Some of Brian Clough’s calls were odd, it was the start of our decline: As Nottingham Forest prepare for their Carabao Cup semi-final against Manchester United, club legends recall the day the magic died at Wembley in 1992
- Nottingham Forest host Man United in Carabao Cup semi-finals on Wednesday
- The two sides met at Wembley in 1992 and it subsequently began Forest’s fall
- A year later, Nottingham Forest were relegated and boss Brian Clough retired
When they take on Manchester United on Wednesday night, Nottingham Forest will try to recreate the most magical era in the club’s history — ended abruptly by the same opponents more than three decades ago.
Forest are back in the semi-finals of a competition in which they enjoyed remarkable success under Brian Clough. They reached consecutive League Cup finals between 1978 and 1980 and three out of four between 1989 and 1992, picking up the trophy four times.
Yet when they met United at Wembley in 1992, the players were starting to feel the old spark was missing. A year later, Forest were relegated and Clough retired. Their fortunes have fluctuated in the intervening years without ever emulating Clough’s teams.
Nottingham Forest take on Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semi-finals on Wednesday
Forest met United at Wembley back in 1992, which ultimately became the start of their decline
Those with Forest in their blood can feel the revival under Steve Cooper, just as they sensed those good times coming to an end.
‘It was during the early part of the decline of that team,’ says Brian Laws, who came on as a first-half substitute in the 1992 final shortly after Brian McClair scored the only goal for United. ‘Cloughie was desperate to win it but he wasn’t in great shape and some of his decision-making was starting to look a bit odd.
‘We were getting to the end of our period of consistency in the cups. That’s when you need to start making changes but we didn’t change.
‘The real change was when the new back pass law was introduced. Everyone modified their game — you had to be fitter and stronger because the ball was in play for longer but we never changed our routine.
‘In the last 15 minutes we would get tired pretty quickly. Brian Clough never realised the physical impact of the rule change.’
Nottingham Forest legend Brian Clough retired the following year after the club were relegated
It was Forest’s last major cup final at Wembley, and one of the few missteps Clough made during 18 years as manager that brought 12 trophies, including the European Cup in 1979 and 1980.
Laws was a young defender at Burnley then, but he was part of the starting XI for Forest’s League Cup wins over Luton and Oldham in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Laws played more than 500 games and managed five clubs but the Wembley wins are among his most treasured memories, though he nearly missed the 3-1 win over Luton due to a hand injury.
‘I was in the operating theatre 10 days before the final,’ he recalls. ‘I was petrified I would miss the game. I was pulled into Clough’s office. He said, ‘Are you going to be fit?’ I said, ‘Of course I am’. We went out to training and suddenly he threw a ball at me. I caught it. He said, ‘That’ll do, you’re playing’. That was my fitness test.’
Clough took Forest to six League Cup finals. Only Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola can match his four wins.
1978 WON 1-0 v Liverpool* *replay — first game 0-0
1979 WON 3-2 v Southampton
1980 LOST 1-0 v Wolves
1989 WON 3-1 v Luton
1990 WON 1-0 v Oldham
1992 LOST 1-0 v Man Utd
Forest made 10 trips to Wembley under Clough — six League Cup finals, two Full Members’ Cup finals, a Charity Shield and an FA Cup final. Yet few of their current squad were born the last time they lifted a significant trophy there — the Littlewoods Cup in 1990, when Nigel Jemson scored the only goal against Oldham.
Jemson, 53, is now business development manager and brand ambassador for Pygott and Crone, an independent estate agent.
He is also a matchday host at the City Ground and is keen to be involved with the game more directly. He was at Forest from 1988-91 and his name is part of the club’s history.
‘I’m the last scorer of a winning goal for Forest in a major match at Wembley — the winner in the Championship play-off final last season was an own goal,’ smiles Jemson. ‘I would love the record to be broken this season.
‘But 1990 was my cup final. My first shot was saved and I tapped in the rebound in front of 40,000 Forest fans. Even talking about it now makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Ex-Forest star Brian Laws feels some of Clough’s decision-making was starting to look a bit odd
‘Back then money never came into it. Now I would love to have millions and houses and cars but I wouldn’t swap it for what happened. People will remember me for scoring the winning goal at Wembley more than if I had eight houses or £10million in the bank.’
Jemson’s goal brought to a close a period of relative dominance in the League Cup that began in 1978, when Forest beat Liverpool by a single goal in a final replay.
John McGovern, who played for Clough at Hartlepool and followed him to Derby, Leeds and Forest, captained the side in the first match, which ended in a goalless draw.
Forest had been promoted and carried the confidence through the next season, according to McGovern, who missed the replay through injury. ‘When we won I was jumping about like an idiot but I felt a bit jealous when Kenny Burns received the trophy.
‘Clough made your job simple. When people talked about Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona teams and tiki-taka football, I would tell them we were doing that at Hartlepool in 1966. ‘Instead of running with the ball, why don’t you pass it?’ he told me back then.’
When Steve Cooper took charge in 2021 with Forest bottom of the Championship, he reached out to their greats. McGovern is regularly at the training ground and went to Greece for their mid-season camp at the end of last year.
Nigel Jemson scored in a 1-0 victory over Oldham Athletic in the Littlewoods League Cup Final
Many of the key men from that period live in the Nottingham area and meet most Thursdays. One is Garry Birtles, who scored twice in the 1979 final, a 3-2 victory over Southampton. ‘I should have had four goals — two were wrongly flagged offside,’ Birtles says. ‘With VAR, I’d have been the only player to score four in a major Wembley final. Not that I’m bitter!
‘At first when I went on holiday abroad and said I was from Nottingham, people would say ‘Robin Hood’. But when we started to be successful, it was ‘Nottingham Forest’ and ‘Brian Clough’. It was an incredible time for the city.
‘People said Clough was a tyrant — nothing could be further from the truth. Training was a joy because you never knew what would happen. We once had to run through nettles and then throw ourselves into a five-a-side goal.
‘Steve Cooper has embraced the whole club. Previous managers had taken pictures of past players down from the walls but he wanted to learn about the club. He asks us to training. It’s so refreshing.’
This tie holds particular memories for Birtles, who joined United from Forest for £1.25m in 1980. He never delivered his best at Old Trafford and returned to the City Ground two years later. ‘I would have walked down the M62 to get back to Forest but I enjoyed my time at United,’ he stresses.
‘I will be at the City Ground for the game. United are favourites but if Forest take the game to them in the first leg, who knows?’
This tie holds particular memories for Birtles, who joined United from Forest for £1.25m in 1980
Jemson says: ‘Cooper has brought the good times back and the City Ground is electric. We probably wanted Southampton in the draw but I would rather have drawn United than Newcastle.’
Nearly a year after being bottom of the Championship, Forest are two games from Wembley and improving in the Premier League. In that context, it seems remarkable Cooper was close to the sack last October. Instead, owner Evangelos Marinakis handed him a new contract until 2025.
‘The owner was astute,’ argues McGovern. ‘It was a brilliant idea. I go to the training ground and there is a great atmosphere among the players. Nobody is coasting.’
Laws says: ‘You can see there is real togetherness. United will be tough but anybody who doesn’t support them will be rooting for Forest because everybody loves an underdog.
‘It’s a massive ask but with heart, organisation, commitment and a large slice of luck you never know.’
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