Champions LeagueFootball

Nordic Glory 1: When Nottingham Forest spoiled Malmö’s European Cup dream

April 24, 2020

In this series, Finnish football journalist Juhavaltteri Salminen recalls occasions when Nordic teams proved to be a match – and sometimes more than that – for some of the most famous clubs in Europe. The series kicks off with what remains the greatest achievement of a Nordic side in Europe.
 

Nottingham Forest 1–0 Malmö FF, European Cup Final 1978/79

41 years is a long time, but the current state of the football world makes it seem even longer. The idea of a bunch of Swedish part-timers making it to the pinnacle of European football is unthinkable from today’s perspective. Yet that is exactly what happened in 1979.

It took a visionary chairman and an innovative head coach. Suddenly Malmö FF, the pride of a humble industrial town in southern Sweden, were lined up to face Nottingham Forest in search of European football's biggest prize.

Malmö’s road to the 1979 European Cup final had started years earlier in 1974. Chairman Eric Persson had had a long and illustrious career at the helm of his beloved club. He joined as a member in 1925. Four years later he became the club secretary and finally, in 1937, he was elected chairman. During the next 38 years he would decide on pretty much every aspect of running the club, including picking the team, although the squad formally had a separate head coach.

With Persson at the helm, Malmö became a powerhouse in Swedish football. MFF won their first domestic title in 1943–44. By 1971 they had won eight more. It is telling that the street leading up to Malmö’s old and new grounds was later named after Persson.

However, in 1972 and 1973 they only finished mid-table under the leadership of inexperienced coach Karl-Erik Hult. It was clearly time for change. But this time, it would not be just another coaching change. After decades in charge Persson was preparing to step back from his omnipotent role. For the first time, the new Malmö FF head coach would actually pick the team and assume real responsibility of the playing squad.

Persson turned to agent Börje Lantz, who in turn contacted Allen Wade, the technical director of the English FA. Wade recommended an inexperienced 26-year-old named Bob Houghton.

Houghton had gone into management alongside his own playing career at the age of 23, having realised that he was not going to get far as a player. Coaching was a different matter. When Houghton arrived in Scania, Sweden’s southernmost province, in 1974, it marked the start of a revolution in Swedish football.

Houghton guided Malmö to league titles in his first two seasons in charge and again in 1977. At the same time, he started a tactical reform in a country where games had previously been largely decided by how individual players fared against their direct opponents. Gone were the old back threes and back fives, gone was the man marking.

Houghton installed a rigorous 4–4–2 system at Malmö and is widely credited for bringing zonal marking to Sweden. Malmö also changed the game by actually pressing their opponents and implementing the offside trap.

It is hardly surprising that not everybody enjoyed the revolution. Many saw Malmö’s brand of football as boring and primitive. The offside trap was a particular source of discontent due to the number of stoppages it caused. Malmö defenders would happily add to the naysayers’ misery by waving their hands for offside at the slightest opportunity. Many thought referees took the bait.

But the results spoke for themselves, and the European Cup of 1978/79 was the climax of Malmö’s success. A young and entirely Scanian team achieved unprecedented glory on the biggest of stages. Malmö drew 0-0 at home against Monaco in the first round before shocking their more illustrious opponents with a 1–0 win in the principality. In the second round the Swedes went on to beat Soviet giants Dynamo Kiev, thanks to a 2–0 second leg win at home.

If that did not alert people to the danger, the quarterfinals certainly did. Malmö were 3–1 down to Wisla Krakow on aggregate with 25 minutes to go in the second leg, but miraculously scored three goals in the late stages and won. When Austria Wien were beaten at Malmö Stadion on April 25th, the unthinkable had happened. The Swedish amateurs had made it to a European Cup final.

Few could have predicted their opponents either. Brian Clough had famously led Nottingham Forest from the Second Division to the First Division title in just a couple of years, but to play in a European Cup final was something else. Along their journey, Forest had knocked out the mighty Liverpool in the first round and West German champions FC Cologne in the semi-finals.

