Glory days act as burden: The Invincibles haunt Forest thirty years on

In 1978 Brian Clough's 'bunch of misfits' took First Division by storm. Now the third-tier team pray for play-off success
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The Independent Football

Next week, as Nottingham Forest edge towards the League One play-offs with fingers crossed, a landmark will be reached in the club's history.

Thirty years ago, on 22 April 1978, Forest won the Championship with a squad of 16 players lifted by the inspirational management of Brian Clough. They did it with four games to spare, ending seven points clear of Liverpool and in the middle of an astonishing sequence, which stretched into November the following season, of 42 League games without defeat.

It was their first season in the top flight, having squeaked promotion from the Second Division in third place. As Clough said: "We didn't take the First Division by surprise, we took it by storm." They are planning another statue to Old Big 'Ead in Nottingham as Forest, the first winners of the European Cup ever to fall into their country's third division, cling to memories of titles and cups won while the present team labour under the burden of those memories.

Building on the goalkeeping rock that was Peter Shilton (26 clean sheets in 42 games) and the central-defensive pairing of Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns, the team forged an air of invincibility. Burns was one of those Clough inspirations. "I went to Forest as a striker, having scored 20 goals the previous season for Birmingham," he says. "When I came in for the first get-together Cloughie was there, but we never saw him for the next 10 days. Then he announced the team for a pre-season tour of Germany and I was at the back."

"From day one we just clicked," says Lloyd. So magnificently did Burns perform in his new role that he won the FWA's Player of the Year, the only Forest man ever honoured by the nation's football writers.

"I had a theory," says Burns, who now works in the Forest hospitality office. "If a striker was trying to score a goal he was doing my children out of their food. So I defended to the hilt, because Cloughie always said there were 11 battles on the pitch.

"We always kept it very simple, playing the same way week in, week out. We defended from the front and attacked from the back. We played about 75 games that year, testimonials, one-off matches, you name it, and in every one of them we performed to the top level because we found it easy to do so. We had a habit, a good habit, of winning games."

In a testimonial at Sheffield United, Clough left the team in the hands of his assistant, Jimmy Gordon. "We came in at half-time, with the score 0-0, and there was the gaffer in the dressing room," Burns says. "He gave us a right bollocking and sent us straight back out on the pitch and we ended up winning 5-0."

Ian Bowyer, who played 564 games for Forest and is now scouting for Portsmouth, recalls: "We were a bunch of lads who had had bits of careers at other places and were fortunate enough to come under the wing of someone who got everybody organised, backed us to the hilt but didn't accept 99 per cent from anybody. Shilton, Burns for two seasons and John Robertson were top-class players, and the rest of us were of mixed abilities who worked our socks off."

Goals were the responsibility of Tony Woodcock and Peter Withe (19 each), and were laid on by Robertson with his ability to land crosses on a beer mat. "The manager was brilliant but those were very good players," says Robertson, now assistant at Aston Villa to Martin O'Neill, another of that 1978 team. "When I moved from Forest to Derby I realised I was only as good as the people who got me the ball, Archie Gemmill and Bowyer."

Lloyd, who lives in Spain and has just published his autobiography, pays tribute to Clough but claims: "Though he got together a set of players to do a job, we didn't get the recognition we deserved. When we stepped over the white line he couldn't help us. We were called a bunch of misfits by [Ipswich and England full-back] Mick Mills, but every one of us was an international."

When Colin Calderwood took over in the summer of 2006, he was Forest's 13th manager or caretaker in as many years since Clough, and they reached last season's play-offs only to collapse 5-2 against Yeovil at home after winning 2-0 away. Can they do it this time? Lloyd says: "I think they will get up this time but they will need a few new faces next year." Frank Clark, who followed Clough as Forest's manager and is vice-chairman of the League Managers' Association, warns that even if promotion is achieved, Forest "[must] be careful to avoid the yo-yo situation Derby have run into".

"It is crucial they get themselves away from where they are, and they have a chance this season," says Robertson. "But they will never get back to those halcyon days." Spot-on, Robbo. Just like one of your crosses.