United's Forest recommission
You’d need to be touching 30 – or, commiserations, the wrong side of it – to have a serious first-hand recollection of the last time Manchester United played at Nottingham Forest.
But Saturday 6 February 1999 is crystallized in the memories of both sets of supporters… for rather different reasons.
That day at The City Ground, the clubs’ respective fortunes were motoring in opposite directions, touching from a distance; the slick, merciless Treble-bound United not so much felled Forest as mashed them to a pulp.
There would be no meet-up in the year 2000: a clinical cameo of four goals in the last nine minutes from substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer boosted United to an 8-1 success. Astonishingly, the game was level at the break. Seven second-half strikes made it United’s record win on the road, extending the unbeaten league run that began with a 3-0 Boxing Day win – over Forest – and ended 29 games later.
For Forest, managed by former Reds supremo Ron Atkinson, it was a nadir: still the worst home defeat in their 157-year history. Forest’s inevitable relegation from the Premier League – leaving the top-flight after a 22-year tenure – was confirmed three weeks before the 1998/99 campaign ended. As Big Ron called time on his managerial career, Sir Alex and United’s Millennium curtain call brought immortality at the Nou Camp.
Thirty-one Forest managers later – no, that’s not a misprint – Steve Cooper will be the first man to lead a Forest side out at The City Ground in the 21st century. Though the fixture will be novel to a new generation of Reds, Forest’s renaissance stirs memories aplenty, so we shine a light on the renewal of a much-respected rivalry. There are myriad connections, from earliest Football League days to the Babes and a eulogy for Duncan Edwards, through a Sixties title tussle, to the era in which Brian Clough ruled the roost before Sir Alex took the perch...
FIRST IMPRESSIONS, ‘KNOCKER’ WEST AND THE PRE-WAR ERA
The first of 83 league meetings – and 106 all told – should by rights have been in the newly formed Second Division of 1892/93. The decision to extend the First Division from 14 to 16 teams meant Forest and Newton Heath – respective winners and runners-up of the Football Alliance – both got a seat at the top table. Alf Farman bagged the Heathens’ goal in a 1-1 draw on 29 October 1892 at Forest’s Town Ground. While Forest finished 10th, Newton Heath relied on ‘Test match’ success over Small Heath to retain their top-flight status – but were relegated the following year. Fast-forward to 1909 at Bank Street, where Forest striker Enoch ‘Knocker’ West’s hat-trick in a 6-2 success was a factor in him joining the club now known as Manchester United. West’s 19 goals in 1910/11 helped power the Reds to a second First Division crown, while his old club were bottom of the pile. West finished leading scorer in four of the five seasons before the First World War. In a pre-echo of later events, it was 20 years before the clubs met again in league action – this time in the second tier in 1930/31. They would be top-flight strangers until 1956/57.
POST-WAR SUCCESS AND A FOND FAREWELL
The positive switch in United’s mercurial fortunes, a return to the top flight in 1937/38, included back-to-back wins over relegation-haunted Forest, who avoided the drop to the third tier only on goal average. Once more it meant a hiatus where league meetings were concerned. The arrival of Matt Busby would prove a seismic shift, although Forest meted out a shock 2-0 FA Cup defeat in 1946/47’s fourth round at Maine Road. As Busby’s Babes pounded out their new beat, retaining the First Division title in 1956/57, Forest also forged ahead, rejoining the Reds for that ill-starred 1957/58 season. Goals by Billy Whelan and Dennis Viollet secured a 2-1 success at the City Ground – the sides’ first top-flight fixture in 46 years. That game in Nottingham – in front of Forest’s new East Stand, with 2,500 benches – played out to a bumper gate of 47,564. The return fixture on 22 February 1958 was, by contrast, a sombre affair. Eight of United’s side from that October meeting either perished at Munich or lay stricken; Duncan Edwards lost his two-week battle for life the day before Forest’s visit to Old Trafford. Again, they came to pay their respects. Alex Dawson cancelled out Stuart Imlach’s goal in front of 66,124 – United’s largest home crowd since 1920
THE SWINGING SIXTIES AND THE SCRAP FOR TITLE DEEDS
As United’s 1960s rebuild continued – Nobby Lawton scoring half of his six United goals in a 6-1 home romp on Boxing Day in 1961 – Forest consolidated, too. Having won the FA Cup with United old boy and proto-Babe Jeff Whitefoot in 1959, the arrival of Old Trafford’s cherished post-War skipper Johnny Carey as manager in the summer of 1963 was a huge boon. Under the steadfast Dubliner – who had captained the Reds to FA Cup glory in 1948 and to the 1951/52 First Division title – Forest established themselves as a combative outfit. The high-water mark was undoubtedly 1966/67, a season in which the sides duked it out for league supremacy. Forest had the upper hand, winning October’s City Ground meeting 4-1 thanks to a hat-trick from Chris Crowe, but United held the Aces. Denis Law’s overhead kick with five minutes left settled mid-February’s Old Trafford showdown as the Reds, unbeaten at home in the league all season – and unbeaten anywhere after Boxing Day – went top in March, eventually taking the title by four points from Carey’s men, who were also bridesmaids in the FA Cup semi-final.
