Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

I Believe in Miracles

I have to stop getting tearful on long-haul flights, but for a Nottingham Forest fan of a certain age it is impossible to watch Jonny Owen's loving tribute to the Clough-era European conquerors without getting a little misty eyed.

The phrase “It will never happen again” crops up a lot in this film. With another Midlands club, Leicester City, currently sitting atop the Premiership, that might now seem a miscalculation, but I doubt it. In four glorious seasons, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor took a provincial little football club from the second-tier obscurity to winning the First Division (now the Premiership) and then the European Cup two seasons in a row. Ladbrokes would have gone bust if anyone had bet as much as a penny on it.

As I Believe in Miracles documents, this remarkable success was achieved not through the largesse of an over-wealthy benefactor, but through the keen eye of assistand manageer, Peter Taylor, for a bargain player, and Brian Clough's extraordinary man-management.

His methods weren't fancy. According to striker Garry Birtles, “It was alway 'You're better than them', simple as that. He made us feel a million dollars”. Tactics were confined to “Here's a ball – go and play with it” and the opposition was rarely discussed.

Clough's genius was to get the absolute best out a of bunch of players who were mostly perceived to be either under-achievers or going backwards. John Robertson was transformed from a tubby, puffing winger into a dinking, dribbling attacking force. Kenny Burns was shifted from striker to a central defensive partnerhip with Liverpool-reject, Larry Lloyd, that put up a such a shield that the undeniably world-class Peter Shilton only had to intervene when superhuman goal-keeping was needed.

True, after initial success, Trevor Francis joined Forest as the world's first million pound player, but he was left in no doubt that there would be no special treatment from Cloughie and Taylor. Asked at a press conference when would be his first game, before Francis could utter a word Cloughie snarled “when I pick him”. Invited to expand on his new signing's qualities we learn nothing more than “his job's to score goals”. But Francis more than justified the fee in his opening European game – the 1979 final – sinking Malmo with a stooping header from a Robertson cross.

Mixing a melee of archive match footage and a era-defining soundtrack (including, of course, the Jackson Sister's 'I Believe in Miracles'), the substance of the film is in its contemporary interviews with the Clough-era players – all of whom appear with faces lit up as they relate “time of my life” tales.

But as with any story about Forest, the best bits of all involve Brian Clough himself. Arrogant, knowing, irascible, but also extraordinarly perceptive and empathetic, this was man who completely understood both the power of words and the value of silence. Players lived in fear of a dressing down, but knew they would only get a rollicking if it looked like they weren't trying hard enough, not because they'd simply got something wrong. Everyone looked to the bench each time they did something good, just in case they'd gain the Clough equivalent of a thumbs-up – a kind of “OK” hand signal.

The victories aside, the best moment of the film for me is when Clough faces the media after a disappointing semi-final first-leg 3-3 draw with Cologne. The away-goals rule meant Forest would have to achieve a tough win in Germany to go through to the European Cup Final for the first time. “I hope there isn't anybody stupid enough to write us off” he drawls in mock horror, followed by a long stare at the camera as a smile of supreme self-confidence spread across his face. The Forest players knew at that moment they were going to win and the rest of the world had only a few weeks to catch up.


* That 1979 European Cup winning team in full: Shilton, Anderson, Lloyd, Burns, Clark, McGovern (capt), Francis, Bowyer, Birtles, Woodcock, Robertson. Subs: Gemmil, O'Neill.


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