By J Hutcherson (Mar 31, 2020) US Soccer Players - During the 1977-78 season, Nottingham Forest shocked England's First Division by winning the title as a newly promoted club. How did the 3rd-place finisher from the Second Division quickly turn into not just the best team in England, but ultimately in Europe? Multiple books and a couple of movies would tell you it was down to their manager. Brian Clough called his autobiography "Walking on Water" for a reason, and this was part of what turned him from a soccer coach into a miracle worker. Still, how good was that Nottingham Forest side that showed anything is possible in English soccer?
The standard account of Clough-Taylor is that Taylor was the tactician who figured out what the squad needed to succeed. Clough was the mouthpiece and motivator, who made the whole thing work. That they needed each other to push their project to the highest level is without question since both of them thought as much. For 1977-78 they spent on goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Building from the back, they put together a squad that didn't give up easy goals. It's worth noting that Shilton joined in September after the season started with a three-game win streak. Clough and Taylor knew what would happen if their defense proved porous. Their immediate fix cost the club £250k. Viv Anderson and Kenny Burns anchored that defense with Burns winning Player of the Year honors. The goals came from forwards Peter Withe and Tony Woodcock and midfielder John Robertson. With scored 12 over 40 league games with Woodcock getting 11 goals in 36. Robertson put in a dozen from 42 games. Anderson, Withe, Woodcock, and Robertson were all members of the promotion winning squad the previous season. Burns was a £150k addition from Birmingham City.
England's topflight was a 22-team league that would probably remind most contemporary fans of the Championship rather than the Premier League. It was still two points for a win. Backpasses were legal and expected. Unlocking bunkered defenses was how to win the league. The tightness in points meant titles could hinge on forgettable games in forgettable places. Liverpool won the league the previous season by a point over Manchester City. In 1975-76 they won it by a point over QPR. From the beginning of the decade, the expectation was a close title race. For the last team to claim a promotion spot, the First Division was a series of obstacles and adjustments.
The first undefeated streak
Nottingham Forest started the season by beating Everton away and then Bristol City and Derby County at home. Their new reality became clear with a 3-0 loss at Arsenal on September 3. Clough and Taylor acted with the move for Shilton. The club didn't lose their next nine games, drawing at home against Norwich City and at West Ha United. That streak ended on November 5 with a 1-0 loss at Chelsea. Forest beat Manchester United at home in their next game, but lost again at Leeds United. Anything involving Leeds was a sore point for their 44-day manager Brian Clough. Chasing that with a scoreless home draw with West Brom gave the appearance of a team in trouble. They might have 11 wins from 17 games, but first-season surprises in England aren't new. It's making the holiday turn that tells the story.
The second undefeated streak
Forest played six games in December, winning five. The draw came on Boxing Day at home to Liverpool. The defending champions were on their way to back-to-back European Cup wins with the hardware to claim best team in England, Europe, and since they didn't play Boca Juniors for the '78 Intercontinental Cup, the world. Liverpool was a known quantity playing against a team that was through surprising opponents. If Forest was for real, this is when they needed to show it. They started the New Year with back-to-back draws home to Everton and at Derby County. Three home wins in a row followed before a draw at Middlesbrough. Drawing at Manchester City on April 11, Forest would draw five more times finishing the season with three consecutive draws. It didn't matter. Undefeated from November 19, they won the league by seven points over Liverpool. They also won the League Cup, needing a replay at Old Trafford to beat Liverpool.
Forest vs Liverpool
If anything, it's the League Cup that tells the story. Forest and Liverpool finished scoreless through extra time on March 18 at Wembley. Instead of penalties, that meant a replay scheduled four days later at Old Trafford. The teams had already played in the league, the 1-1 draw at The City Ground on December 26. They would meet again on the final day of the season at Anfield, this time playing out a scoreless draw with Forest already league champions. Clough and Taylor built a team capable of locking down high powered offenses, and they did that four times against Liverpool in 1977-78. Without Kevin Keegan, Liverpool struggled more than expected early in that season. They lost three games in a row from October 29 through November 12 with back-to-back losses on January 21 and February 4 and again on March 4 and 8. Kenny Dalglish was their new superstar, but Forest kept refusing to lose games. In the League Cup replay, Forest won 1-0 on a second-half penalty. It was pragmatic soccer played at an incredibly high level for months on end.
So how good was Nottingham Forest in 1977-78?
Forest wouldn't lose a league game until the following December, 42 games in a row. They got a reputation for a team that wouldn't do the opponent the courtesy of beating themselves. Clough didn't need to hold many press conferences where he claimed his team was better even though they lost. Opposing managers may have done that, and some with good reason. Forest wasn't necessarily a negative team, but they shut down opponents in a way that didn't always lead to champions in free flow. Nottingham Forest was at the start of a run that would mean back-to-back European Cup titles, but they would never win the league again under Clough and Taylor. Liverpool beat them by eight points for the league title in 1978-79, a return to the expected results for England's super club. Though Forest would spend big to try to keep up, what made the 1977-78 champions special was a confluence of events and personalities. They weren't more fun to watch than Liverpool, but all involved were briefly better at their jobs.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- How good were the '77 Cosmos?
- 5 soccer books while we wait
- Is the Concacaf Champions League important?
- Why would Manchester United change now?
Logo courtesy of Nottingham Forest