When they mattered: As the Premier League rose, Nottingham Forest fell

You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you by people holding mugs of water and bottles of iodine in case you fall and cut yourself so that they can pick you up – even if you want to stay where you are – and get you moving again.

So thinks Smith in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, a story by one of Nottingham’s greatest literary sons, Alan Sillitoe. The story is built around a number of themes, among them isolation, rebellion, and the challenges facing life’s underdogs. And the story of Smith – a borstal boy struggling to defy the system – also serves as a metaphor for another of Nottingham’s sources of civic pride – the city’s most successful soccer club, Forest.

Nottingham Forest, under legendary manager Brian Clough – “Ol’ Big Head”, whose arrogance, pig-headedness and irascible genius marked him out as a Special One when José Mourinho was still in short pants – and his redoubtable partner Peter Taylor, were for a time untouchable. The club, from a sleepy, middle-sized city in the heart of England, ravaged by the decline of the local textile industry in the 1950s and 60s, went from finishing 16th in Division 2 in 1975 to winning the title in 1978 before going on to lift the European Cup two years in a row.

The giants of the City Ground in those days, who cast such long shadows across the muddy, rain-lashed pitches on which they chased and kicked, are almost too many to mention. There was rangy right back Viv Anderson, the first black player to represent England at full international level. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton holds the record for the most competitive appearances in world football. Then there was skillful Northern Irish midfielder Martin O’Neill, currently Republic of Ireland manager, and tricky Scottish winger John Robertson, of whom Clough said “give him a ball and a yard of grass and he was an artist, the Picasso of our game.” Uncompromising central defenders Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns were the granite on which Forest’s rearguard was built, while the goals came from Garry Birtles, a former carpenter, and Trevor Francis, Britain’s first million-pound signing.

Brian's Boys

Clough remained in charge for 18 years, and while the club could not recapture the remarkable success of the late 1970s, Forest remained a top side into the early 1990s, challenging for the domestic treble in 1989 – the year of the horrors of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on the terraces before the FA Cup semifinal against Forest. One indicator of the club’s strength in those days is that three of the England squad at the 1990 World Cup were Forest players, as many as from any other team, and two more (Shilton and midfielder Neil Webb) had formerly played for the club.

Historical revisionism sometimes makes it hard to remember life before 1992. The Premier League revolution brought a massive new television deal, all-seater stadiums and undreamt of revenue streams. Gone, suddenly, were the blustery, sometimes violent terraces, and gone too were cheap standing tickets, easily accessible to the working-class man so celebrated in Sillitoe’s work.

Gone, too, was Forest’s success. Clough left in 1993, the same season the club was relegated from the inaugural Premier League. Although Forest returned to the top flight the following year under Frank Clark and went on to finish third in the 1994-95 season, its seemingly irreversible decline – and arguably that of other teams like it – had already begun.

Like the world of Sillitoe’s writing, with its images of terraced streets and smoke-belching factories, the glory days of Nottingham Forest and other small market, provincial clubs seem like the stuff of sepia-toned memory. And like Sillitoe’s borstal boy, Forest’s recent history is a tale of how hard life can be for those from the wrong side of the tracks – in this case those excluded from the modern, globalized soccer world. For Forest’s rise and fall in many ways reflects the rise and fall of British industrial society, and the death of an era when teams from smaller cities could challenge the world’s biggest clubs.

Trent End Stand, the City Ground, Nottingham Forest Football Club stadium, Nottinghamshire, 1995. Artist: Ian Brown

In a chapter from their fascinating discussion of soccer’s relationship to statistics and society, Soccereconomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski analyze the links between city size and soccer success, taking Forest as one of their examples. They begin with a comparison of the fates of the European Cup/Champions League trophies in 1978 and 2007. In the most recent year the cup is on view at a slickly corporate UEFA organized photo opportunity, while back in the 1970s, Brian Clough takes the European Cup to a newsagent’s shop run by his brother in the Nottingham suburb of Bramcote. “[T]here was the European Cup freshly won by Forest, plonked on top of a pile of Nottingham Evening Posts. Behind it stood Clough, holding an open newspaper in front of his face.”

The pre-Premier League – and pre-Champions League – landscape certainly had a more local feel. While there would always be rich clubs and less rich clubs, without today’s billion dollar television and sponsorship deals, and with tight limits on the number of foreign players that could be fielded by clubs, differences between big and small were not as pronounced. The effects of this are clearly visible in the list of European success stories from that era – along with Forest’s two wins, smaller European cities such as Mönchengladbach, Saint-Étienne and Malmö provided European Cup finalists in the late 1970s – an unthinkable prospect today.

But the storm clouds were massing on the horizon for Europe’s smaller clubs. Money was beginning to talk, and ironically, according to Kuper and Szymanski, Clough and Forest may have helped to usher in the financial revolution. “The beginning of the end for small towns was the day in February 1979 when Trevor Francis became football’s first “million-pound man” (moving from Birmingham to Nottingham) … the swelling of the football economy that he embodied would eventually do for small clubs like Forest.”

The book goes on to explain why. “In the 1980s TV contracts grew … after the Bosman Ruling in 1995, big clubs could easily sign the best players from any country in the European Union. Around the same time, the clubs with the most fans began earning much more from their television rights. Big clubs everywhere got bigger.” Small market teams like Forest, whose success was built on fast-disappearing soccer traditions and the astute recruitment of a few remarkably talented individuals, would soon be on the outside looking in. The current success of a team like Southampton brings with it a sense of creeping dread – the south coast team may have survived one cull by the Premier League big boys, but can they possibly survive another? The financial balance of power is surely too uneven, the stockpiling of talent at the biggest clubs too overwhelming.

Nottingham Forest v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship

For Forest today, meanwhile, even those post-Clough seasons when the team held its own in the Premier League must seem like halcyon days. The collapse in 2002 of ITV Digital, the division’s TV rights holder, brought financial chaos for many clubs, and Forest were no exception. Three years later, Forest was relegated to the third tier of English soccer for the first time in 54 years, in the process becoming the first European Cup winner to drop into its domestic third division.

The club has now become a seemingly permanent fixture in the Championship, English soccer’s second tier. A succession of managers brought instability and confusion rather than progress, while the purchase of the club by the wealthy Al-Hawasi family provided only further chaos, with even more frantic hiring and firing of managers in an attempt to win the race back to the Premier League goldmine. “If Brian Clough had started now under the current regime, he would have struggled to keep his job,” wrote BBC journalist Pat Murphy last February, after manager Alex McLeish departed after five weeks in the job. “Forest have a great structure, a terrific set of fans, terrific history, a grand ground… but at the moment Nottingham Forest are a shambles.”

Photo credits, from top-to-bottom: Evening Standard/Getty Images; NEMPR Picture the Past/Heritage Images/Getty Images; Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.