Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa: When English Clubs Dominated the European Cup

Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa: When English Clubs Dominated the European Cup

After a thrilling, white-knuckle ride of a season full of comebacks, late drama and Dickensian underdog stories, Liverpool overcame Tottenham in the Champions League final in Madrid. It was the first all-English final since Manchester United beat Chelsea at the climax of the 07-08 season, a night remembered most for a towering Ronaldo header and a John Terry slip. The 07-08 final was the high point of a period of English dominance in the competition. Between 2006 and 2012, all but one Champions League final had an English contestant.

In the years since it has been Spain that have dominated the competition. But with the flooding of money into the Premier League in the past decade beginning to bear fruit, it might be England’s turn once more. 

It is always a spectacle whenever a global competition throws up a tie in which both contestants come from one nation. But, until pretty recently, it was a rare one. Competitions like the Copa Libertadores made it impossible for two sides from the same country to meet until the final though this rule has now been relaxed. Similarly, the only way two teams from the same country could meet each other in the Champions League was if one was the holder and the other had won the league in the previous season.

And in 1978, that’s exactly what happened. Liverpool, European champions two years running, met Nottingham Forest who had won the old English First Division in the 1977-78 season under the stewardship of the magnetic Brian Clough. It was already a fairy tale for Forest. They had only been promoted from the Second Division at the end of 1976-77 season and won the First Division at the first time of asking – an utterly unthinkable achievement in the current era.

They were drawn against Liverpool for the first round of the European Cup. Reports suggest that neither team were too happy with the draw, not because they were scared of the opposition, but because the two clubs are based just a couple of hours away from each other and they wanted a more exotic, perhaps warmer location. 

Forest went into the tie as slight underdogs considering Liverpool’s European pedigree. The Merseyside club’s squad boasted the likes of Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish. But it was Forest who emerged victorious, winning the home leg 2-0 before putting in a defensive performance for the ages at Anfield. They would go on to beat AEK Athens, Grasshopper Zurich and FC Köln on their way to the final in Munich. There they would win 1-0 thanks to a goal from Trevor Francis, the striker who Brian Clough had made Britain’s first million-pound player the previous February.

It was the third successive season that an English team won the European Cup after Liverpool’s two triumphs in 1977 and 1978. The following campaign, Forest did it all over again. Liverpool wrestled back the First Division crown in the previous season, so they qualified too. It was widely expected that Bob Paisley’s side would win another European title, but it was the holders, Forest, who would go on to stun Europe yet again. 

Liverpool lost out to Hamburg in the first round while Forest edged past Swedish side Öster to set up a round of 16 clash with FC Arges from Romania. Forest won both legs and advanced to the quarter-finals where they would face the East German champions BFC Dynamo. Forest recovered from a 1-0 defeat in the first leg with a 3-1 victory in the second. By this time, they had further glory in their sights. They overcame Ajax in the semi-final, surviving a scare in the second leg to record a 2-1 aggregate victory. 

In the final, Nottingham Forest would face a Hamburg side known best to a British audience as being the home of Kevin Keegan, the two-time Ballon d’Or winner who had signed from Liverpool in 1977. Forest won again and by the same scoreline as they had the previous year, John Robertson scoring the decisive goal this time.

Distracted by European competition, Forest finished 5th in the league and Liverpool reclaimed the title. The following season, Forest went out in the first round to CSKA Sofia while Liverpool advanced after an 11-1 aggregate victory over Finnish club OPS. It set the tone for what would be a dominant campaign for the Red Men. They followed the thrashing up with a 5-0 aggregate win over Aberdeen in an all-British affair and then a 6-1 victory over Forests’ vanquisher CSKA Sofia.

The semi-finals were a much more tense affair, however. Bayern Munich held Liverpool to a 0-0 draw at Anfield, but Paisley’s men advanced to the final in Paris on away goals after a 1-1 draw at the Olympiastadion. The final itself was a largely tense affair, goalless until eight minutes from time when Alan Kennedy’s strike brought the European Cup to England for the fourth year running. But the dynasty was far from over.

Liverpool finished 5th in the league that year just as Forest had done. Forest themselves finished way down in 7th. At the top of the pile was Aston Villa who won their first league title in 70 years, fired by the goals of Peter Withe and managed by Ron Saunders. 

As holders, Liverpool qualified and again obliterated OPS in the opening round of fixtures it was 8-0 this time. Villas were just as ruthless, winning 7-0 against Valur in what was their first-ever European match. In their next tie, they just about got the better of BFC Dynamo, going through on away goals after a 1-0 loss at Villa Park preceded by a 2-1 win away from home. Liverpool too advanced, getting the better of AZ Alkmaar. 

CSKA Sofia were beginning to prove themselves a real nuisance for English opposition. They were the team that got rid of Liverpool in the quarter-finals with a goal in extra time that made it 2-1 on aggregate. Villa meanwhile marched on, getting the better of Dynamo Kyiv with a routine victory in the second leg after a tough 0-0 draw in the first.

Villa, now the only English team left in the competition, claimed a 1-0 aggregate victory over Anderlecht in the semi-finals. That meant they would face the previous year’s finalists, Bayern Munich in the final in Rotterdam. History repeated itself in more ways than one on the 26 May 1982. Bayern Munich lost the European Cup final once again, once again an English team lifted the famous big-eared trophy, and once again it was thanks to a 1-0 scoreline for the fifth time in as many years.

The following year, the English dynasty came to an abrupt end in the quarter-finals as both Villa and Liverpool were knocked out by Juventus and Widzew Łódź respectively. In 1983-84, Liverpool won their fourth European Cup, beating Juventus in the final. The year after that they reached the final only to be beaten by Roma. England would have to wait another 14 years to see one of their representatives reach the final.