Each and every club has a player that is held in higher regard than perhaps he deserves to be. The reasons for such status vary greatly: bucketloads of effort to compensate for a lack of talent perhaps or a fleeting period of unsustainable genius maybe. In Brian Rice’s case, his elevation to sanctity can be attributed to a few seconds in North London on a freezing Saturday afternoon in March 1988.
Beyond the borders of Nottingham, Brian Rice is a name that slipped through the wider football consciousness, through the wide cracks in the pavement to be picked up once in a while out of nostalgic interest but then quickly discarded. Between 1985 and 1991, Rice made 92 appearances for Brian Clough’s second great Forest team that seemingly camped out at Wembley to contest various finals while also managing to trouble third place in the First Division table in successive seasons. Greatness? Compared to successive European Cup victories and the odd league title, this team falls short but two League Cup titles equals those brought home by Clough and Peter Taylor in their heyday. This late-eighties team was manufactured in the midst of a post party comedown for Nottingham Forest, which was still playing off the debts for the construction of the Executive Stand (now the Brian Clough Stand). Clough himself was flying solo after his acrimonious fall out with his old mate Taylor and laboring under the self imposed pressure to prove he could do it all again on his own and that he hadn’t ‘shot it’ – to use a Taylorism. Under such terms and conditions, this was indeed a great Nottingham Forest team.
Brian Rice was not a central cog in this team. He frittered up and down the left wing and his running style was more mechanical than fluent. He lacked pace, was hesitant in front of goal and delivered wayward crosses. John Robertson, he wasn’t. But in many ways, he was the epitome of a Clough footballer: brave, always available for the ball and neat and tidy in possession. His striking red hair and upright gait ensured he stood out from the crowd. As Duncan Hamilton recalls in his excellent book, ‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 years with Brian Clough’, Clough said of Rice: "I’m not saying he’s thin and pale, but the maid in our hotel remade his bed without realizing he was still in it." To this day, songs are sung about Brian Rice and t-shirts declaring his name are proudly worn. Like most things, the reasons for such reverence are not always simple and straightforward – more often than not, such status is bestowed due to a combination of factors but Rice’s goal makes up the lion’s share of reasons why he is still so beloved.
Famously, the FA Cup eluded Brian Clough’s outstretched hands that had previously grasped every other pot and trinket. This season was going well though and 15 wins from 26 league games (and only five defeats) kept his side in contention for 3rd place – where they would ultimately finish – when the FA Cup Quarter Final rumbled around. Forest had not enjoyed a home draw in the cup thus far and a trip to Highbury represented a significant obstacle on the road to Wembley. The 3rd round saw a tricky sojourn to The Shay but Halifax Town were easily disposed of in a 4-0 win. Next up, Forest faced former European Cup winner Frank Clark’s Leyton Orient and squeezed through 2-1 thanks to two late goals from Lee Glover and Calvin Plummer. Birmingham City was next to be vanquished – a solitary goal from the waif-like Gary Crosby was the difference after a beautiful pass from Nigel Clough set him free – more of this later. Such progress in this competition was unusual for Forest, Clough and the supporters. That tangible feeling of it being ‘Our Year’ lingered around the banks of the Trent.
At Highbury, Paul Wilkinson hammered Forest into the lead in the first half after a neat interchange with young Nigel. His rasping shot from 25 yards out left John Lukic rolling around like a playful puppy. Forest were playing well with the Forest Number 9 causing all manner of problems for a back four comprising of Kenny Sansom, Tony Adams, David O’Leary and Nigel Winterburn. All the while, his father looked on impassively from the greenhouse-esque Highbury dug out, no doubt concealing his pride.
Forest’s ascendency continued into the second half. Somehow neither Gary Crosby nor Paul Wilkinson managed to double the lead after Crosby was put through one-on-one. An excellent recovery by Winterburn thwarted Crosby and Wilkinson screwed the rebound just wide. The famous Arsenal back four were on the ropes by now, encapsulated by Adams standing with his arm in the air appealing for offside as Crosby scampered through. This young and energetic Forest side was undoing the high line that he was marshaling.
Moments later, with the Arsenal defence pushed up to the halfway line, Brian Rice’s legendary status was crafted. Clough tenaciously wins the ball in midfield and lobs it to his mate Crosby wide right. The ball spoons backwards – Crosby is facing his own goal with the experienced Sansom breathing down his neck. No matter. He spins inside and rather than running upfield to await a through ball, Clough goes to help him out. Crosby pings the ball to Clough’s feet. Paul Davis closes him down but Clough adjusts his feet with the grace of Darcy Bussell in order to buy himself some time, look up and leave Davis briefly grasping the floor. Meanwhile, Rice has meandered to the halfway line in acres of space. He knows Clough will somehow extricate himself from the Arsenal pincer – all he has to do is run – stay onside – but run. This he does.
