Miracle Men: Big-time Birtles Helps Stun Holders Liverpool

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In the latest instalment of his look back at Nottingham Forest’s two Champions League triumphs, Rory Jiwani details the club’s first match in the competition against two-time defending champions Liverpool.

Eighteen years before Alan Hansen’s infamous “You can’t win anything with kids” came perhaps the worst prediction in the history of television football punditry.

In October 1977, BBC pundit and former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson said, “Forest are a bubble that will soon burst.” A year later, that bubble was still very much intact. Brian Clough’s side had won the league championship, the League Cup and knocked the defending champions out of the Champions League.

Those defending champions were Liverpool who had been left largely licking their wounds on the domestic front. Forest beat them in the final of the League Cup, after a replay, with young Chris Woods keeping clean sheets in both encounters. And the Merseysiders had finished seven points behind Forest in the First Division.

From the end of November 1977, Forest embarked on an incredible 42-game unbeaten league run. They drew twice with Liverpool in their title winning campaign, but Bob Paisley’s side started the 1978-79 campaign with a bang.

Liverpool won their first five games in the league scoring 19 goals and conceding just two in the process. They began September with a 7-0 thumping of Tottenham followed by a 3-0 triumph at Birmingham City. Then came the start of their bid for a third consecutive Champions League.

The Champions League, or European Cup in old money, was a very different beast to that of today. To qualify you had to win your domestic league or win the previous season’s competition and it was a straight two-leg knockout format. So that’s how Forest and Liverpool made it, and they were drawn together in round one with the first leg taking place on 13 September 1978 at the City Ground.

Forest were in the midst of that unbeaten run but they had made a slow start to their league title defence. Last season’s top scorer, Peter Withe, played in the 5-0 Charity Shield victory over Ipswich and the opening 1-1 draw with Tottenham. But a contract disagreement saw him sold to relegated Newcastle.

Clough gave Steve Elliott a chance up front but after three consecutive goalless draws in the league, and a 4-2 League Cup replay win over Oldham following an initial scoreless affair, Garry Birtles started in attack against Arsenal with 16-year-old Gary Mills making his debut.

Birtles was a carpet fitter playing non-league for Long Eaton when Forest signed him in 1976 for £2,000. He made his debut in the Second Division against Hull in March 1977 but it did not go to plan. Clough told him, “Son, if I ever play you in midfield again, give me a shotgun and I’ll shoot myself.” He had to wait a full 18 months for his next outing.

Forest trailed Arsenal 1-0 at half-time, but John Robertson’s penalty and Ian Bowyer’s strike secured a first league win of the season and a much-needed confidence boost ahead of the first all-English Champions League tie. And Birtles had done enough to keep his place in the side.

Liverpool were clear favourites and Birtles later recalled, “We were massive underdogs. The night before I couldn’t sleep. The lager really did help and that’s no word of a lie.

“I remember I had two or three pints, got a few hours’ sleep and then got on the pitch.”

Birtles’ pace and movement stretched Liverpool from the start with Phil Thompson having a torrid time against the 22-year-old newcomer. And after 27 minutes, Forest took the lead with a well-worked goal.

Kenny Burns was allowed to advance to halfway and his pass was touched on by Ian Bowyer for Tony Woodcock, and he squared the ball away from Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence into the path of Birtles who sidefooted into an empty net. It came at the end where he had grown up watching Forest with his father.

“Tony Woodcock did all the hard work, I just did the tap-in at the Trent End, but to score in front of the Trent End was absolutely fantastic.”

Then came Liverpool’s fatal error. Instead of keeping things tight and going back to Anfield with a one-goal deficit, they went on the attack. Kenny Dalglish admitted, “Because we were playing familiar league opponents we foolishly went chasing the game.”

Liverpool committed numbers forward, at times recklessly, in the second half but found Peter Shilton in typically commanding form. And two minutes from time, Forest doubled their lead in superb style.

The visitors lost the ball in midfield and Birtles sprinted away down the left, leaving Thompson for dead. He then floated a cross into the area to Woodcock who nodded down for left-back Colin Barrett, on a rare foray forward, to crash home an unstoppable volley.

As detailed in Daniel Taylor’s book on Forest’s European exploits ‘I Believe In Miracles’, Liverpool fans were chanting “One goal’s not enough” in the second half to the tune of Boney M’s ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ which was number one in the charts at the time. Barrett’s strike provoked a chorus of “Two goals is enough, tra la la la la” from the home faithful.

Anfield on European nights was an intimidating place but Clough had his own unique way of preparing his players for the second leg. When the team arrived in Liverpool on matchday, he told his players to indulge in a glass or two of Chablis at lunchtime to help them sleep in the afternoon.

Then on the way to the ground, the team bus stopped to pick up Bill Shankly, the man most synonymous with Liverpool’s rise to the upper echelons of European football. Birtles told Taylor in 2015, “We didn’t ask why. The two of them were chatting away as if it was the normal thing in the world. Imagine, perhaps, today’s Chelsea team playing a Champions League tie at Manchester United and (then Chelsea manager) Jose Mourinho ordering their bus to take a diversion to collect Sir Alex Ferguson on the way.

“Then try to picture Mourinho walking down the bus handing out cans of beer, as Clough did with his players before Anfield’s floodlights came into view.”

They arrived at the ground just half an hour before kick-off, another deliberate ploy so the players did not have too much time to think about the occasion. And then Clough took the squad, still suited and booted, for a pre-match walk in front of the Kop.

Birtles said, “He sent us out there to make it clear we respected them, but it was effectively us saying you can sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” until you are hoarse, but it won’t make any difference.”

They weren’t exactly well-received with a tennis ball among several missiles hurled onto the pitch. But as Birtles recalls, “Quick as a flash, John Robertson flicked it up, volleyed it – and stuck it in the top corner of the net. All of a sudden, the mood changed and the Kop started to applaud. How to take the pressure off, in one easy less. But that was Robbo, wasn’t it?”

While Clough had shot back at a reporter who had asked him before the match whether Forest would merely try to contain their opponents, that was what transpired. Woodcock and Birtles dropped deep with even John “I couldn’t tackle my granny” Robertson getting stuck in.

Sadly, Barrett had damaged knee ligaments on the previous Saturday – an injury which would all but end his career – and Frank Clark had come into the side. The veteran defender needed nine stitches at half-time after a robust Jimmy Case challenge and described the contest as “like the Alamo”.

But Shilton was not to be beaten – try as Dalglish might – and despite the referee failing to see a blatant Thompson handball inside the Liverpool area, Forest held out for a famous 2-0 aggregate victory. Forest centre half Larry Lloyd, who was discarded by Paisley after being a regular for Liverpool under Shankly, celebrated exuberantly.

There was no fluke about it as Forest had not been beaten by Liverpool in six meetings since winning promotion in 1977. But they had been written off by most of the press before the tie and Clough told John Motson afterwards, “You and your profession just might recognise that we are a good side.”

With Liverpool out of the way, Forest were drawn against AEK Athens in round two with the first leg taking place in the Greek capital.

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