Brian Clough team still resonate some 40 years on and are perhaps even more poignant as City and Forest - two of only six English sides to be crowned European champions - go head-to-head at the Etihad.
One can only wonder what a Pep Guardiola v Brian Clough tactical battle might have looked like, but chances are it would have been a wonderful spectacle for all concerned….
Pictures courtesy Mirrorpix