A LIFE WITH BRIAN – THAT 70s SHOW
As football fairytales go, only the hardest heart could ignore the alchemy Brian Clough and Peter Taylor worked at Forest in the late seventies. Both clubs had experienced 1970s hangovers, meeting again in the second tier during United’s season-long exile in 1974/75, Forest having been demoted in 1971/72. Gerry Daly’s first-half goal settled the City Ground affair as the Reds closed in on promotion in March; the sides had shared four goals at Old Trafford in September. But Forest stunned the football world in 1977/78, having been promoted to the top flight by the back door after Bolton’s failure to defeat Wolves (Clough and company learned the news en route to a post-season Spanish sojourn). An unfancied collection of journeymen, write-offs and young tyros, bolstered by the arrival of United target Peter Shilton in goal, they sent shockwaves throughout the game. Not least at Old Trafford eight days before Christmas. Having beaten United 2-1 in the previous month’s game at The City Ground, the first top-flight meeting in M16 since 1971 was a stern test of Forest’s title credentials. A 4-0 spanking of Dave Sexton’s men answered that question. With echoes of the Liverpool sides of the day, and the United vintage that reached the pinnacle in 1999, Forest romped home with four games to spare. For their next trick they ambushed first Paisley’s Reds and the Continent the following season in winning – and then retaining – the European Cup.
HEAVYWEIGHTS COLLIDE: WHEN CLOUGH MET FERGIE
Across the following decade-and-a-half, until Clough’s departure and Forest’s demotion in 1992/93, games between Forest and United were eye-watering clashes. Clough, the East Midlands Ferguson, was master of all he surveyed. Only Arsene Wenger (60 games) led his side out against United more regularly – Clough’s Forest met United 38 times across 18 years. Though no-one can be said to have had the sign over Sir Alex, few came closer. Of their 13 league games, the victory count was split at 5-5, with three draws. United finished second to Forest’s third in Liverpool’s wake in 1987/88; the following campaign, while United finished 11th, Forest were third again. There were a further three Cup games. Garry Parker’s tap-in at Old Trafford knocked United out of the 1989 FA Cup in the sixth round before their grim destiny with Liverpool at Hillsborough. United returned the favour the following season in the fabled 1-0 success, Mark Robins’s goal sparking the run to Ferguson’s first trophy (Forest, meanwhile, won the League Cup). There was Wembley victory over Forest too, in the 1992 League – sorry, Rumbelows – Cup final, won by Brian McClair’s 100th United goal, a game in which Forest’s Roy Keane, just 20, impressed, and future Red Teddy Sheringham also played. These weren’t the only players with shared connections. The 1980s brought us Garry Birtles, Peter Davenport and Neil Webb; the 1970s, Ian Storey-Moore and Tommy Jackson, albeit with varying success. Viv Anderson, then of Arsenal – and such a stalwart of Clough’s vintage ‘70s team – was one of Ferguson’s first purchases. And, bringing us right up to date, the goal that got Forest here via play-off victory over Huddersfield Town in May was engineered in M16 – courtesy of an assist from James Garner, on loan from United before joining Everton last summer. After a 3-0 win on 27 December at Old Trafford, we quickly meet again under a month later. With Forest enjoying a long run in the Carabao Cup, the two teams will be vying to reach Wembley and party like it’s 1999…
This article first appeared in United Review, the official matchday programme.