Brian Clough’s rancour towards Leeds United – and Don Revie – is the stuff of legend. His disastrous 44-day reign as manager at Elland Road in 1974 has inspired countless column inches, books and a feature film – The Damned United.
So when Leeds returned to the top flight in 1990, it gave Old Big ‘Ead the opportunity to renew his acquaintance with the club that caused him so much consternation in the 1970s.
By the start of the 90s, Clough’s Nottingham Forest were no longer the force they were 10 years earlier; although still a decent cup team and reasonable top half finishers, the European Cup winning days were becoming a distant but glorious memory.
Conversely, Leeds United were firmly on their way back under Howard Wilkinson. Having been one of the country’s top clubs throughout the 1960s and 70s, the 1980s saw them suffer the ignominy of relegation from the old First Division in 1982. It took them eight years to return.
Their first season back amongst the elite had been hugely encouraging; by the time of May 11th 1991 and this final day of the campaign clash with Forest at the City Ground, Leeds had secured a more than creditable fourth place finish, carrying on their impressive form from their Second Division title triumph the previous year.
It was a fantastic side – Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan, Lee Chapman and Gary Speed were the stars, but players like Mel Sterland, Chris Fairclough, David Batty and John Lukic added reliability and strength. They came up to compete and not just survive.
Forest could have been forgiven for just strolling through this encounter; just a week later they faced Tottenham Hotspur – crazed Paul Gascoigne and all – in the FA Cup final at Wembley. Clough, ever the individual, chose a full strength team and went toe-to-toe in a thrilling curtain closer to the post-Italia ’90 season.
Forest burst out of the traps to take an early two-goal lead courtesy of energetic midfielder Garry Parker and Nigel Clough. Leeds briefly rallied when the impish Strachan released Chapman to score his 30th of the season against the club he left the previous summer.
Forest extended their lead to two again in the second half thanks to Parker’s well placed header, but then came the Leeds fightback. Chapman made it 3-2 with his 200th career goal before Carl Shutt equalised after some shoddy Forest defending.
The game took one final twist with four minutes remaining. Clough Jnr. was on hand to stab home a late winner past Lukic to keep the final three points of the season in the East Midlands.
Nottingham Forest went to Wembley the following weekend hoping to end Brian Clough’s FA Cup drought. In a game probably best remembered for Paul Gascoigne’s brief lunacy and self-inflicted knee injury, the veteran manager would be denied by a Des Walker own goal. It would be Clough’s last hurrah; he resigned two years later after swift decline saw Forest relegated at the end of the first Premier League season in 1992/93.
As for Leeds United, their meteoric rise had one more height to hit. The following season they had an epic battle with Manchester United for the Championship crown. Wilkinson’s iconic team – with added Gallic flair provided by Eric Cantona – prevailed on the penultimate day of the season, denying the Old Trafford club their first title since 1967.
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