In January 1975, three months after his ill-fated stint with Leeds United, Brian Clough took charge of Division Two side Nottingham Forest. On March 22, 1978, he claimed the first of several major trophies with the club when defying the odds to beat Liverpool in a League Cup final replay.
Little over three years after arriving at the City Ground, Brian Clough had repeated his greatest trick. A previous stint in the East Midlands had seen Clough, along with valued assistant Peter Taylor, take Derby County from the lower reaches of the second tier to the English league title for the first time in their history.
Clough, always fond of a sound bite and life in the spotlight, proved too outspoken and autonomous for the Derby board, and he and Taylor eventually resigned, mistakenly believing the strength of feeling among supporters would lead to their reinstatement. In his autobiography, Clough would describe it as "the worst move of our lives". The pair moved on to Division Three side Brighton - even Clough described it as "barmy" at the time - but that brought little success, and Taylor decided to remain on the South Coast as Old Big 'Ead took charge of First Division champions Leeds, a team he had frequently derided for their aggressive approach. He lasted just 44 days amid talk of a mutinous playing staff.
Three months later, in January 1975, Clough took charge at Nottingham Forest, who were sitting mid-table in the Second Division after losing their top-flight status in 1972, and suffering dwindling attendances. He drew favourable comparisons between Forest and their great rivals Derby, saying his new club were "better equipped and geared for success", but he would again be without Taylor, who remained at Brighton. This was a problem, for Taylor was the yin to his yang - or, as Clough himself put it, "I am the shop front, he is the goods at the back". Clough's first half-season saw Forest perform reasonably, finishing in eighth, but he was eager to resume the partnership and, when Taylor resigned as Brighton manager in July 1976 after failing to secure promotion to the Second Division, "football's most famous double act", as the Daily Mirror put it at the time, resumed.
After a tough start in which they failed to win the first four league games of the 1976-77 campaign, success came swiftly: in December, Forest won the Anglo-Scottish Cup, a much ridiculed trophy but one Clough cherished, for it gave the club their first piece of silverware since the 1959 FA Cup ("Those who said it was a nothing trophy were absolutely crackers," Clough later told Provided You Don't Kiss Me author Duncan Hamilton. "We'd won something, and it made all the difference."). In the league, Forest finished third and ended their five-year exile from the top-flight, while Derby made a belated and unsuccessful attempt to reappoint Clough and Taylor.
Back in the First Division, Forest won their first three games, including a 3-0 victory over Derby, and Clough was making the headlines for getting the most out of what was seen as a relatively limited squad. They began their League Cup campaign at the end of August with a 5-0 victory over fellow top-flight side West Ham and, though they lost 3-0 to Arsenal in the league in the game that followed, it did nothing to derail the Reds as they proceeded to go on a nine-match unbeaten run. Clough's hunger for success remained insatiable. After they beat Middlesbrough 4-0 at the end of October, midfielder Archie Gemmill revealed: "He wanted three more goals and he suggested that we had let it go. He was moaning. Can you imagine any other manager chewing up his team after they had won 4-0 and gone four points clear at the top? But that's Clough. I can't tell you precisely how he does it, what rules he follows. All I can tell you is it works."
Whether his methods worked in that case is uncertain, for Forest won only one of their following four league games, but they resumed winning ways soon afterwards and, at the start of February, remained in contention for a domestic treble. They were top of the league, still in the FA Cup and were preparing for a two-legged League Cup semi-final with Leeds, having added Notts County, Aston Villa and Bury to their list of scalps in the competition. Few expected them to beat Leeds, with Peter Shilton, Dave Needham and Gemmill all cup-tied, but they won 3-1 at Elland Road and 4-2 at the City Ground to take Clough to Wembley for the first time in his career. That 7-3 aggregate success with a weakened team was a hugely impressive feat, but an even more difficult test lay in wait: in the final, they would have to defeat Bob Paisley's Liverpool, the defending English and European champions.
