We Won The League In Coventry – Part 2
40 years ago, on Saturday April 22nd, thousands of Reds found themselves in Coventry. They travelled by road and by rail, in hope and expectation. Forest were on the verge of the Division One title. A point was all we needed.
In Part 1 we followed the tales of a number of supporters who travelled to Highfield Road that day. Here, their stories continue… The players, led by captain John McGovern, strode out onto the pitch followed by Clough and Taylor. From their relaxed amble down the touchline to the dugout you wouldn’t have known that this game would decide the fate of the championship.
3pm arrived. History was in the making.
PART 2 – ‘Remember this, it might not happen again’
The game, by all accounts, was not much of a spectacle. ‘I can’t remember us having a shot on goal’ says Johnny. Chris points to the fantastic reception provided to the ‘champions elect’ by Coventry but he explains that Forest often found themselves holding on. One defining moment that day was the save from Peter Shilton who somehow clawed the ball over the bar from a point blank Mick Ferguson header. ‘Oh, outstanding goalkeeping from Shilton’ exclaims John Motson on the commentary. Rather wonderfully the footage shows the heart in mouth moment for the Forest support who almost combust as one before breaking out into rapturous applause.
‘Shilts’ save kept us in it’ according to Glenn who continues: ‘It was a relief to hear the final whistle’. Paul believes the season up until that point had taught him not to be too concerned despite the Coventry onslaught: ‘I think by that stage we had a high level of confidence, based on a season’s experience, of how resilient we were.’ Anthony Bethell recalls that with Shilton in such fine form ‘it felt destined we’d win the league’.
Another member of the fantastic rear-guard that day and a big contributor to the success that season and beyond is Colin Barrett. Barrett recalls a sense of determination that day to get the job done:
‘The general feeling amongst us all was to get over the line as soon as possible. We had become a little nervous and it had become a battle in recent games. There was a massive crowd and so much at stake. The atmosphere was electric from both sets of supporters. The Shilts save was remarkable. They could have still been there now trying to score past him.’
As the referee blew for full time Forest seized the league championship. ‘It was bedlam’ according to Glenn. ‘We just erupted’ adds Chris, ‘It was pure ecstasy and we went mad’.
Jitz recalls ‘The celebrations were crazy. Everyone hugging, kissing, crying, laughing, whooping and singing.’
‘I had worn a black jacket all season’ says Chris, ‘…and at that moment I just threw it down the terrace, never to be seen again. But the jacket had done its job. I recall there was a load on the pitch and I don’t think the players could come over but hey, we were just floating at that stage’.
When asked about his emotions at this point, Johnny simply replies: ‘It’s hard to put into words’. Jeff remembers the ‘fantastic feeling’ at full-time: ‘We stayed in the ground singing and celebrating. The players never appeared again as there was so many on the pitch, both Coventry and Forest’.
Nigel also remembers the home fans spilling onto the pitch: ‘The Coventry support come on the pitch and made a half-hearted attempt on the Forest end which was repelled by a couple of policeman.’ Nigel continues: ‘There was no lap of honour, no trophy… frankly a bit of an anti-climax but we did not give a damn.’
Bryan tells of how he and his brother were part of the Forest contingent who found their way onto the turf: ‘We ran onto the pitch to celebrate with what seemed like thousands of other Forest fans. I got hit with a truncheon by a copper but there was no lasting damage thankfully!’
Colin Barrett just recalls the ‘mayhem’ that followed the whistle. ‘What happens now?’ he can remember thinking. ‘We got into the dressing room…there was a bit of hollering from some of the lads but Cloughie calmed us down. We wanted to celebrate but he said “let’s see out the season first”’.
Although there was no official celebration, Col and a few of the players did let their hair down when back in Nottingham: ‘We were straight home on the bus after the game. We were passing Forest fans everywhere. The bus dropped us off and some of us headed straight into town and got blottoed.’
For Forest supporters this must have been a truly remarkable feeling. Their team had, for the first time in its 113 year history, claimed the league championship. At that point we were a modest football club. We had secured the league cup only weeks prior to the Coventry game but previously the club had witnessed only fleeting success in securing two FA Cups and producing swashbuckling teams that had challenged for honours but had never quite managed to lay their hands on silverware. Never before had it risen to the summit of the English football league. Nor has it since. Understandably the celebrations were savoured.