But Forest had quality players. English national team goalkeeper Peter Shilton played for the Reds. So did full-back Viv Anderson, who had recently become the first black player ever to be capped for England. Just three months earlier, Forest had paid an astronomical transfer fee of over a million pounds to bring in striker Trevor Francis.

They were facing a Malmö FF side with an average age of 25 and consisting of entirely Scanian players. Captain Staffan Tapper grew up on Roskildegatan, just a few goal kicks away from Malmö’s home ground. Left-back Ingemar Erlandsson hailed from the small village of Östra Göinge in northwest Scania, about 75 miles from Malmö. He might as well have been from Mars as far as the other players were concerned.

With that being said, Malmö had some decent players. Unfortunately for them, the story of the final is a story of many ifs and buts. Some of their setbacks bordered on the absurd. Their problems started in the quarterfinals, when Bosse Larsson, one of Sweden’s greatest ever footballers, twisted his knee. He would watch the final with a cast around his leg.

Ahead of the semifinals centre-back Roy Andersson was also struggling with his knee. Houghton turned to 37-year-old club icon Krister Kristensson, who was winding down as player-manager of lower division side Trelleborgs FF. Kristensson did well as an emergency back-up in the first leg against Austria Wien, but returned to Trelleborg as planned after the goalless draw.

“Over the years I have certainly lamented not playing in the final, but there was not a single person in the entire world who believed we could actually make it to the European Cup final”, Kristensson said in an interview with Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet in 2009.

Then on May 7, some three weeks before the final, a most bizarre episode took place. Roy Andersson went to see a surgeon so they could assess his knee issue. The plan was only to go in and see what was wrong so they could plan for future treatment. However, the surgeon’s officiousness took over. Having discovered an injury in the defender’s knee-cap, the surgeon went on to operate it while he was at it. Waking up after the surgery, Andersson was less than pleased to find out that instead of Nottingham Forest in a major final, he was facing a lengthy spell in rehabilitation.

And Malmö’s problems did not end there. During a training session on the eve of the final, midfielders Anders Ljungberg and Staffan Tapper went in for a header. Tapper landed a fraction of a second before his team-mate, who in turn landed on the captain’s foot. Tapper’s toe was broken.

Despite his mounting selection issues, Houghton was not looking for excuses.

“If we lose, people will forget us in five minutes. Only the winners will be remembered. You get nothing for losing”, the manager fumed in the local Sydsvenskan newspaper before the team set off for Munich.

Tapper took injections and was deemed fit to start the game, but Malmö were still missing key players when they walked on the pitch at the Munich Olympic Stadium shortly after 8 PM on May 30th, 1979. And that was not the end of the ifs and buts.

As expected, Malmö sat back and looked to counter, now even more than usual given their injuries. Right midfielder Magnus Andersson filled in at centre-back, while his ordinary position was taken over by Robert Prytz. Prytz, a local boy from the Kirseberg suburb of northern Malmö, had turned 19 in January. Teams could name five substitutes, but the Swedes could only muster four.

Nottingham Forest had the best of the game, but struggled to create meaningful chances. The Malmö defence was compact, and after 10 minutes the Swedes got the opportunity that continues to be discussed to this day.

Forest centre-back Kenny Burns intended to head a long ball back to Shilton, but slipped just as the ball met his forehead. Malmö’s pacey winger Jan-Olov Kinnvall found himself free in the penalty area. He was apparently as surprised as everybody else, because his finishing let him down badly. Shilton hardly had to move a muscle to save Kinnvall’s effort.

 

To this day, many MFF supporters rue what might have been had their team taken the lead. Malmö were known to be excellent at defending a lead. On 34 minutes, the pain in his toe proved too much for Tapper despite the injections. There was no choice but to take him off. Nobody knew that a routine substitution would have dramatic consequences.