A strange sound floats over the area. It is partly a collective appreciative mumble directed towards the Forest number 9. If distilled into one voice, it would probably translate something like ‘good ball’. Mixed into this is a collective groan from the Highbury faithful – there is only a chasm where a burly defender should be. It’s the sound of panic and fear. After this comes silence – a long, deafening and seemingly eternal silence. Rice is clean tough – he’s not quick but nobody is going to catch him: Clough’s exquisite through ball ensured this to be so. Rice takes the ball in his stride, dinking it onto the pure, green space ahead of him. He is Dorothy skipping through the field towards Emerald City.
The problem with Emerald City though is that it was a sham, a charlatan, and one big dream killing illusion. The Forest fans sense the futility of it all. They’ve just watched Crosby spurn a similar chance. It should be Clough or Wilkinson bearing down on Lukic. But it isn’t. It’s Brian Rice. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s moving too slow. He’s too square on – there’s no angle. He hasn’t got the pace to take it round Lukic and Lukic ain’t moving. He stands, granite like.
But Brian Rice has it all under control. After what seems like an aeon of a staring contest between these two momentary adversaries, Rice adjusts his step. He feet re-organise themselves so as to free up his left foot in order to shoot. Lukic stays upright as long as he can but he senses Rice will blast it along the floor, perhaps close to his body. After all, Lukic has done his homework assiduously: there’s only a very acute angle available to Rice – in order to score, he’s going to have to opt for power. But Rice has the upper hand. He ever so delicately scoops the ball upwards. Lukic’s back arches backwards, as if a puppet master pulls the string firmly downwards. He is gazing up at the battleship grey of the sky and sees only a ball, gently arching its way casually over him before bouncing gracefully into the unguarded net. A legend is born.
On his trudge back to his own half to await Arsenal to resume play, Rice briefly chuckles to himself. Maybe he is reveling in the impetuousness of his dinked finish. Maybe it’s relief. Maybe he can see a future ahead at Forest – perhaps lifting the Cup. No matter: it reminds us all that football is fun, a game to be played with your mates, which can occasionally produce such moments of bliss.
Brian Clough briefly steps out of and then back into his dugout – he looks nervous. He was nervous. He later told Brian Hamilton: "I want to win the FC Cup very badly – but don’t say that unless we do win it." Before the 1991 Cup Final defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. At this precise moment in time, he is arguably the closest he has ever been to doing so.
John Motson acknowledges the build up to the goal in his commentary: ‘His son Nigel made the goal that may have killed off George Graham’s team. One of the best pieces of appreciation of the game you’ll see this season. Many players would have pushed the ball the other way but Clough was so aware." When Brian talked endlessly about brave players who want the ball and don’t hide, his son’s shimmy to take the harder option and turn to face the congested midfield rather than bang it back to Crosby down the wing is perhaps the clearest example of what he meant by this.
Forest lost out to Liverpool in the semi final at Hillsborough, who themselves went on to be defeated by Wimbledon at Wembley. Brian Clough never did get his hands on the FA Cup.
Brian Rice found a place in the hearts of Forest fans to this day. After a few loan spells away from the City Ground, he moved back to Scotland in 1991 to join Falkirk. His drifted around in Scottish football, going on to represent Dunfirmline Athletic, Clyde and, just the once, Greenock Morton in 2000. He would later surface in Qatar as a coach for Al-Khor Sporting Club but things turned sour in 2013 when reports surfaced of him being held in a Qatari jail as a result of gambling debts, drawing concern in Nottingham. Fortunately, he seems to have resurfaced alive and well and is a close confidante of John Hughes, currently enjoying success as manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Rice’s song occasionally still gets an airing when either Forest are cruising to victory or, more often than not, trying to dull the pain of an away defeat. It takes supporters back to the good old days of the late 80s, to Highbury and to the time when Brian Rice produced a beautiful and everlasting moment.
Number 1 is Brian Rice.
Number 2 is Brian Rice.
Number 3 is Brian Rice.
Number 4 is Brian Rice.
Number 5 is Brian Rice.
Number 6 is Brian Rice.
Number 7 is Brian Rice.
Number 8 is Brian Rice.
Number 9 is Brian Rice.
Number 10 is Brian Rice.
Number 11 is Brian Rice.
Number 12 is Brian Rice.
We all live in a world of Brian Rice.
A world of Brian Rice.
A world of Brian Rice.
Here's the whole glorious game: