Milk. Littlewoods. Rumbelows. Coca-Cola. Worthington’s. Carling. Capital One.
Call it what you will (Mickey Mouse, if you must) but this old trophy has given the club some joy down the years. Admittedly, the cup hath overflowed significantly less in recent times. Nonetheless, it’s a competition that has provided us with some memorable moments.
Only three clubs have lifted this glorious trophy more than Forest (Liverpool on eight occasions and Aston Villa and Chelsea with five) - who themselves have done so on four occasions (along with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur). As usual, the first time remains the sweetest and is memorable for the sight of John Robertson converting a somewhat controversial penalty at Old Trafford to see off the mighty Liverpool on a cold evening in 1978 after a goalless final at Wembley. Arguably, this victory gave the team built by Clough and Taylor the belief that they could stand toe to toe with Liverpool. Up until then, Forest’s record against the Merseysiders was poor but a mere four months later, they were unceremoniously knocking Bob Paisley’s team out of the European Cup which signalled a period in which Forest briefly knocked them off their perch and gave way to a diminished but still evident rivalry between the two clubs.
Liverpool's Tommy Smith didn't take it well:
Like a child tasting tomato sauce for the first time, the Forest players were hooked. Success was something that tickled the tastebuds and they maintained their grip on the cup by defeating Southampton 3-2 a year later in a pulsating final thanks to a Garry Birtles brace and a Tony Woodcock effort. This League Cup malarkey was quite fun.
Of course, the club's firm grip on the League Cup couldn’t last and despite making it to the final for a third successive time in 1980, Andy Gray capitalised on a mix-up between Peter Shilton and David Needham to bundle in the only goal of the game. Immensely disappointing but rather tempered somewhat by the successful retention of some other cup or other secured by John Robertson in the Bernabeu.
But then there was a ‘break’, a hiatus, a falling out, if you will, between Forest and the League Cup. Something changed. In fact, both parties changed, evolved and matured. The League Cup went and flirted with numerous others, starting in 1982 with Milk for four years and then with Littlewoods. Forest looked on enviously and cast covetous glances towards the old trophy but could only watch from behind tightly drawn bedroom curtains and listen to The Smiths. It took a while to accept but after much introspection and naval gazing, it was accepted that both parties had moved on - it was fantastic while it lasted but these things happen. It wasn't easy but Forest did eventually get over it and successfully reinvented itself to emerge blinking into the sunlight as a vital and slick gunslinging hipster. It seems that The League Cup (now Littlewoods) likes a Garry with two Rs and on the 25th February 1989, Garry Parker finally saw off plucky Bristol City in extra time with a thumping shot at Ashton Gate to send the club back to Wembley for the first of many occasions.This was a memorable match for many reasons: the biblical rain that transformed the pitch into a quagmire, the moment when Alan Walsh hit the post in the dying seconds of normal time that saw Steve Sutton swirling desperately on his line in search of the whereabouts of the ball, that Parker strike which sent the drenched Forest fans on the open terrace into spasms of delight.
Wembley. For the younger generation of Forest fans, this was the first opportunity they got to see their heroes play at the home of English football. Mick Harford out-jumped Brian Laws to nod the Hatters into a deserved half time lead, which might well have been more were it not for Steve Sutton’s work between the sticks. But this young Reds team clicked into gear in the second half and when Les Sealey felled Steve Hodge, a penalty was awarded - coolly dispatched by Nigel Clough. It got even better - a glorious raking ball from Tommy Gaynor found Neil Webb facing down Sealey. He casually converted to take the lead. Inflatable tricky trees were waved in the air like people just didn't care. Just to make sure, Stuart Pearce abruptly halted a Luton attack and gave the ball once again to Gaynor who found the Forest Number Nine on the edge of the box. He scuffed his shot into the net to claim the club's first silverware since The Wonder Years (the period of European dominance, not the TV show).
A curious mirroring effect then occurred as like in 1979, the cup was retained by defeating Oldham Athletic thanks to a Nigel Jemson goal. Could the club go one better and retain it for a third time?
