One shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, so they say. Whether the good folk of Nottingham would agree with those sentiments when referring to Emilio Guruceta Muro is up for debate.

It may be 27 years since the Spanish referee tragically passed away following a car accident on February 25th 1987, but his deviant collusion with Anderlecht president, Constant Vanden Stock, is an episode in European football history that Forest fans will never forget; and just as likely, never forgive.

Although Brian Clough’s side of the early 1980’s were not quite as formidable as they had been just a few years earlier when they were champions of England and twice European Cup winners, the men from the City Ground were still a match for anybody on their day. Cloughie wouldn’t have had it any other way.

British football fans of a certain age remember the 1983-84 UEFA Cup for Tottenham’s dramatic penalty shoot-out triumph in the final against the Brussels-based Anderlecht. In reality, the Belgians should probably not have been there. All it took for them to scupper the chances of a first all-English European final was a £20,000 ‘loan’; delivered to Muro by gangsters known to Vanden Stock.

The first leg of the semi-final in Nottingham saw Forest run out comfortable 2-0 winners – a decent lead but by no means an insurmountable one for Anderlecht on home turf. They were a well-respected side throughout Europe with a team full of top quality internationals; not least one of the continent’s leading youngsters, Enzo Scifo. However, Clough had seen Forest win away legs at PSV Eindhoven and Celtic in earlier rounds so he knew his players were up to the task of protecting their advantage in Brussels.

On April 25th 1984, playing in the stadium that had been renamed after the incumbent president Vanden Stock just a year previously, Forest would be pitted not only against Anderlecht’s players and the partisan crowd, but also the already-bunged referee Muro; the man bought off by the ego-driven lucre of the man desperate to publicise his own grandeur. Vanden Stock was a former Anderlecht player and Belgian national manager who also ran the family business – the Belle-Vue brewery famous for its beer, Kriek.

Clough and Forest defender, Paul Hart, were both suspicious of the Spanish official before the game had even begun. Muro had been building up a reputation around Europe for his poor decision-making.
As the Forest players prepared to take the field, they and their manager observed several Anderlecht officials coming in and out of the referee’s changing room. They knew that something wasn’t right.

Hart had come across his dubious refereeing in a previous encounter, as he explained to Daniel Taylor of The Guardian in an interview in December 2013;

“I remember saying to Kenny Swain I hope it’s not the same guy we had when I was playing for Leeds in a tournament in Spain a couple of years earlier. That referee had sent off two of our players for no reason. Then we were waiting in the tunnel and there he was – the same guy.”

The situation began to play itself out almost immediately after the opening whistle, with a number of baffling decisions going against Forest even before Scifo fired Anderlecht into an 18th-minute lead on the night. It was around the hour mark when Clough’s worst fears about the game’s integrity were confirmed.

Muro controversially awarded Anderlecht a penalty having judged that Swain had felled the Dane, Kenneth Brylle; something that left the Forest players astounded given their assertion that Brylle dived and that Swain came nowhere near to making contact with the Anderlecht striker. The protestations from the men in red were minimal – an admirable trait of all Clough’s teams – with skipper Ian Bowyer the only one to remonstrate with any fervour to the corrupt official.

Brylle picked himself off the floor and dispatched the penalty beyond Forest’s Dutch keeper, Hans Van Breukelen.
Then, with extra-time looming, Erwin Vandenbergh ran onto a clever through ball after Forest lost possession in midfield to calmly slot past Van Breukelen and seemingly deny Clough a third European final in five years. However, the drama and the deception was not over.

As the mood of the travelling Forest fans turned sour and fighting broke out in the stands, the visitors won a corner in stoppage time. The ball was met by Hart whose header flew past team mate Bowyer and into the Anderlecht net to bring the aggregate score back to 3-3 and put Forest into the final on the away goals rule. As the home keeper, Jacky Munaron, berated his defence for allowing Hart an unchallenged header, referee Muro intervened yet again and disallowed the goal – to the even greater astonishment of Clough and his team.

Hart and his colleagues are adamant to this day that neither he nor Bowyer fouled or interfered with any of their opponents to warrant his ‘goal’ being chalked off; Clough confronted Muro at the final whistle and reiterated his disgust to the assembled British journalists after the game.

And, of course, he and his cheated players were right. In 1997, ten years after Muro’s death and 13 years after that night in Brussels, the truth about the affair was finally revealed – not that anybody connected to Nottingham Forest was in the least bit surprised – when Anderlecht were blackmailed by two people who threatened to release secretly taped conversations with Muro.

Anderlecht received a one-year ban from all European competition – a scant and unsatisfactory punishment in the eyes of everyone connected to Forest and anyone with any sense of justice. Even that retribution failed to stick when the ban was incredibly overturned.

For Nottingham Forest, the Anderlecht scandal was something of a watershed moment. The group of players who had been a force to be reckoned with both at home and on the continent were never quite as prominent again. Despite success in the League Cup, Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal began to dominate the remainder of the 1980’s. The five-year European ban imposed on English clubs after the Heysel disaster had a huge impact at the City Ground just as it did at Anfield, Goodison Park, White Hart Lane and Old Trafford and by the time that ban was lifted, Forest had begun their decline.

It could also be argued that Clough himself was never quite the same either. Old Big Head continued to bristle, spar and quip with rivals and media alike but gradually, the fire receded to barely-burning embers before he finally retired in 1993 upon Forest’s relegation from the newly-formed Premier League.

Emilio Guruceta Muro was neither the first nor the last referee to sell their impartiality, but his deception proved the costliest for Nottingham Forest and English football.