Malmö were executing their gameplan pretty well. The minnows did not offer much in the way of attacking play, but they also mostly kept Forest at bay. Nottingham were caught offside 21 times during the match, a testament to Houghton’s offside trap. Malmö also succeeded in directing Nottingham’s attacking play to the flanks, just as they had planned.

Sadly for them, the flanks were exactly where Nottingham’s dangermen were lurking. Just as the clock hit 45 minutes, Anders Ljungberg was dispossessed in midfield. Forest played the ball to the left. Winger John Robertson dashed forward and crossed the ball towards the far post where Francis, usually striker but a trequartista on the night, arrived to head home.

The goal was scored on added time. The half-time whistle came before play was restarted. Had Tapper not been forced of ten minutes earlier, Forest would never have got the chance. Francis had not even been eligible during Nottingham’s run to the final. The game in Munich was the first match the record signing could be registered for. Too bad for Malmö.

“It was very quiet in the dressing room. Bob was walking around and trying to cheer the team up. (Striker) Tore Cervin also said we would sort it out somehow, but we could not really find the energy to pick ourselves up”, goalkeeper Jan Möller reminisced in an interview with Swedish website SvenskaFans in 2009. "Perhaps we were not strong enough. As underdogs, we might have needed to score the first goal to have a chance”.

Malmö were nowhere near an equaliser in the second half. They were known to be dangerous with their set-pieces, but even that bit of luck deserted them on the night. MFF won only three corners during the entire game. They were given some free-kicks from promising positions, but all of them were wasted miserably.

But Malmö played well enough to make sure Forest were far from their best. Nottingham undoubtedly had the better of the game, but Malmö were not blown out by any means. They gave themselves a chance, however small it may have been. Maybe, if not for the ifs and buts…

But at least the remarkable achievement has proven Houghton wrong in at least one aspect. Sometimes the losers are not forgotten.

“Every year, when the Champions League final comes around, the highlights of the game are shown on Swedish TV. ‘This is what happened when Malmö were in the final’…And then I know I am going to have to see the goal again”, Möller said decades later.

“In fact, I have actually tried to change the course of history. (Journlist) Ken Olofsson has helped me edit the clip so that it seems the ball actually flew over the bar”, the goalkeeper has joked. But the game remains more than a fun curiosity in a Champions League final broadcast.

“All those games opened the door for Swedish club football. We showed it is possible to compete against top European clubs. We were pioneers for Swedish club football in Europe”, said Möller. “That experience made we want to play at a higher level, not just as a part-timer but as a professional. The European Cup journey made me really put an effort on football”, recalled Robert Prytz.

He went on to play professionally in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Scotland. And Houghton's tactical revolution went on to shape Nordic football for years to come, as we are about to learn later in this series.

Sources: Aftonbladet, The Blizzard, SvenskaFans, Mats Weman: 1979 – När Malmö FF var näst bäst i Europa, Sydsvenskan

Nordic Glory 1: When Nottingham Forest spoiled Malmö's European Cup dream
Nordic Glory 2: Sven Goran Eriksson's IFK Göteborg shock "arrogant" German giants
Nordic Glory 3: All-conquering Liverpool suffer embarrassing defeat in freezing Helsinki
Nordic Glory 4: Swedish elation and Scottish disappointment in an unlikely European final
Nordic Glory 5: 'Miracle in Milan' as amateur Finnish side TPS shock Inter at the San Siro
Nordic Glory 6: One last hurrah for European greats IFK Göteborg at Manchester United's expense
Nordic Glory 7: Rosenborg humiliate AC Milan as Norwegian football emerges from darkness
Nordic Glory 8: "This is the f****** Champions League" – Stuart Baxter fumes as ref helps Barcelona beat AIK
Nordic Glory 9: Chelsea come undone on a "farcical" polar night in Norway as Ruud Gullit fumes