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When small clubs ruled Europe

Gone are the days when smaller football clubs could dream of a fairy tale run at Europe’s biggest football trophy.
Last modified: 26 Jul 2013 13:15

Who's going to win the Champions League this season?

Bayern? Barca? One of the newly rich clubs - a PSG or Manchester City? Maybe an English Premier League club – Chelsea or Manchester United?

Or what about one of the teams who came through the second round this week: Dinamo Tbilisi, Elfsborg or Partizan Belgrade?

With respect to these fine clubs it's an absurd notion isn't it? There's more chance of an intergalactic league by the end of the year than a club of this size winning Europe's top prize.

But not much more than thirty years ago, the reality was a true meritocracy. A level playing field. Small clubs could dream of beating Europe's elite. Before the big money, came the era of the provincial force, the club that could make a town or city proud by mixing with the heavyweights.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks back when I visited Nottingham in the East Midlands of England, I had been asked to report on an Ashes cricket match that actually turned out to the one of the greatest in history, and was the talk of the city and beyond. 

Barely a long goal kick away from Trent Bridge is the home of the football club who ruled Europe at the end of the 1970s. A club who would now be happy to just to qualify from Europe. In truth, getting into the English Premier League is the most they can dream of achieving. 

That club is Nottingham Forest.

With a population of just over 300,000, Nottingham is not exactly enormous. But its two football clubs have a proud history. 

Notts County are the oldest professional league football club in the world, formed in 1862. They were the club whose black-and-white stripes were adopted by mighty Juventus in 1903 - that's Juventus wanting to look like Notts County!

But the achievements of Nottingham Forest have made a bigger impact.

In 1979 Brian Clough's team - and there's the key word, they really were a team rather than a collection of superstars - had already punched way above their perceived weight by beating Liverpool to the League Championship. Liverpool were by far Europe's most successful club of the decade between 1975 and '85.

But then they started to make their mark in Europe - in the old style European Cup, the real Champions Cup, Forest made the final against Sweden’s Malmo. It was a different era, yes, but it seems like a different game altogether. Two small clubs slugging it out for the big trophy.

Not only did Forest win that with a Trevor Francis goal but they successfully defended their trophy the next year with a 1-0 win over Hamburg.

In mentioning Francis, It should be mentioned that Forest did try to spend some big money, with mixed results, the £1m paid to Birmingham for Francis was a record in England at the time. But it was mainly McGoverns and Robertsons, footballers doing no more than okay with their careers, who suddenly had every pip of talent squeezed out by Clough.

Where were the giants of the continent while Nottingham Forest were ruling? Those who did come up against them found them an immovable obstacle. They played the game on the floor under their unforgettable, eccentric genius of a boss, but they were as hard of nails too.

The ‘70s and early ‘90s were a time when Aston Villa, Aberdeen, Ipswich and Alkmaar, St Etienne and Moenchengladbach stood tall. We can use the cliché - they put their towns and the cities on the map. What did anyone on the continent know about Ipswich before Bobby Robson did his thing and they won the UEFA Cup in 1981. Ditto Villa with the European Cup a year later.

Money talks

In 2013 the most recent English football success comes from Chelsea, fuelled by the millions of Abramovich.  Located in one of London's most fashionable postcodes, Chelsea had great lure and potential despite being ugly and rundown when Forest were in their pomp. 

There was no chance Abramovich was going to buy Nottingham Forest.

And if the only chance a small club has of making a big splash comes if an investor fancies a project that is, well, a bit left field.

What will Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan do now he's bought Fulham? Stick, like fellow American Randy Lerner at Villa, or twist. Will he get his chequebook out?

Real Oviedo can say in theory they have the backing of the world's richest man, Mexican businessman Carlos Slim who has saved the club and might fancy making a stir.

Monaco under Russian investor Dmitry Rybovlev could make a stir for a club with tiny crowds, but they are not a club that could or should be compared to Nottingham Forest. The last time I checked no-one was making their way to a grand palace beside the river Trent for tax avoidance purposes, nor will there be a Nottingham Formula One Grand Prix anytime soon.

A better comparison might be Malaga, as they have come the closest to upsetting the status quo. In reporting the brilliance of Borussia Dortmund and the Germans last season we were all guilty of forgetting how close they were to quarter-final defeat against the little club on the coast of Spain. Two injury goals enabled them to scrape through.

It looked like Qatari money might build a formidable team in Iberia but some irregularities in payments have led to a European ban for Monaco. Their adventures might have ended before they have come close to any silverware.

But can any team from the small towns and provinces find that magic formula to come through and make a mark? Not a Dortmund, they have nearly 80,000 fans for home games, I mean a genuinely small club. 

Quite simply no. 

I followed Apoel Nicosia's progress to the quarter-finals the season before last and explored the story in Cyprus. My conclusion was that it was a wonderful quirk, a flash in the pan, a stellar achievement that needed to be appreciated for its rarity and romance.

As soon as a team starts to flourish the best players go. Money doesn't just talk, it shouts. David Hills’ excellent column 'Said and Done' in the British newspaper The Observer often captures the hypocrisy of players who 'love this club' until someone puts another nought on the cheque elsewhere. 

And so survival becomes the key word. No one can dare to dream. Swansea are an example of this. Their best player Scott Sinclair went to Manchester City and has barely been seen since. Yet they acted shrewdly to bring in Michu and other Spanish bargains and performed even better. But can they make their mark in Europe this season in their first chance for 22 years?

They may do because it's the Europa Cup, one of sport's most absurd competitions. Inadvertently derailing more important competitions with its Thursday kick-offs, and with a flabby, pointless format including the taking on eliminated Champions League teams.

Europa Cup victories don't feel as significant as those achieved in the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup back in the Forest era. Sometimes the competition is about who cares most or who is least distracted.

Shame on Platini and UEFA for letting it come to this, but for UEFA's president I have a certain sympathy on the matter.

I can see how much he misses the era of St Etienne and Forest achieving in Europe. Of the romance of the little club that plots a path through Europe. I asked him directly about it in an interview a year or two back and he understandably looked for a diplomatic route. But I think we both knew he's a man who'd rather football wasn't all about money, yet who is in charge of a big fat cash cow called the Champions League. 

And so predict your finalists of the Champions League.

As Nottingham Forest failed to qualify, what about Molde of Norway, or Viktoria Plzen.  As if.  But all the excitement and occasion of the major clubs clashing, it would make a nice change wouldn't it?

This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.