Dada Masilo

Nottingham Forest: The Miracle Men of 1979

18 May 19 interview: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Art of Football
photos: Fabrice Gagos

One scored six goals on the route to the final, one had been at the club since the Second Division days, one was described by Brian Clough as the “Picasso of our game,” and the other was the captain that lifted the trophy on that famous night in Munich. Together, Garry Birtles, Tony Woodcock, John Robertson and John McGovern formed an integral part of that legendary Nottingham Forest side that beat Malmö to win the European Cup for the first time forty years ago…

How difficult do you think it is for younger fans to appreciate the magnitude of your achievement forty years ago?
TW:  It’s a fairytale, isn’t it? You’ve got a squad coming from thirteenth place in the Second Division to win the biggest club competition in the world. It’s a unique story that will never happen again.
GB: It was the timescale of it that people would struggle to understand. I signed in 1976, and by the time 1980 came around I’d won two European Cups, a League Cup, been voted Young European Player of the Year and won three England caps. It was just staggering, and it was just a privilege to be a part of.
JR: Anybody that watches the Champions League can still appreciate how important it is, and it was even more important then, especially for a club the size of Nottingham Forest. I might be wrong, but I think we’re still the smallest city to have won a European Cup.
JM:I think one of the most difficult things for them to appreciate would be that we played in mud, which modern players probably haven’t even heard of! Young fans can watch highlights and think to themselves, ‘Yeah, they were a good side,’ but I guess they’re only seeing the best bits. They never had the chance to see the live version, and there were a lot of tremendous, exciting, physical matches that we played in.

How were you all feeling before kick-off?
JR: I can’t really remember to be honest. I do know that I used to get very nervous before every game, so I’d imagine it would have been worse for that one. But I do remember feeling incredibly chuffed that we were playing in a European Cup Final.
GB: My mood was ‘Crikey, what are we doing here?’ Nobody expected us to reach that final. I was the youngest player along with Viv Anderson, and had come from non-league. Personally, I was absolutely dreading it. I was feeling very nervous. All the other lads had won things, so they had experience being champions. But for a lad from a council estate, it was a little bit different.
TW: I felt like it was just a normal game. Obviously it was a big game, but I tried not to think about it like that. I remember Garry coming down unshaven, and Mr. Clough saying to him, “You’ve got three minutes to get that shaved off, young man, otherwise you’re not playing.”
GB: I never used to shave before games; it was a bit of a lucky charm. But he could see that I was nervous so, before the biggest game of my life, he made me go back upstairs and shave.
TW: I remember he came back down with blood and nicks all over his face; he’s lucky he didn’t cut his throat!
GB: When I look back now, I realised that he was giving me something to occupy my mind. Even if it was for 15-20 minutes, it took the pressure off and gave me something else to think about.

Did you do anything differently to prepare for the match itself?
JM: We didn’t read anything about the opposition. We left that to the manager who, funnily enough, spoke very little about them. He said, “Let them worry about us.” It was a real positive way of thinking.
JR: We felt that by knocking out the current holders, Liverpool, in the First Round, and then a very good side in FC Köln in the semi-final, we’d earnt the right to be there, and to go on and win it.
TW: We knew we were a good team, but you couldn’t help but think of people like Real Madrid, Juventus and Inter Milan, who would all be more used to playing on that stage, which created a bit of tension. But then Clough walked down the coach asking if anyone wanted a beer, and I remember looking out of the window and seeing a fan walk into a lamppost. Things like that helped break the atmosphere!
JM: The first thing you thought as a player was, ‘I hope I'm in the starting eleven’, because you don't want to miss out on a momentous occasion for the club, and obviously the whole of Europe's going to be looking at you performing. Once you know you’re picked in the side, there's just the build-up of excitement before the final actually starts.
TW: When we got to the stadium it was just packed full with Forest fans. The support we got was just unbelievable, and it wasn't just Forest fans. There were English fans everywhere you went in the country, people were going there, wanting to support Nottingham Forest, because of the story behind us getting to the final. So it wasn't just that you had to be a Forest fan to support the team, you were supporting England in the European Cup.

