United vs Forest: The Clough years

Monday 26 December 2022 10:51

From 1978, when Nottingham Forest were crowned league champions for the first time, until 1992/93 when they were relegated from the Premier League and Brian Clough stepped down, Manchester United's games against the East Midlands club were eye-watering clashes.

This extract is from the latest edition of Inside United, for January 2023. Purchase your copy here.

As football fairytales go, only the hardest heart could ignore the alchemy Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor worked at Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s.


Like United, Forest were demoted from the top flight in the first half of the 1970s, at the end of 1971/72 in their case. The two clubs met in the second tier of English football when the Reds were exiled there in 1974/75. 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).

Sir Alex Ferguson at the start of his entertaining rivalry with Clough.

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.


Brian Clough infront of the City Ground in the infamous green jumper

Clough, the East Midlands version of Sir Alex 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’ goal sparking the run to Ferguson’s first trophy (Forest, meanwhile, won the League Cup).

Clough posing with Forest's European Cup in 1980.

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.The Reds have won the last six encounters, racking up  26 goals, with only three in reply. Forest finished under the eight-ball last time round, but whatever the result, after so long away, they will be partying like it’s 1999...

This extract is from the latest edition of Inside United, for January 2023. Purchase your copy here.