At the top of the table was where the real action was, of course. The English league, tough, exciting, and unpredictable as ever, was still as every other league – outsiders, bulk of middle of the road teams, and few really strong and ambitious. West Bromwich Albion was still rising and finished 6th, a place better than the previous year. Arsenal kept strong performance, good enough for 5th place. Arsenal were strange – they tried to build strong team, but somehow failed to really shape a squad. Yet, unlike the rest of London’s clubs, Arsenal was not going down, but up – this season was their best since 1972-73. They had Liam Brady really blossoming and they added a great goalkeeper – Pat Jennings. But they did not look as potential champion – there was something missing, hard to put a finger on what exactly the missing thing was, but ‘it’ was there. A place above them finished Manchester City. They were hailed before the start of the season:
Of course, they were considered ‘challengers’ because of their excellent 1976-77 season, when they finished second, with a single point less than Liverpool. They looked mighty by names, but, to a point, the team was running strong on inertia. It was aging squad, with players already pass their peak. Colin Bell, Mike Doyle, Gary Owen, Tommy Booth, and Joe Corrigan were the last remains of the great team from the late 1960s. All were nearing retirement and surely were no longer national team material. Brian Kidd somewhat never fulfilled the great promise he was around 1970 – he moved from club to club after that, but did not improve really and certainly did not become the superstar he was expected to be. Dennis Tueart, Asa Hartford, Joe Royle, and Willie Donachie were slowly getting older without really becoming great – it looked like their best years were already behind them. Dave Watson, although a regular national team player by now and one of the best central defenders in the country, seemingly reached the top of its potential – reliable, hearty, strong, uncompromising defender, but hardly extraordinary one. Peter Barnes was the great promise for the future, but… there were already signs that probably he was to be only a promise and nothing more. Yet, the squad looked mighty on paper and the former defender Tony Book seemed effective as a manager. Hard to object the facts – Manchester City finished second the previous year, they were strong in the Cups… may be they were possible contenders. But they were not – rather, they were on their way down. This year was pretty much their last hurray.
Third place was won by Everton. Great season for Everton, yet somewhat strange. They challenged their neighbours Liverpool and came close, very close, but… two points behind. Liverpool was flying high and to come close to them was a sign of improvement, not simply of wounded pride. But Everton was no Liverpool…
Everton somehow never made big news. Solid may be, steady, but hardly trend-setting club. And in the shadow of their great neighbours since 1970 , when they won their last title. Even as champions they were not considered a great team and even less so by 1977-78: the current big stars were elsewhere, most of them playing for Liverpool. The biggest transfer news came from other clubs too. The brightest youngsters were not Everton players either. Everton depended on somewhat fading players… Bob Latchford, Mike Pejic, Martin Dobson – respected names, but gone were the years when the trio was called to play in the national team. Mick Buckley, Roger Kenyon, Day Davies, Jim Pearson, Mick Lyons… solid, but no stars. Duncan McKenzie was of the ilk of Latchford, Dobson, and Pejic… he just came back from Anderlecht (Belgium), where he failed to impress. Bruce Rioch was perhaps the best player they had. Hardly a squad of champions, but experienced and proud enough for occasional burst. A team really for mid-table place, but this was their year, something clicked, Everton played strong season, came close to Liverpool, and finished with bronze medals. Which was wonderful in itself. On the other hand, it was clear Everton was not a contender even when playing strong – at third place, they were 9 points behind the champions. As a compensation, Everton ended with the best striking record in the league – 76 goals. Mighty Liverpool scored only 65.
Liverpool finished second – not really troublesome performance, considering the nature of the English league and their great European season. Was not even a slip – after all, in England there was still no way one and the same club to win every year. The only strange thing was the point difference between Liverpool and champions – Liverpool was 7 points behind, not really in the race for the title. It was strange not that much because of Liverpool’s weaknesses, but because of the champions.
Now, this was unusual even in England – the champions were newcomers, just promoted to First Division. It was also a club which was relegated in 1972 and since then appeared comfortably settling in Second Division – so much so, that their promotion in 1976-77 looked almost a temporary mistake. It was not spectacular promotion – this club barely clinched third place in the Second Division, the last promotional spot, only a single point better then the next candidate and not exactly challenging the better two clubs above. It was modest club without great history. But to everybody’s surprise the new boys not only played fantastic season, but gradually built big advance and were out of even Liverpool’s reach. Unexpected, unusual champions. Who would have considered Nottingham Forest champions back in 1977?
