Nottingham Forest vs Malmö FF, European Cup Final 1979

In the 1970s Nixon went to China, Han shot first, and Clough signed Francis. Securing the services of the 24 year-old forward cost him a king’s ransom: the total ran £1.18 million. It may well have taken a character like Brian Clough to break the seven digit barrier. No player in English football history had ever been transferred for much more than £500,000, let alone more than a million. In February 1979 plucky Nottingham Forest had gone and done just that.

Clough did not see what the fuss was about. To the press conference where Trevor Francis was to be unveiled to the gawping media Clough showed up in a red track suit, squash racket at the ready. The manager had appointments to keep. And anyway, he had run the numbers, Francis’ fee fell short of the magical million. Clough insisted he had haggled Birmingham City down to £999,999.

That Nottingham Forest were the club to splurge the cash around was in large part down to Clough’s exploits. A decade before Clough had gained promotion with Derby County from the Second Division. It took all of three seasons for the Rams to win the league title. After falling out with the Derby board Clough found himself at Brighton & Hove Albion in the Third Division. Lasting less than a year in East Sussex Clough moved on to Leeds. Within 44 days he had alienated every key player at his disposal and was shown the door.

Clough lifts Forest, Houghton Malmö

Taking the reins at City Ground in January 1975 Nottingham Forest sat 13th in the Second Division. Promotion was won in Clough’s second full season, the league title in his third. At best opinionated and outspoken, at worst abrasive and insulting, Clough was not afraid to step on anybody’s toes. Time permitting success backed him up. As it did in ‘78/79 when Nottingham Forest reached the European Cup final on their first try, leaving holders Liverpool, AEK Athens, Grasshoppers Zürich, and Köln in their wake. And they did it all without Francis. Having signed on only in February registration rules prevented Francis from participating in international matches. Until the final.

In Munich they met Malmö FF. Perennial Swedish champions, Malmö had last won Allsvenskan in 1977. Played according to the calendar year, their league title saw them enter the European Cup ‘78/79. Under the guidance of English manager Bob Houghton Malmö became the first Swedish side to reach a major European final, progressing past AS Monaco, Dynamo Kiev, Wisła Kraków, and Austria Vienna. Only 12 years before had professionalism been sanctioned by the Swedish FA. Most of the football on display still reflected that. For one the libero was still held in high regard. Houghton alongside fellow Englishman Roy Hodgson at Halmstad introduced Swedish football to the benefits of a back four, zonal marking, and an aggressive off-side trap. Within five years Houghton had whipped a side made up of local players into such a shape that ultimate European triumph lay just 90 minutes away. However improbable it was that Malmö were to be the side ascending the steps to claim the prize.

Forest heavy favorites

Punters will have eyed up the 6/1 Malmö long shot. Then again there might have been value in Forest at 2/9. An Elo difference of 345 points saw Malmö with an 8% chance of walking away with the cup after 90 minutes. A discrepancy not unlike Liverpool vs Brugge the year before.

However Liverpool were able to draw on the experience of well over a decade of uninterrupted European campaigns. Forest had competed in two Fairs Cups during the ‘60s and captured the Anglo-Scottish Cup in ‘76/77.

Their lacking international pedigree notwithstanding, Forest were still very much expected to win the final. Especially as Bo Larsson and Roy Andersson, members of Sweden’s squad for the World Cup 1978, were both out injured and Staffan Tapper was playing on a broken toe sustained just the day before. With Robert Prytz and Jan-Olov Kinnvall Houghton trotted out two teenagers. The questions going into the match were, how well could Malmö hang on? And what would Forest have to produce to beat them?

Approximate formations and player movements for Nottingham Forest vs Malmö FF, May 30th 1979

Approximate formations and player movements for Nottingham Forest vs Malmö FF, May 30th 1979

Malmö avoid making the mistake to sit too far back from the start. The back four sets up at around 30-35 yards. Malmö are keen to stifle any chance Nottingham Forest have to exploit the room left open behind the defence. They show some attack pressing early on with the ball near forward hurrying distribution around Nottingham’s back-line. The press then doubles up as Forest cross the halfway line. Should Forest clear the second line and reach the final third Malmö go into their man rough, happy to give away free kicks which play into their height advantage.

Forest start with a deliberate, probing tempo. The few counter attacks launched by the Swedes are cleared easily. Interestingly, in the build-up, John Robertson drops back on the left wing from midfield into the full back position. The back-four shifts over towards the right side, where right back Viv Anderson pushes up. Anderson would generally act much more attacking during the match than left back Frank Clark.

Success on the wings

After eight minutes Robertson, from just inside his own half, lobs the defence to exploit the space behind them for the first time. His pass releases Birtles with pace. Magnus Andersson and Jan Möller combine to tighten the angle. Birtles’ chipped shot lands on the roof of the net.

The key to Forest’s success seems to be their wing play. Whereas against the ball the midfield lines up in a flat 4, the wide midfielders will push up ahead of the central duo when in possession. It’s not an all-out 4-2-4 just yet, rather a 4-2-2-2. Robertson is much more involved early on than Francis. The latter shows awareness on the far side, moves along with each attack, looking to provide another option, gambling to latch onto a cross or deflection at the far post.

