Oh dear, another person pontificating about the relative qualities of the two highly unfancied title winners from 1978 and 2016. Well, hopefully this will add some extra scope, context and details to the debate aside from the usual cries about the elite selection of clubs that is more prevalent nowadays, and the fact that Nottingham Forest also won a League Cup that season then two European Cups in as many campaigns immediately thereafter.
On the subject of these other achievements from Forest, however, some may say these should be taken into account, and of course, they should if we’re comparing each of these side’s period together as a team as a whole, but, call me ignorant, I will only focus on the sole league title win of each of these two clubs from the East Midlands.
Let’s look at Leicester City first. As they celebrated the title on the night of May 1, 2016, into the small hours of the 2nd in a Leicester nightclub holding aloft their bottles of Strathmore in jubilation, Andy King may have found time alone by himself at the bar looking at his team-mates rejoicing in front of him and thinking back to exactly seven years previously when he was at Gresty Road.
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It was here where King and his fellow Foxes put paid to Crewe Alexander’s League One status in a 3-0 win that confirmed the Railwaymen’s relegation to League Two. King and co, having already secured promotion to the Championship prior to this match, were at the start of their incredible journey that has led to this season’s title win.
They won 96 points from their 46 games in that 2008-09 campaign. Take their record from their explosive nine-game run at the end of last season into this one and they’ve amassed 102 points from 46 games. Five seasons in the second tier followed before gaining a place in England’s top-flight for the first time since 2004 – incidentally, the last time Arsenal won the league title. Leicester went through nine seasons in the Championship, one in the third tier and just one in the Premier League before winning the thing in the same time the Gunners were coming up with their excuses for being nowhere it.
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Nottingham Forest had five seasons in the second tier themselves before winning the old First Division, but they were ever-presents in the top tier for 15 years prior to their drop into the old Division Two, including finishing runners-up to that great Manchester United side of 1967. And whereas only five clubs won the Premier League in the 23 years before Leicester’s triumph this year, twelve different clubs got their hands on English football’s most coveted trophy in the same time period before Forest’s win in 1978. The full list is as follows: Chelsea, Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur, Ipswich Town, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Leeds United, Arsenal and Derby County.
Under the watchful eye of Brian Clough, fellow east Midlanders Derby won their first ever top-flight title in 1972 - three years after promotion; Bill Shankly’s Liverpool won their first title in 17 years in 1964 - just two years after being in the second tier, while Ipswich Town won in their first season back among the elite in the 1961-62 campaign - just five years after being in the old Division Three (South), and 16 years before Forest’s remarkable triumph.
That latter fact is over double the amount of time between the top tier triumphs of Forest and Leicester. So it shows that it was much easier for promoted sides to not just find their feet in the cut-throat business of top division football, but also find the knives themselves in order to be the cutters of those throats – metaphorical of course, although you wouldn’t put it past some players applying cut-throat methods with their studs in those days.
As opposed to Leicester taking two seasons to end up on top of the pile at the end of the season, Clough, his influential assistant Peter Taylor and their Forest side won in one go. As Viv Anderson says: ‘‘It was all new to us.
"We were used to playing Second Division players, and then went up to the First Division, and played against sides we had only seen on television.
"For Leicester to have come along and done what they’ve done is an absolute breath of fresh air. It is amazing with all the money involved, easily the most fantastic achievement of the Premier League era.
"But at least they had a season of playing against these top opponents week in, week out. We never had that opportunity. We had to come up and hit the ground running."
Also, Forest had the difficulty in overcoming the tremendous Liverpool side of the 1970s and 80s who, let’s not forget, really were one of the greatest teams of all time when one considers their achievements – up there with the Ajax and Bayern Munich teams of the 1970s as well as AC Milan of the late 80s and early 90s, and the Barcelona contingent from the late 2000s to early 2010s.
It was that great Bill Shankly side who trailed Forest by seven points in the race for the title in the days when teams would get two points for a win, and yes, it was also the Reds they beat in the League Cup final. Having reached round Six of the FA Cup as well as the final of the League Cup, Forest won their title over 42 games as opposed to Leicester’s 38. All in all, Forest competed in 56 games that season whereas Claudio Ranieri’s men will have played in only 43 competitive fixtures this campaign.
In this context, it’s perfectly understandable to be of the opinion that Forest’s was the more outstanding achievement, but if we are talking about the single triumph of winning a league title against expectations, then just consider what we thought was the guaranteed competition from the usual suspects and the obvious difficulty in anyone outside the top five or six finishing above seventh. Therefore, winning the league in the modern day compared to the varied winners and competitors from the decades prior to Nottingham Forest’s title, makes Leicester City’s triumph is the more mind-blowing.
At the time of managing the red side from the east Midlands, Brian Clough put winning the league above anything else.
When asked by John Motson what was more important, winning the league or the European Cup, Clough replied:
‘‘The Football League – always has been and always will be. I would gladly go out of the European Cup, the Football League Cup and the FA Cup – which we’re not even in yet – I would gladly go out of them tomorrow if you could guarantee me winning the Football League.
"That is the one you have to have every single aspect of football management about you to win it: you’ve got to have endurance, you’ve got to have talent, you’ve gotta be a little bit daft, you’ve gotta have strength, psychology, you name it – and of course you have to have very good players – but it’s a real endurance battle over nine or ten months.’’
There you go, make your minds up now.