Third row, from left: Ian Bowyer, Viv Anderson, Tony Woodcock, Kenny Burns
Middle row: Jimmy Gordon (coach),Frank Clark, Larry Lloyd, Chris Woods, Peter Shilton, Colin Barrett, Brian Clough (manager)
Sitting: Peter Withe, David Needham, John McGovern (captain), Martin O´Neill, John Robertson
First time ever champions! Always fantastic for a club, always great for football. Even better when nobody saw it coming. Nottingham’s victory is one of those making history of football exciting – legends are built on such events. It was unlikely winner in almost every aspect. Brian Clough is a legend, of course, but he made ‘weird’ decision back in 1972 – he just made Derby County champions and generally made the team which stayed strong for the next 3-4 years, and… left. Clough was not an easy man, yet, leaving the top club for the moment and going to modest Second Division club is more than rare. Clough was considered the best man to coach the national team of England by many, but he went to Second Division instead. And there he stayed until 1977, seemingly not improving the club. To a point, when Nottingham returned to top flight, the squad did not attract atttention. Some not really great players, already over the hill – Larry Lloyd, John McGovern, John Robertson, Martin O’Neill, John O’Hare. Getting Peter Withe from Newcastle did not look as big improvement either. Youngsters like Viv Anderson, Tony Woodcock, and Ian Bowyer nobody heard of yet. One big purchase – Peter Shilton from Stoke City. Impressive, yet, not all that much – Stoke was just relegated and it looked natural the second-best goalkeeper of England to be eager to move. It was also understandable that Stoke would be keen to sell. The purchase made news, but Shilton so far played for small clubs (Leicester and Stoke City) and once again he did attracted mighty club. It looked like Nottingham Forest was aiming at survival… somewhat competent and experienced squad, hoping on some safe place above relegation zone, but hardly, even with luck, ending among the top 8. On the other hand, it was typical Cloughie selection – workers, not stars, experienced, loyal. Clough brought to Nottingham some of his former Derby County players – O’Hare, McGovern, and Archie Gemmill. And his faithful assistant Peter Taylor, naturally. He knew what he wanted, but it did not look very promising to outsiders. The strange team delivered – Clough was right. Clough was great – this team finished with the title, high above the best team in Europe. And it was not all – the winners played un-English football. Seemingly outdated… based on defense. It was careful, dull, defensive team, looking Italian in its approach. No doubt, Nottingham surprised every opponent, for English clubs were used to open, fast, attacking game, but Nottingham was slow, closed, defensive, saturating midfield with fighters, no open space for speedy attacks, patiently waiting for mistakes, and striking back with counter-attacks. English teams were comfortable with such tactics, they did not what to do, and Forest was winning match after match by one goal. As for Clough, perhaps this was the evidence how really great coach he was – his Derby County played very different, open and attacking game. Using deliberately different tactics is rare – but a testimony of great coaching abilities. Clough utilized the players he had, creating a tactic suitable for their limited skills, but great discipline, experience, and endurance. The scheme worked perfectly – Nottingham lost only 3 matches. Less than that achieved Leeds United in 1968-69! Liverpool always finished with more lost matches than that, but it was remarkable record in the all-time history of the league – only two clubs finished with less lost matches in a season: Leeds United – 2 losses in 1968-69, and Preston North End – 0 in 1888-89, the very first championship. As for the virtues of Nottingham’s defense, there was nothing to compare with: they allowed only 24 goals in their net during the season. Only ones a team finished with fewer goals – Preston North End allowed 18 in 1888-89, but almost 100 years ago the league had only 12 members. Preston allowed 18 goals in 22 matches; Notthingham – 24 in 42 games! With defense like that, scoring in the opposite net was not the prime concern – Nottingham did not score a lot, but enough to win. Still, they ended with 69 goals – forth best record in the league this year, but better than Liverpool’s. Nobody was really excited with Nottingham’s kind of play, but it was effective. Like in Italian football, stiff defensive strategy opened opportunities for strikers – and the talent of Bowyer and especially Woodcock was quickly noticed. So were the skills of right full-back Viv Anderson. New stars emerged – and stayed! Clough obviously had great eye for talent. Extraordinary champions in every sense. Beloved? No… they were so un-English. But who can criticize winners? Results speak for themselves. And no matter what, a new champion is always great. Brian Clough had no intention to stop with this victory either. The competition had to figure out how to stop Nottingham, which meant thinking of new tactics, enlarging horizons. But the sweetest part of all this was for the fans – champions at last. Unbelievable!