Francis’ first spark on the ball comes after 17 minutes. Robertson sees his path on the left clogged up by blue shirts, shifts play via Anderson over to the right wing. Francis starts his solo at the halfway line, immediately blows by Kindvall and Erlandsson, and Pele-dummies around Magnus Andersson. By the time he pulls into the box four defenders are on him, a fifth clears his pass into the center.

Nottingham Forest in command

Forest are well and truly in command for all of the first half hour. Clear cut chances might be lacking but Malmö are not threatening either. Kindvall had tried and failed to chip Peter Shilton after Burns had invited him in with a clearance which had fallen short (11’). Their best free kick opportunity, from a central position 22 yards out, they blasted straight into the wall (25’).

Forest's manager Brian Clough being chummy with John Robertson and ignoring Trevor Francis. (Image: Hans van Dijk / Anefo)

Forest’s manager Brian Clough being chummy with John Robertson and ignoring Trevor Francis. (Image: Hans van Dijk / Anefo)

Having established passes over the top of the defence for Birtles as a threat, Woodcock starts adding in his prowess of holding balls up, allowing for a bit of off ball movement. Fending off two defenders in the box, Woodcock creates just enough space for John McGovern to wind a shot up. Möller at full stretch looks beaten but the shot sails just wide (29’). Moments later it’s McGovern setting up Ian Bowyer who hits a volley flush at the edge of the box. It sneaks through a few players in front of Möller. A tough adjustment to make, Möller almost lets it slip out but claims it again before it can cross the line (32’).

In response Malmö pull back the outside midfielders, forming a back-six when Forest reach the final third. The underdogs aren’t helped by Tapper limping off injured. With a broken toe the captain could only go on for so long. Claes Malmberg replaces him after 34 minutes, slotting in as central midfielder.

Robertson & Francis combine

Malmö try to stifle Forest’s wing play, establishing a massive presence on either side Forest chose to attack. Three to four Swedes bunch up when Robertson or Francis are in possession. Their default setup still has them holding a high back-line. The attack pressing efforts, though, are now limited to either forward hurrying the centre backs without much coverage behind leaving Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd with many options.

Wave after wave had been repelled by Malmö’s defence as Forest launch one final attack before half-time. It looks like any other. McGovern shifts the ball out to Robertson on the left wing. Malmö double up as Prytz hurries back to help out Roland Andersson. Robertson takes them both head on, feints inside, dazzles with a few step overs, gets to the goal-line on the outside. Rather blindly he puts in a cross. It has just the right weight on it to drop at the far post. Francis had gambled, is there once again, and heads home the opening goal from close range (45‘).

Done and dusted?

No longer was the question heading into the break when would Forest score but rather would there be a way back into the match for Malmö. The Swedes had found themselves in a similar position in their quarter-final match-up. With half an hour to go in the return leg Malmö had fallen behind 0:1 to visitors Wisła Kraków. The first match in Poland had finished 1:1 so only a Malmö home win would now do. Anders Ljungberg provided a hattrick for the comeback, Tore Cervin tacked on another, Malmö prevailed 5:2 on aggregate.

The story of the second half in the final, though, is quickly recounted. With their backs to the wall Malmö push up. The wide midfielders move into their natural positions and the side set up higher altogether. This allows the defence to spring the offside trap continuously, much to the chagrin of the British commentary team.

No way back in for Malmö

It’s less one-way traffic than in the first half, but Malmö still find it hard to establish a real presence in the final third. Symbolically, ten minutes into the second half, Prytz just heaves a shot towards goal from 35-40 yards out which was never on target. Shilton calls for the ball boys before the effort even reached the goal line.

Forest on the other hand do not push for the deciding 2:0 with enough conviction, rely on the individual class in their side to create chances. After an hour Francis tears through the defence with what has by now become a trade mark run. He pulls inside the from the right wing and cuts a pass back from the goal line which hobbles past everyone towards the far post. Robertson arrives just in time but sets his shot against the post. A few minutes later Woodcock, off a one-two with Birtles, twists and turns inside the box to shake off multiple defenders, finally launching a chip towards the far corner. It’s off target and Birtles arrives too late to capitalize (68’).

Forest crowned champions of Europe

Malmö’s offensive tally consists of a number of free kicks which sail across the box or over the bar aimlessly. Open play is reduced to balls from the back straight into the first row of attack where the Swedish forwards are left with few options. Forest always have the numbers advantage at the back.

In a last resort Houghton brings on Tommy Andersson for Tommy Hansson with eight minutes to spare. The new forward goes straight in at the top but is served with the same poor deliveries. He whiffs on the first attempt shortly after being brought on, urging commentator Barry Davies to quip “he almost made a name for himself there”. After all there are now four Anders(s)ons on the field. Yet only Nottingham’s Viv Anderson goes on to claim a winner’s medal.

Overall it’s a laudable defensive effort from Malmö given their injury troubles. They employed the offside trap to an (in my viewings) unseen extent and with very good effect. However they hardly ever got out of that underdog mindset, especially in the second half. Forest were never in danger through the 90 minutes and rightly become the third English side to win the European cup. In 1979 no other country could boast as many winners.


  • Man Of The Match: Robertson ekes out Francis
  • Best hair: Kinnvall
  • Viewing recommendation: Highlights are more than enough for this one and can be found below

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About Sebastian

Sebastian writes and talks about football of all eras in German and English. His series of Retro Match Reports focus on British, German and Italian football history. For YYFP he is currently working his way through the late '70s and early '80s. Follow Sebastian on Twitter: @maltacalcio.

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