Actually no but the Scottish football team were challenged for the right to claim the tag of kings of glorious and heroic failure thanks to an epic round of sixteen game at Highfield Road which ended Forest's 22 game unbeaten run in what was now the Rumbelows Cup. Barely a sweat was broken and Forest were 4-0 down, thanks largely to a Kevin Gallagher hat trick. This was not good. If they were going out, the least they could do was to restore some pride by scoring a goal. This they did as young Nigel hammered one home from the edge of the box. Surely a consolation at best as Steve Hodge didn’t even bother retrieving the ball from the net, fight off various defenders and slam the ball expectantly down on the centre spot. None of that – it was still 4-1 after all - what would be the point in that? Instead, he bided his time and set up the Number Nine for another goal. Then some young Irish upstart called Keane or something or other drove from midfield and the ball came to thunder thighs on the left who slammed in a cross, which Clough bundled home. 4-3. It wasn’t even half time.
The Garry with two Rs blessing struck once again as Parker found the inside of Steve Ogrizovic’s post with a long-range effort. Unbelievable, Jeff. But then Cyrille Regis went and ruined one of the greatest comebacks ever by going and scoring for the Sky Blues. A bit selfish that.
A year later, with the Cup still sleeping around and having climbed into bed with Coca Cola now, Forest tasted glory of sorts again after seeing off Tottenham Hotspur in a memorable semi final tie. After a 1-1 draw at the City Ground in which Gary Lineker converted a penalty and Erik Thorsvedt fortuitously threw in a Teddy Sheringham effort, it was all to play for at a rain drenched White Hart Lane. A bomb scare nearby prior delayed the kick off but a full-blooded bullet header from Roy Keane edged Forest through to face Manchester United in the final.
The build up to this game saw fevered speculation as to whether Stuart Pearce would make the starting line up as he was recovering from injury. He didn’t. Brett Williams did instead. Brian McClair’s goal on 14 minutes settled the otherwise forgettable game. In 1994 Forest made it to another semi final but lost out to Tranmere Rovers after a first leg draw at the City Ground. Disappointing but promotion back to the Premier League was secured.
But then came the drought. Apart from a string of 3rd or 4th round exits, little of significance happened between the two once close entities that are Nottingham Forest and the League Cup. Of course, the Cup continued to see other people while Forest retreated back to the safety and darkness of their musty smelling and darkened room and listened to Portishead and Radiohead (but not Bellowhead or Talking Heads). But this was ok. This wasn’t too bad. Until the pain kicked in.
In 2000, Darlington edged Forest out in the first round and what's more, did so at the City Ground. In 2005, Macclesfield repeated the trick and a year later, Accrington Stanley thought they’d get in on the act too and inflicted an embarrassing 1-0 defeat while Neil Harris and Spencer Weir-Daley ran aimlessly around up front for an hour and a half. The White Stripes and My Chemical Romance offered little comfort. It seemed that club and cup had finally grown inseparably apart.
2007 provided a dark memory as Leicester City came to the City Ground for a first round tie. At half time, Foxes defender Clive Clarke suffered a cardiac arrest in the changing room. The match was abandoned but thankfully Clarke recovered. The replayed game featured the bizarre spectacle of Forest keeper Paul Smith dribbling the ball uncontested into the City goal in order to reflect the score line from the first match when it was abandoned. Forest lost convincingly but more importantly, Clarke was ok.
The epic love affair briefly sparked into life in 2011 as the first round saw Forest paired with city rivals Notts County. The Magpies were the better team but an outrageous final minute equaliser from Wes Morgan took the game to penalties, in which the Reds prevailed. This contest took place in the summer of the London riots. A Nottingham derby on a balmy August evening could easily have descended into civil unrest and make hands unclean. But not only did the two clubs serve up a cracker of a 3-3 game, no arrests were made and Nottingham football could give itself a right old slap on the back.
Since then, nothing of real note apart from a period of around 10 minutes at White Hart Lane when it looked like Jorge Grant's debut goal might cause a bit of a stir. Some early round successes against minnows followed by ties against superior opposition against whom Forest have come up short. One wonders whether this love affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton proportions will rekindle itself in the near future, or whether it finally burned out for good against Manchester United back in 1992. A more likely scenario is that occasionally, it will flicker into life intermittently and fans will have another moment like John Robertson’s penalty or Garry Parker’s thunderbolt (in the pouring rain) or Roy Keane’s header (in the ceaseless rain). Rain.
August 2015 will see Forest embark upon another assault on the old cup as they will face Walsall in the first round. On the face if it, a harmless enough tie but every Forest fan knows how godawful the club's record is against the Saddlers in recent years.
One day, the club and the cup will catch each other's eyes across a packed dance floor once again and those old feelings will stir again.