Though Forest were the league leaders, Liverpool were considered the favourites by some distance. Forest, in addition to their cup-tied trio, were without Colin Barrett through injury, and had recently exited the FA Cup to West Brom before recording a less than convincing 1-0 win over relegation-threatened Leicester in the league; Liverpool went into the game on the back of a comfortable victory over Benfica in the European Cup quarter-finals. "You have to face the fact that Liverpool have the experience of Wembley and cup finals and we haven't," Clough said before the game. "Wembley-wise, most of us are just virgins. I didn't even think we were good enough to get this far."
Whether Clough's attempts to shift the pressure had any effect is unclear since Liverpool were predictably dominant before the 100,000-strong crowd at Wembley, but - besides a Terry McDermott effort ruled out for offside - Paisley's men failed to find a way past 18-year-old Forest goalkeeper Chris Woods, whose inspired performance saw the game end in a 0-0 draw after extra-time. Ahead of the replay at Old Trafford, Paisley was relying on mind games of his own: "Young Woods could react the other way. He could hardly play better than he did at Wembley."
Yet Clough and Taylor had hatched a plan. Knowing that Forest could easily have lost by three or four goals at Wembley, they sought to diffuse any residual negativity by taking the players off to Scarborough to relax by the seaside and have a few drinks. Meanwhile, even though Clough was dismissive of those who overthought the game and wrote in his autobiography that he was "never one for overdoing the tactical approach to matches", he and Taylor devised a plan to thwart Liverpool: they opted to jettison their natural attacking stance for the replay in favour of a more compact approach, setting up to prevent Liverpool providing service for Kenny Dalglish, with Tony Woodcock asked to plough a lone furrow in attack.
It paid off. Liverpool, though still boasting more of the possession at Old Trafford, found themselves struggling to carve out clear-cut chances against a team that, with John McGovern added to the injury list, was shorn of five first-team regulars. With Woods having made good saves from Phil Neal and Dalglish in the first half, the teams went in level at the break; nine minutes into the second half, it was Forest who finally broke the deadlock. Woodcock slipped the ball through to John O'Hare, who was brought down by Phil Thompson just outside the area. Referee Pat Partridge pointed to the spot, and Liverpool were livid. "It was a professional foul," Thompson said afterwards, speaking in an era when the professional foul did not equate to a red card. "I knew O'Hare was a yard outside the area when I kicked him. It sounds bad, but there it is. That's what the lines are there for, and it was bloody unjust of the referee to give a penalty." Nonetheless, John Robertson stepped up, fired the ball into the net, and Forest had the lead. "It was a penalty," Clough argued afterwards. "The referee gave it and we stuck it in."
The referee sparked further ire four minutes after the goal when McDermott, who had been denied at Wembley, saw another goal chalked off for handball. "It was a diabolical decision," McDermott said. "I leaned down to take the ball on my chest." Liverpool attacked with vigour in the final half hour, with David Lacey writing in The Guardian of "one remarkable five-minute spell [when] Liverpool appeared to be playing a game of squash with the Forest defence serving as a back wall", but fate seemed to be against them and they went down to a 1-0 defeat. "We wouldn't have scored if we'd been playing till next week," Emlyn Hughes told the press. Tommy Smith could not conceal his fury post-match: "Was the referee on their side tonight? It's bloody ridiculous. It's terrible. He should be shot."
For Clough, as many neutrals, the nature of the victory was overshadowed by the size of the achievement. With a second-string side, Nottingham Forest had defeated the most successful team in the land, and Brian Clough was only just getting started.
What happened next? Nottingham Forest did not lose another game as they went on to win their first ever league title in the 1977-78 season, finishing seven points ahead of second-placed Liverpool, and in doing so became the first club to win a league and League Cup double. In the seasons that followed, they would win back-to-back European Cups. For John Robertson, whose goal gave Forest the victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford, the 1978 League Cup success had been the foundation of the club's glory years. "That Liverpool win showed us the way to win in Europe," he said in His Way: The Brian Clough Story. "Till then, we had rampaged at sides, sweeping them aside, but Clough knew we'd get murdered if we tried that in Europe. We had to be more patient, tighter in midfield, less inclined to attack on all fronts. Once we got a goal, we were very hard to dislodge and we started to play cat and mouse."