Liverpool heroes Thompson and Souness talk Nottingham Forest rivalry

‘They had a curse on us’: Liverpool legends Phil Thompson and Graeme Souness look back on their bitter rivalry with Nottingham Forest from controversial penalties, £300 fines… and that grab on John McGovern’s neck

  • Liverpool enjoyed a fierce rivalry with Nottingham Forest back in the 1980s
  • Jurgen Klopp’s side now face Forest at the City Ground in the FA Cup on Sunday
  • Reds legends Phil Thompson and Graeme Souness reminisced about the rivalry 
  • Souness had John McGovern by the throat at the City Ground during one cup tie

Phil Thompson thinks back to the day Graeme Souness had John McGovern by the throat at the City Ground and laughs.

‘What a photograph that is,’ he says. ‘McGovern probably hadn’t done much wrong but he played for Nottingham Forest so that made it different!

‘We couldn’t wait to get there that day. It was an FA Cup tie but basically we wanted a battle. Thankfully we won that one, which was rare…’

Graeme Souness had John McGovern by the throat in the  FA Cup fourth-round tie in 1980

Souness has his own recollections of that afternoon in January 1980. Given some of the matches that took place between the sides during that era, it was not one of the most significant. Liverpool won 2-0.

But Souness tells Sportsmail: ‘The Cup draw was on the radio and when we drew Forest I could hardly contain my language. The mother-in-law was in the car.

‘It was, “Not those so-and-sos again”. They had a curse on us. We used to play them, spend all afternoon with the ball and then lose. It was irritating, frustrating and bloody annoying.’

Souness and Thompson were titans of Liverpool teams of that era. Both won three European Cups. But mention of Forest still touches nerves.

Graeme Souness and Phil Thompson (pictured) were titans of Liverpool teams of that era

On Sunday the teams will meet in an FA Cup quarter-final at the City Ground. History will mean nothing to either set of players but supporters of a certain age will understand exactly the connotations of this fixture.

As Brian Clough brought Forest out of the second tier to the top of the old First Division and into Europe in the late 1970s, he effectively planted the club’s flag in the centre of Liverpool territory.

In the first nine meetings following Forest’s promotion to the top flight in 1977, Liverpool won just one of them, a remarkable statistic fuelling a rivalry that ran deep and unpleasant.

Brian Clough (left) brought Forest out of the second tier to the top of the old First Division

Arguably it began at the League Cup final in 1978. Liverpool, European Cup holders and league champions, were held to a scoreless draw at Wembley. In the replay at Old Trafford, Forest won thanks to a penalty awarded when Thompson brought down Forest forward John O’Hare with a challenge that was at least half a yard outside the area.

‘John still gets stick whenever he goes to Merseyside,’ says former Forest striker Garry Birtles. ‘They hate him for it. Even though all he did was fall over! I was in the stands and dead level. Thommo was not best pleased and, yeah, he may have had a point.’

Thompson has never quite forgotten what happened that night. He was fined £300 for comments he made to TV.

‘Forest had our number at a time when nobody else had,’ he tells me this week.

‘The First Division was ours by right and they were upstarts. And then they conquered Europe as well, another of our domains.

‘But yeah it all started in that replay. We battered them over two games and lost and I couldn’t get that out of my head.

‘Oh for VAR, eh? They called it the first professional foul and fair enough but it wasn’t in the D, never mind the penalty box.

‘I saw John O’Hare at a dinner I was doing. He was in the audience and I slaughtered him for it. He just sat there and laughed. Fair play.’

Forest cast a further shadow over Liverpool’s football landscape that year by taking their league title. Clough had only brought the club up from Division Two a year earlier. And then, by remarkable chance, the two teams were drawn together in the first round of the following season’s European Cup.

The Nottingham Evening Post labelled the first leg at the City Ground: ‘The Match of the Century’ and, much to his surprise, Birtles was chosen to start only his second game for the club.

‘They were the holders and the best club side in the world,’ Birtles says. ‘They had just beaten Tottenham 7-0 at Anfield.

‘But I did Thommo with a drag back early on. Then I scored. With 15 minutes left he ran past and told me one would not be enough to get us through the second leg.

‘So we scored another. “Will two do?” I said to him. I shouldn’t have said it. He was a star, an England international and I was a nobody. We laugh about it now.’

For the second leg on Merseyside, Clough dipped in to his man-management playbook. He gave his players white wine at lunch and then, on the way to Anfield, stopped the bus to pick up an extra passenger — former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.

‘I was playing cards at the back,’ laughs Birtles. ‘I had no idea why Brian did it. But he’d try anything.’

A scoreless draw at English football’s most intimidating stadium — preceded by a slow and quite deliberate walkabout in front of the Kop — took Forest through. Nine months later they were lifting the trophy in Munich. The following year they did it again.

Nottingham Forest lifted the European Cup in Munich after beating Hamburg in 1980

‘We were in Dubai on a post- season thing when they played Hamburg in their second final,’ recalls Souness.

‘We expected Hamburg to win and you could say that we were not that happy when it didn’t happen.

‘John Robertson scored the winner and he was the most under-rated player of my generation. He would have got in any team and that made him world class.

‘But he would have been the only one of theirs to get in our side. Forest just frustrated the life out of us. We couldn’t find a way to win.’

Clough’s dislike for Liverpool was to endure deep into his 18 years at Forest. One of his future captains, Stuart Pearce, revealed: ‘He used to tell us not to drink the tea because “the cheating bastards have probably put something in it”.’

Liverpool beat Forest in successive FA Cup semi-finals, including the replayed Hillsborough game at Old Trafford in 1989. On that occasion, Liverpool forward John Aldridge celebrated a Brian Laws own goal by ruffling the defender’s hair.

Clough’s dislike for Liverpool was to endure deep into his 18 years at Forest

Aldridge, still wrestling with the emotional fall-out of the tragedy, subsequently claimed he was commiserating with Laws. An apology was also offered but Forest fans have never forgotten.

‘We played Liverpool in the league soon after and Cloughie said if I got sent off he wouldn’t mind,’ Laws later recalled.

‘I did try to nobble him. Even the referee turned his back as if to say, “Go on then”. I got my revenge years later when I was Grimsby manager and he was at Tranmere. I sold him a player who was completely duff.’

On Sunday in Nottingham, the great and the good of Forest’s past will gather for a talkSPORT show at the Trent Navigation Inn across the river from the City Ground. Many of the stories are familiar but others are not.

Thompson finishes by telling a new one. ‘I remember one game at their place,’ he says. ‘I gashed my ankle and was inside having it stitched by their doctor.

‘Cloughie came in and just put his arms round me. He said, “You are some player, son”.

‘It was only afterwards that I realised what he had been doing.

‘He was taking my mind off what the doc was doing, keeping me from the pain. Minutes earlier we had been in a battle. He went up in my estimation after that.’

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