Liverpool’s Champions League campaign got off to a fairly ignominious start on Tuesday when they were beaten 2-0 away to Napoli, making them the first holders of the trophy to lose their opening group game since AC Milan in 1994.
With Salzburg and Genk their other adversaries in Group E, the Reds will still back themselves to progress and have another tilt at the main prize. If they were to secure back-to-back crowns they would become the first English side to achieve the feat in 40 years, following in the footsteps of Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.
The achievement of that Forest team cannot be understated. In fact, only two sides have won back-to-back European Cups since Forest, Milan in 1989 and 1990, and Real Madrid in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The Spaniards were the first side to achieve that success in the Champions League era.
Forest were in dire straits when Brian Clough walked through the door in January of 1975. Languishing in 13th in the Second Division, previous managers such as Dave Mackay had attempted to put the charismatic figure off the job. He was told:
You'll never achieve anything there.
Yet Clough did achieve. He won promotion in 1977 to Division One and then in his first season in the top flight, won that as well. With a bunch of rag tags and misfits, Clough managed to pull off possibly the most underrated turnaround in the history of sport.
His signings at the City Ground turned out to be nothing short of sensational but it was by no means a spending spree. Trevor Francis would become the first £1million player in English football and Peter Shilton was the most expensive keeper in the league. But, in comparison, Larry Lloyd’s signing-on fee was a washing machine.
Kenny Burns was transformed from an out-of-control target man into ‘the Scottish Bobby Moore’ according to assistant manager Peter Taylor and would later win the 1978 Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award.
Frank Clark was about to sign for Fourth Division side Doncaster Rovers when he was brought in on a free from Newcastle to play at left-back. Meanwhile, John Robertson, who is now regarded as one of the best Forest players in history, was nearly shipped out to Partick Thistle the summer before Clough arrived.
Then there was Garry Birtles. A £2,000 signing from Long Eaton United, he had finished his amateur career playing against Clumber Kitchens and Bathrooms and within 18 months was netting his first Forest goal to knock Liverpool out of the European Cup. Clough turned him from a carpet fitter into the European Young Player of the Year.
Speaking to The Guardian, Birtles recalled that Liverpool game, which sent Forest on their way to the final in 1978-79:
After I'd scored, Phil Thompson told me a single goal wouldn't be enough to take to Anfield. So when we scored again, cocky young thing that I was, I went up to him and said: 'Will two be enough then?' He was speechless.
It was enough. Forest kept a clean sheet at Anfield and went on to beat AEK Athens, Grasshopper and Koln on their way to the final. On a summer’s night in Munich which was to become the most famous in the club’s history, they met Malmo for the title and Robertson, who had almost been sold by the previous regime, crossed for Francis to head home the winner.
A year later, Robertson had arguably an even bigger impact and lived up to the billing his manager gave him before the final against Hamburg, when he was up against Manny Kaltz, one of the best defenders in the world at the time.
“We’ve got a little fat guy who will turn him inside out,” said Clough.
A very talented, highly-skilled, un-be-lievable outside left. He’ll turn him inside out.
Unsurprisingly Clough was right, again. Robertson scored the only goal of the game, as another Forest shut-out won them their second European Cup on the bounce. Brian Clough had led his merry men from Second Division strugglers to the dominant force in European football in the space of five years, knocking Liverpool off their perch on the way.
Birtles summed it up best: “Every time I watch Liverpool now I look for the flags on the Kop because there’s a two-year gap in the dates. They go from ’77 and ’78 to ’81. And I always think: ‘That’s us, that gap. We did that.’”