And do you have any overriding memories from the match itself?
TW: On the pitch it felt like business as usual. Malmö came to defend, were very solid, and made things very difficult for us.
GB: It was a strange one, because we were massive favourites to win.
JR: They played against us as if we were favourites too. It was very difficult for us, and we didn’t play particularly well.
GB: Obviously, the overriding memory for me was Trevor Francis’ goal. He did brilliantly to score that.
JR: Yes, I’d say creating that goal! Trevor made up a lot of ground, and it was a great header. I should have scored later on, as well. I was pleased to get in the box, but I hit the post when I should have buried it.
GB:I should have scored too, early on. I’d tried to lift the ball over the keeper, but it just landed on the roof of the net. Being a big self-critic, I knew I should have done better. It was a game that we should have won more comfortably, and it maybe wasn’t the classiest final, but sometimes you have to win dirty. And all the history books show is Forest 1 Malmö 0.
JM: For me, it was the final whistle. It was just a feeling of total elation, like a shot of adrenaline. I clenched my fists and jumped up and down, hugged my teammates and anyone that came near me.
JR: When I heard the final whilstle, it was a feeling of great relief rather than happiness. No matter who you play, even if it’s a Fourth Division side, if you’re only one goal up with ten minutes to go, it’s very nerve-wracking.
TW: We’d just won the biggest trophy in football, other than the World Cup, and we were all mates. It was just you and your mates playing football, like in a Sunday League team, but it was the very highest level. It was just great, because it really felt like we were really in it together.  I remember seeing friends in the crowd, people from back in Eastwood. That’s what it’s all about, being there with your mates, winning and celebrating.

And what about the aftermath?
JR:  Initially, all you’re thinking about is the importance of the game. But afterwards, all I remember thinking is, “God, we’ve won the European Cup.” To me, that trophy meant Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano; I couldn’t believe that I was joining that exclusive, elite group of players. It was pure elation.
JM: The strange thing was that, as captain, I was standing there thinking, “What do we do now?” There’s no dress rehearsal. It was a completely foreign stadium to us, so we had no idea where to go. Fortunately a UEFA official told me what to do.
TW: Even though we’d won, after the game we were a little disappointed that we hadn’t put a show on, because we’d had such a fantastic tournament. But Clough and Taylor came in and told us, “Listen, it’s not about this one game, it’s about the whole tournament, and you’ve been absolutely brilliant – so go and have a good time.” And we did.
GB: As we sat there in the dressing room afterwards, someone came and took all of our medals off us. I was thinking, ‘Is this a wind-up?’ I think it was so they could make replicas for all of the other people that were involved, but we didn’t get them back until pre-season. I’m pretty sure mine is one of the fake ones!

There’s that famous footage of the incredible reception you received on your return to Nottingham. What was that like to experience?
GB
: The reception was absolutely unbelievable. We were a little bit apprehensive because we didn’t know what to expect, I think it was Larry Lloyd that said, "I bet nobody's going to turn up for this"
TW: Even getting closer to Nottingham, we could see that there was no one around.
JR: A few of us even jumped off the coach, and started running alongside the side as a joke, waving to the players that were still on, and they were waving back at us.
TW: But the closer we got to Nottingham, we realised that the whole city was there.
JM: That’s when it really hits you. I couldn’t believe there were even that many people in Nottingham.
GB: It was just a sea of people. It went as far back as you could see. If you stand in the Market Square now, from where the Council House is all the way back to where the buses are, was just jam-packed with people. That’s what it meant to the city of Nottingham.
JM: We’d won the match and bought the trophy to the city. The warmth that we got from that crowd was so heart-warming, and really emotional as well.

Have you kept your winner’s medals, or shirts from the game?
JR: I’ve still got my medal, and my shirt is hanging on the dining room wall.
GB: I ended up selling mine when I moved house and wanted to do up the front room! We weren’t as bothered about things like that in those days, but as you get older you wish you’d kept hold of them. But you can’t take away the memories; they’re still there in black and white.
JM: I ended up selling my shirt too because I wanted to go to Mallorca one year. My 1980 European Cup final shirt actually belongs to Brian Johnson, the lead singer of AC/DC, now. I’m a huge fan of the band, and a friend of his. He used to give me free tickets all the time, so I gave him my shirt.

What do you think the legacy of winning that first European Cup was?
JM: Everywhere I go. It's the first thing people mention. It earns you respect, and it earns the club respect.
TW: People throughout the world know the city of Nottingham because of Nottingham Forest and our fairytale journey. It used to just be Robin Hood, but we helped put Nottingham on the map, worldwide, for every football fan. The fact that we're talking about it today, forty years later means everything.
GB: I'm a local boy, born in Chilwell, and I know what Nottingham was like before all those things happened. The city started thriving, people started asking about it, people in Nottingham were proud of it, and so they should be, because it was just a fabulous achievement.
TW: We weren't a prideful lot, our lads. We're a humble group with our feet on the ground. It’s still a shock after all these years that people are still interested in it.
JR: I can't believe that forty years later people still remember who you are. I'm proud and privileged to have been part of the greatest era of Nottingham Forest's history.
JM: The biggest difference is, when people mention it now, it’s not so much, “Oh, my Dad used to watch you play,” but “John, my Granddad used to watch you play,” which makes you feel about ninety. But it’s still a lovely feeling!