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Every week, a group of Nottingham Forest’s legendary European Cup winners meet up for lunch and a catch-up. It says a lot about Steve Cooper, who today becomes the first Forest manager since Brian Clough to lead them out at Wembley, that he occasionally pops in to listen to the fabled stories.
Frank Clark, who played under Clough and later succeeded him as manager, is one of the ‘Thursday Club’ regulars with John Robertson, Garry Birtles, John O’Hare and Colin Barrett.
He knew Cooper’s father Keith, a former referee, but not Steve when he took over in September with Forest bottom of the Championship. Since then, Forest have won 26 of 44 games and will end a 23-year Premier League exile if they beat Huddersfield in today’s play-off final.
Frank Clark won the First Division and European Cup during his time at Nottingham Forest
Clark says Steve Cooper’s current Forest side can emulate the success of Brian Clough’s team
As a City Ground regular, Clark has seen the remarkable transformation first-hand and says Cooper’s ability to embrace the club’s history rather than be weighed down by it has been pivotal.
‘Some managers take the glory pictures down but that doesn’t change anything, the achievements are still in the record books. Steve has used it as inspiration and his players have a chance to carve something special for themselves,’ says Clark.
‘Steve loves hearing the old tales but he’s also astute. Of course he realises that was then and this is now.
‘Some of the things that Cloughie did don’t apply now. We once turned up for training the week before a Wembley final to be told: ‘Don’t get changed, get on the bus, we are going to Scarborough for the day to help Peter Taylor (assistant manager) move furniture into his flat.
‘So we piled on the coach, walked along the prom, had a few prawns and then became removal men! Great times, but I don’t think Steve will be thinking, “I’ve got to try that”. But in other ways, there are certain similarities. Cloughie never asked players to do a job they weren’t capable of. Watching Steve’s Forest, it is the same, the players are given roles they are good at.
Former Forest manager Brian Clough pictured with the European Cup trophy in 1980
‘Cloughie was never one for making Churchillian speeches in the dressing room at Wembley. The bigger the game, the more he tried to play it down. I am sure that Steve will also want his team to play the game, not the occasion.
‘The famous story with our team was Cloughie organising a crate of champagne the night before we played Southampton in the 1979 League Cup final.
‘I asked him years later why he did that and he said he’d noticed we were looking uptight about the game and this was a way to relax us, have a drink and enjoy listening to Peter telling his very funny stories.
‘There was always a method with Brian but Steve will have to do it in a more modern way.’
Forest stand alongside Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea as the only English clubs to have won the European Cup more than once.
Viv Anderson (left) and Frank Clark (right) parade the European Cup trophy around in Munich
Not that ambitions were high when Clark became an early Clough signing in 1975 on a free transfer from Newcastle. ‘When he called, my other two offers were from Hartlepool and Darlington,’ reveals Clark. ‘At our first meeting, he said right away he only wanted to sign me because I was cheap and he didn’t have another left-back at the club!’
From that inauspicious start, Clark won promotion from the then Second Division, the league championship, European Cup and two League Cups.
When Clough retired after Forest were relegated in 1993, his former player was invited back to the City Ground as boss.
‘I was chief executive at Orient, the chairman Fred Reacher rang and said he was in the s*** because five managers had turned him down, so did I fancy it?
‘The Messiah (Clough) had gone and we had no money so I knew it was a hard ask. Roy Keane’s contract had a buy-out clause of £3.75million. When Alex Ferguson rang to wish me good luck in the job and immediately started talking about that clause, I knew Roy was gone.
Brian Clough (right) and his assistant Peter Taylor prior to the 1980 European Cup final
‘He left, and so did Nigel Clough and Gary Charles, but in a way that did me a favour because I then had funds to bring in a few players, including Stan Collymore, and it looked like my team rather than Brian’s.’
Clark left Forest in 1996 with the team back in the Premier League but they were relegated three years later under Ron Atkinson. Twenty four different managers, including former players Stuart Pearce and Martin O’Neill, have since failed to get them back up.
Clark pinpoints the sale of Kevin Campbell behind manager Dave Bassett’s back in 1998 as the start of the rot. He thinks this is the first time the club are well run from top to bottom; from owner Evangelos Marinakis, through chief executive Dane Murphy to Cooper.
‘It would take me hours to chart the whole decline but today Forest are more together than I have ever known,’ argues Clark.
‘Steve has given the supporters hope and they have responded. Recruitment, including loans, have been much better since Dane arrived last summer.
The current Nottingham Forest side celebrate reaching the Championship play-off final
‘The new players Djed Spence, Keinan Davis and Sam Surridge have raised standards. Jack Colback has epitomised the team spirit by moving from midfield to cover on the left because of injuries. Steve has taken advantage of having good central defenders by playing with a back three.
Clark, 78, lost his role as club ambassador at Forest earlier this season due to post-Covid financial restrictions on Forest.
Initially upset, he quickly built bridges, became a City Ground regular again and will be at Wembley today as guest of the club.
It is a stadium he remembers well, even before his time at Forest. In 1962, he played at the old Wembley in the FA Amateur Cup final for Crook Town against Hounslow. It is hard to comprehend a club of Forest’s stature has not been in the Premier League this century. Clark thinks it is time for the new generation to make their mark.
Djed Spence (left) has been an integral part of Steve Cooper’s promotion chasing side
‘This weekend is about Steve and the boys,’ he says. ‘It will be a fantastic achievement if they can do it. And hopefully that will only be the first step.
‘I only knew a little bit about Steve when he arrived. He’d been a good coach of young players and the only question was his lack of deep experience at club level, but he has come in and sailed through that.
‘The atmosphere in the last three months has been as good as I’ve known. It has been a sell-out for every home game at the City Ground and the fans will be down at Wembley in their tens of thousands.’
Forest will take on Huddersfield at Wembley in a final push for a place in the Premier League