Richard Harrison delights in the evening when a Forest side provided the perfect revenge against a biased tea-time preview show.
words: Richard Harrison
Football didn’t feature prominently on children’s TV in the 70s, but once in a while a game came along that was considered important enough to draw to the attention of the nation’s youngsters. Wednesday 13th September 1978 was one such occasion. I had not long turned fifteen and was no longer the target audience of the pre-news programming at teatime, but I found myself watching as Newsround or an ATV equivalent turned its attention to the night’s big match.
League Champions Forest’s reward for finishing seven points clear of Liverpool was to be drawn against them in the first round of the European Cup. To the neutral, this was a rare all-British tie in the continent’s premier club trophy. To anyone living within the sound of Little John, dreams of trips to the continent’s great footballing cities were overshadowed by the considerable risk that our European adventure might end without a stamp in our passports.
We were the team often thought of, somewhat disparagingly, as a “ragtag and bobtail” outfit and we were playing the Kings of Europe, with the decisive second leg to be played at Anfield. In European terms, this was David versus Goliath – though the fact that the giant had only scored once in failing to win any of the clubs’ four meetings in the last year suggested it might be a close contest.
So I was expecting an even-handed assessment of the two clubs’ chances, talk of how exciting it was for the domestic game that its two best clubs would fight it out on the European stage or how disappointing that only one of them could progress in the tournament. However, I looked on in amazement, disbelief and increasing anger as the report focused almost entirely on Liverpool, with scarcely a mention of who they were actually playing. The coverage was much the same as it would have been if they had been playing a crack Eastern European team (teams from behind the Iron Curtain were always described as “crack”) or a bunch of Scandinavian part-timers escaping their dayjobs as teachers and firemen. Any reference to the original Reds was perfunctory, the unspoken subtext being that our role was merely to turn up and be swatted casually aside as the Merseysiders strolled to the next round and maintained the natural order of things.
This assumption may well have been prompted by the teams’ starts to the League season. Liverpool, stung by seeing their title ripped from their grasp by the upstarts from the Midlands, had won their first five matches, scoring 19 goals in the process. We, meanwhile, had drawn our first four matches, three of them 0-0, before warming up for our European adventure with a 2-1 win against Arsenal. Our problems in front of goal had begun towards the end of the Championship season, the title-clinching point at Highfield Road being the first of three goalless draws in our last five games.
This unlikely run of six 0-0s in nine League matches had prompted the departure of Peter Withe (deemed by messrs Clough and Taylor to be past it) and the rapid discarding of his replacement, Steve Eliot. That win against Arsenal had seen Clough ring the changes and introduce two of the club’s promising youngsters. Eliot’s replacement, Garry Birtles, had a single second division appearance to his name, while 16-year-old debutant Gary Mills became Forest’s youngest ever player in League football.
The following Wednesday it was Birtles who wrote his name into Forest folklore. He had already forced a flying save from Ray Clemence with a twenty-five yard piledriver from a narrow angle when he gave the Reds the lead after 26 minutes. Ian Bowyer helped on Kenny Burns’s through ball to Tony Woodcock, who could have scored himself but unselfishly squared the ball to Birtles, leaving Clemence stranded and his new strike partner with an easy tap-in into the Trent End goal.
Chants of “You’ll never score at Anfield” suggested the travelling Merseysiders were not unduly concerned. For another hour the action continued fast and furious, with chances at both ends and no shortage of firm tackles and late lunges in between, the perpetrators often notable for their curly perms and moustaches. As the minutes ticked by cocky chants of “One goal’s not enough, tra-la-la-la-la!” (to the tune of Boney M’s Brown Girl In The Ring) rang out from the away fans below me in front of the East Stand. But with three minutes remaining, Birtles crossed from the left, Woodcock nodded the ball back across goal and left-back Colin Barrett, of all people, smashed a volley past England’s second-best keeper and into the roof of the Bridgford End net.
The final moments of the game were one long celebration of one of the great goals of Forest’s history, with what seemed like the entire ground letting the visitors know that “Two goals are enough, tra-la-la-la-la!” We would learn later that a similar exchange took place on the pitch, with Phil Thompson taunting Birtles that a single goal would not be sufficient in the second leg, only for Birtles to seek him out after Barrett’s strike and ask, “Will two be enough, then?” The final whistle went and the Liverpool players trooped off angrily, many of them too mardy to shake hands with their conquerors.
Two goals would indeed be enough, as the Reds held out for another goalless draw a fortnight later and the rest, of course, is history.
That September night I left the ground and joined the masses chatting excitedly about the match while waiting to emerge from Trentside onto Trent Bridge. Like everyone else, my head was full of how we had just humbled the European champions, but I also found myself thinking back to that one-sided teatime preview of the game and my satisfaction at the result was all the greater because we had exacted revenge on its biased author.
Richard Harrison writes the wonderful pieces in Forest Review on the story of the exciting Forest team of 1966-67. He wrote 'Never Mind The Reds: The Ultimate Nottingham Forest Quiz Book', which you can buy here. His blog is rather wonderfully entitled, 'A Ball and a Yard of Grass'.
Issue Two - loosely based around the theme of 'revenge' - will be available to buy from the website on Friday 2nd December.