‘I will never forget my first away day experience’ states Jitz. ‘Going back to Nottingham was an experience with every car having flags and scarves hanging out of them. I saw blokes on top of mini-buses and on top of buses dancing. Crazy.’
Jeff can recall witnessing some strange sights on the road home as jubilant Forest fans headed for Nottingham: ‘The one vivid memory I have is seeing this removals van with a roller shutter door. The back door was up and it was full of lads. I remember these three youths just sitting there on the edge with their legs dangling down.’
Chris, having retrieved his flag from the garden where he left it before the game, has similar fond memories of the journey home:
‘Dave, our driver, insisted we fly the flag out the window. It was a massive flag with NFFC on it. Everyone on the motorway was tooting us. As we came along the A52 people were out waving the fans back. We were all over the moon with what Forest had just done’.
Like Col and the other players, Bryan & Anthony Bethell found themselves in town that night: ‘At the start of the season we joked we’d all smoke cigars if we won the league, thinking we had absolutely no chance. When we got back to Nottingham we went down the Palais night club as it was called then and all smoked a cigar to celebrate. Great times to be a Forest fan.’
Once the euphoria had died down a little, some thoughts naturally drifted towards taking on Europe’s finest the following season. ‘I never thought about winning it’ says Jeff. ‘But it was something to look forward to. I was saying let’s just go to France or Belgium or Germany. We got Liverpool.’
It’s was a frustration that the players shared according to Barrett: ‘We were on a golf course and were in denial when we heard. We’d thought of all these brilliant places to go and for the fans to visit and we drew Liverpool’. For Forest and for Col in particular little did they realise what that tie had in store but that is another story.
‘Those final games were a celebration’ says Barrett, despite what Clough had previously said. ‘After Coventry we went to Ipswich and Frank Clark scored his first ever league goal. Clough played him up front after he came on. We went absolutely crazy when it went in and all ended up jumping on him. None of the Ipswich fans could understand our reaction. Bobby Robson (the Ipswich manager) came into our dressing room afterwards to ask! And I couldn’t wait to get my hands on my medal. But when it was given to me I looked at it and it was no better than something you’d get in Sunday League. It was disappointing. Then I thought – don’t be stupid’.
‘Never in our wildest dreams did we realise what the league win had started for the club’ says Les. ‘I don’t think we were thinking forward at all. We were just happy with what we had achieved.’ Paul shares that sentiment: ‘The whole experience was so intense and in the moment. I don’t recall any expectations.’
Amongst the glory of what had occurred and what was to come Pip Matthews tried his best to stay grounded: ‘I just remember thinking that whatever was to come we had to remember this, it might not happen again. We were no Liverpool or Man United.’
‘This might be it forever and ever’.
Many, many thanks to those who agreed to take up their time for this article. I am grateful for their contributions and each of them have provided us all with some fabulous memories. Colin Barrett has quickly become a real hero of mine in recent years. He spoke freely on the phone and with such insight and enthusiasm. I am hugely appreciative for his help once again.
Special thanks to Jeff Edwards who hosted a night of reminiscing in assistance for this piece with myself, Johnny and Pip in attendance. As I stepped into his kitchen not only had he put together a fantastic buffet but he had even gone to the effort of loading up films on You Tube and tracking down the pub they drank in to aid the story. There is a wealth of stories from these three and many, many others that need to be heard.
As a club we are often accused of being stuck in the past, looking back rather than forwards. It’s not a viewpoint I share. We need to avoid letting past achievements shape our future and becoming a burden but, equally, we should ensure that they are an inspiration and a factor that sets us apart from the rest. Players and managers should be proud to represent Nottingham Forest and our heritage is a fundamental part of that pride. We should not be ashamed to celebrate our glorious past, especially that incredible 1978-1980 period. The next couple of years are an opportunity to mark these times and show our continued gratitude to the individuals who made them happen. As a club we move forward and we evolve but our past adventures must never be forgotten.
Finally, my sincere thanks to you for reading, I hope you found it as enjoyable as I did weaving these marvellous tales together. I’ll conclude with a line from Chris Carr which really struck a chord with me, I think it might with you too:
‘I will never forget that day at Coventry.
Seeing Forest win the league,
Being with mates,
Supporting our club’.