In a shiny Champions League world dominated by a handful of Europe’s superclubs, the days when a provincial English club could dominate the European Cup – as Nottingham Forest did in 1979 and 1980 – almost seems to belong to another sport, not just another time.
Forest’s decline as a force came in parallel with the reshaping of the European competition formats to ensure that smaller clubs such as them didn’t get ideas above their stations again. There were several UEFA Cup campaigns in the first-half of the 1980s and then some promising teams never had the opportunity to test themselves on the wider stage because of the Heysel ban. By the time English clubs returned to the fold, Forest were in decline and heading towards relegation in 1993 as the Clough era came to a sad denouement.
The club did return to Europe in 1995/96 after a decade’s absence for one last hurrah on the stage they had once stood astride so magnificently – and it was a campaign that had a number of echoes back to the glory years.
By this time the understated figure of Frank Clark was in charge of the team. His resourceful management had brought Forest back to the Premier League in 1994 and on to a brilliant third-placed finish in 1995, thanks in chief to the performances of the front pairing of Stan Collymore and Bryan Roy. As Clark readied his team for the UEFA Cup campaign, Collymore had moved on expensively to Liverpool with Kevin Campbell, Jason Lee and Andrea Silenzi attempting to fill the big boots he left behind.
First Round opponents were the Swedes of Malmo, the very club Forest had defeated in that 1979 European Cup Final to win the tournament for the first time. A close game was decided in Forest’s favour only on away goals. French clubs Auxerre and Lyon were both overcome in the next couple of rounds by a single goal, with Forest second best in terms of play in both ties, Clark’s team showing the defensive grit and resilience that were defining traits of Clough’s best teams.
In Europe after Christmas for the first time since 1984, Forest drew more challenging quarter-final opposition in mighty Bayern Munich. It was a daunting prospect with Bayern striker Jurgen Klinsmann having scored twice the number of goals on his own as Forest had in their entire campaign, but this was also a very symbolic draw taking the club back for the first-leg to the stadium which had been the scene of that 1979 win.
Bayern were heavy favourites and when Klinsmann scored the opening goal on 16 minutes, the floodgates looked set to open. Within 60 seconds the unlikely figure of Steve Chettle popped up to score a vital equaliser and Forest’s grimly restricted the Germans to just one further goal through Mehmet Scholl.
The second-leg turned into a nightmare evening for Forest. From the moment that Christian Ziege fired home a free-kick from distance, Forest were having to play catch-up and were forced to take the game to Bayern without the attacking tools to ever lay a glove on them.
Revelling in the space now afforded to their creative players, Bayern ran riot with Struntz, Klinsmann, Papin and Klinsmann again putting them five goals ahead on the night. Steve Stone’s late goal didn’t come close to registering as a consolation. Forest’s European run was at an end but it had brought several poignant reminders to great times past for the East Midlands club.
Bayern went from strength to strength and won the competition at a canter. Forest went from flop to flop and have sadly never darkened the doorstep of European competition since.