Readers of a certain age may feel putting the UEFA Champions League (UCL) and Nottingham Forest in the same sentence is rather strange but in the late 1970s and 1980s it would be fair to say that Forest were one of European football’s powerhouses. Led by the brilliant, charismatic, incomparable Brian Clough, the tiny side from the East Midlands won back-to-back European Cups, as the UCL was known back then. If you don’t believe us, check out this brilliant clip of one of Forest’s key players of that time putting some younger pros in their place.
In this article, we will take a look at Forest’s incredible achievements and detail their full history within the competition. We’ll also consider the chances of Forest winning it again (spoiler: they are slimmer than a hipster’s trousers).
When Did Nottingham Forest Last Win the Champions League?
Forest’s most recent, and we use the word loosely, triumph in the European Cup/Champions League, came way back in 1980, on the 28th May. They beat Hamburg in the final at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu.
Champions League Finals
Nottingham Forest’s history in this competition is simultaneously more storied than the vast majority of clubs who are eligible to feature in it, yet also far more limited than many, many sides. We shall explain what we mean in a little more detail shortly but below you can see a summary of the two times they made the final of the Champions League (as we shall now refer to the competition in general, even though it was only rebranded to this from the European Cup in 1992).
Stage of Elimination
In our features on teams such as Real Madrid and Manchester United we have had very extensive data concerning their stage of Champions League elimination. These teams have played in the competition a huge number of times at various points in its history, covering a range of different formats and, consequently a wide number of different rounds and stages.
In contrast, Forest have played in the Champions League just three times, in consecutive seasons. They are one of just two clubs (the other being Porto) to have won it more than once and have a 100% winning record in finals. In addition, we strongly suspect that no side can match, or even come close to their record of winning the Champions League on 67% of the times they have entered it!
|Stage||Number of Times||Percentage|
Note that the information is correct ahead of 2022/23 season (but we suspect it may remain accurate well beyond that!).
Times Nottingham Forest Won the Champions League
As we have seen Nottingham Forest won the UCL back-to-back in 1979 and 1980, making them the only British side apart from Liverpool to manage this feat. Incredibly the Merseyside outfit had accomplished it by claiming glory in the two preceding seasons, whilst they also won in 1981, part of six-year winning streak for English sides that also saw Villa take the title in 1982.
1980 – Forest Retain Title as Lightning Strikes Twice
Twelve months after winning their first UCL final 1-0, John Robertson, a player described by Clough as a “scruffy, unfit, uninterested waste of time” and yet also “the Picasso of our game” and “as fine as the Brazilians or the supremely gifted Italians”, scored the only goal in the 1980 showpiece. Forest beat Hamburg 1-0 in the final, proving that the impossible is not just possible, but possible twice!
The final was a relatively even game, with Hamburg probably the better side overall. Forest were happy to defend for large parts of the game and look to play on the counter. Having taken the lead in the 20th minute they didn’t have many chances though and owed a lot to future England star Peter Shilton, who made a number of excellent saves.
The final may not have seen them at their best but Forest were a fine, attacking side in this era who played their own version of Total Football and during the campaign they shared the goals around. Ian Bowyer, Francis and Robertson all notched three each as the Reds won six out of nine games to take the title, losing twice along the way. They beat Ajax in the semis, holding on in the second leg, which they lost 1-0, to progress 2-1 on aggregate. In the quarters they had to overturn a first-leg deficit, having lost at the City Ground 1-0 to Berlin side Dynamo, but went through thanks to a 3-1 win in Germany. In the first round they beat Swedes Oster 3-1 on aggregate before seeing off Romanian outfit Arges Pitesti 4-1 in the second.
1979 – £1m Man Repays Fee
What Nottingham Forest achieved was truly incredible, not least because they had been playing in the second tier of English football in 1977. Indeed, they only finished third in 1976/77 and to go from there to the summit of European football little more than two years later was a staggering accomplishment. Forest were minnows in truth and what Brian Clough managed to do will never be repeated.
However, whilst that remains true, it would be a little disingenuous to pretend that this was all done on a shoestring budget with magnificent coaching alone. Forest beat Swedish side Malmo in the final of the 1979 European Cup, as it was then, thanks to a goal from Trevor Francis. Francis, signed from Birmingham City in 1979, was the first £1m footballer in British history. It was not a world record fee at the time but for reference Barcelona signed Diego Maradona for around £3m in 1982, smashing the previous record of £1.75m.
They had also signed Peter Shilton for £275,000, a huge fee for a goalkeeper in 1977. Although they were prepared to splash the cash when their manager thought it was needed, many of the players that propelled them to victory were ones that Clough developed and improved. In addition, a core of the group that won the UCL were the same players that had taken Forest out of the Second Division. This is in stark contrast with the club’s approach in 2022 when they signed a record 21 players!
Garry Birtles (signed for £2,000 from non-league football) scored six goals, whilst the aforementioned Robertson, who joined in 1970 as a 17 year old, provided key assists and helped Forest go through the European campaign unbeaten. They won six of nine games, drawing the other three, one of those stalemates being a 0-0 at Anfield in the first round to secure progression against the double-defending champions Liverpool. Forest hammered AEK Athens in the next round, winning 2-1 in Greece and 5-1 at home.
In the quarters they saw off Grasshoppers 5-2 on aggregate before drawing the first leg of their semi against Koln 3-3, leaving themselves a tough task in Germany. They won 1-0 in front of 60,000 fans in Cologne to set up a final with Malmo in Munich. The Swedes were managed by English boss Bob Houghton and Forest edged a poor game 1-0. Amazingly, it was £1m signing Francis that scored the winner, but even more amazingly, this was his first European game for the club, with UEFA regulations meaning he had not been eligible to play up until the final!
Nottingham Forest’s Worst Upsets
When you enter a competition three times and win it twice, the one failure is going to be the obvious starting point for “worst performance”. Having won the UCL two years running, Forest were fancied to make a decent fist of things but they were on the wane, having finished fifth in the league in 1979/80 when winning their second European trophy. They would finish seventh in 1980/81 and were knocked out of the Champions League in the first round.
They lost 1-0 home and away to Bulgarian side CSKA Sofia, and whilst the eastern Europeans coasted through the second round, they were hammered 6-1 on aggregate by Liverpool in the quarters. That the Kop side would beat Real Madrid in the final offers some mitigation but even so, the champions being eliminated in the first round was considered a real surprise.
Will Forest Ever Win the Champions League Again?
In a world where Leicester can win the Premier League, Donald Trump can be President (and possibly twice!), and tourists are travelling to space, anything really can happen. So, Forest fans, never say never, unless it is “very probably never”, with regards to when your side will next win the UCL.
The fact that Forest have not played in the competition since losing in the first round in September 1980 speaks volumes. As does the fact that the club were outside the top flight of English football between 1999 and 2022. The Reds could be bought by some super-rich microstate with an affinity to Robin Hood, who knows. But realistically, the club is highly unlikely to play in the competition again, let alone win it, so these stats are very likely to remain unchanged.