Leicester City 2015/16 could be the new Nottingham Forest 1977/78

Leicester 2015/16 could be set to replicate the success of Nottingham Forest in 1977/78

With Leicester leading the way in the Premier League title race, a place in history awaits. Where would this rank among England’s most unlikely champions? Perhaps there’s a lesson from history here…

The last time the East Midlands provided the winner of the English title came in 1978 when newly-promoted Nottingham Forest defied the odds, and reigning European champions Liverpool, to lift the trophy.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons, other than mere geography, why the achievements of Brian Clough's team could offer inspiration to the Foxes as the title battle intensifies...

Claudio Ranieri's Leicester are trying to emulate the success of Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest
Image: Could Claudio Ranieri's Leicester emulate the success of Brian Clough's Forest?

The main men

Clough and Claudio Ranieri aren't obvious kindred spirits, but that doesn't mean they don't have similarities. Even so, one suspects they'd prefer to think of themselves as one-offs.

"I can't change now," Ranieri once said. "I'm like Frank Sinatra - I always do it my way." Clough's take on the iconic singer was slightly different. "Ah yes, Frank Sinatra. He met me once, you know?"

Graphic
Image: Clough was famous for his quick-witted quotes during his career

And yet, the image of Clough as an intimidating individual, in stark contrast to Ranieri's gregarious character, is not quite so simple. Both men proved capable of inspiring loyalty and affection.

Jonny Owen, director of I Believe in Miracles, the film charting Forest's hitherto unprecedented achievement points out that the notion players were scared stiff of Clough is misguided.

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"They all say two things that are really interesting," Owen told Sky Sports. "First, there's no doubt he liked a pint, but as Frank Clark said, they never saw him drunk - they all say that.

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Image: Just some of Clough's famous quotes that have entered into folklore

"The second thing was this, he was always funny, he was always a laugh. Nobody was scared of him. Like John Robertson said to me, 'You can't go on the pitch scared, you can't do that, it's impossible'."

On that pitch, both managers have been happy making tactical tweaks - Ranieri is known as the Tinkerman, after all - but neither has been keen to talk up that side of the game too much.

"Players lose you games, not tactics," Clough once said. "There's so much **** talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes."

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Ranieri was quick to play down the significance of Leicester's weekend win

His famous claim that "if God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he'd have put grass up there" might not tally with Leicester's willingness to mix things up but Clough was a pragmatist, too.

In fact, one senses Old Big Head might well approve. As he once said of Martin O'Neill's efforts for the club, "Anybody who can do anything in Leicester but make a jumper has got to be a genius."

Behind the scenes

Speaking of genius, there was plenty of it in Clough's back-room team. Although, that's a term that doesn't really do justice to his long-time assistant manager Peter Taylor. Theirs was a partnership.

As Clough put it himself, "I am the shop front, he is the goods at the back," and Taylor's take on players was trusted implicitly. Together they played the transfer market like nobody else.

Ahead of the 1977/78 season, Forest signed Kenny Burns from Birmingham when "no club would touch him," according to Taylor, with the help of some espionage.

Burns, who had a reputation for numerous vices, was tracked to Perry Barr dog track. Taylor, dressed in a flat cap and dark glasses, monitored his habits and was satisfied he could cope.

 Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough (R) and assistant Peter Taylor
Image: Peter Taylor, pictured alongside Clough, was a huge part of Forest's success

Signing undervalued players was Taylor's forte. He would seek an advantage anywhere he could find it. Leicester have a different approach but the same principles apply. It's all about getting the edge.

Steve Walsh, Leicester's head of recruitment, performs the Taylor role at Leicester. He was the one who sidled up to Ranieri in the summer to tell him about N'Golo Kante.

"He pushed me when I arrived here in June, and then in July," admitted Ranieri. "He said 'Kante, Claudio, Kante'. He was determined to sign him more than I was."

Nigel Pearson manager of Leicester City (back left) alongside Steve Walsh assistant of Leicester City (back right)
Image: Steve Walsh, pictured sat next to Jamie Vardy, has been a pivotal figure

It seems that Walsh recognised his importance for the same reason that Taylor wanted to take Archie Gemmill to Forest in 1977. "We needed his dynamism," Taylor later argued.

Walsh noted the stats that revealed Kante made the most tackles and the most ball recoveries of any player in Ligue 1 last season.

The same technical department had previously unearthed Riyad Mahrez in France's second division and signed Marc Albrighton, in part on the basis of his chances created per minute at Aston Villa.

But it's the signing of Jamie Vardy that really captured the imagination. There was little luck involved as Walsh had followed his progress since his non-league days with Stocksbridge Park Steels.

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Just as Taylor had kept tabs on Long Eaton's Garry Birtles, who would go on to play a key role in Forest's subsequent European Cup win, Walsh tracked his man and eventually made the move.

"We showed him all the scouting reports and footage of what we knew about him, that it wasn't a punt in the dark," said Walsh. "We believed he would be the player who made the difference."

The defensive spine

Vardy might prove to be that difference maker but, as the forward himself acknowledges, it's a team effort and like many good teams, these two were both built from the back.

As well as Burns, Forest had already recruited Larry Lloyd as his centre-back partner. Signed from Coventry, Lloyd was no rookie and turned 29 during Forest's title-winning campaign.

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Ex-Leicester man Matt Elliott explains just why he thinks they'll upset the odds

He was "6'2" tall with a temper to match," according to Taylor, and when goalkeeper Peter Shilton was added to the team, Forest had a formidable defensive spine.

That's just how Clough liked it. "I long ago realised the futility of scoring goals at one end, while letting them in at the other," he reasoned.

Leicester like Forest?

Leicester like Forest?

Peter Shilton compares the teams

Ranieri's fondness for defensive resolve wasn't immediately obvious at the start of the season when he was offering free pizza to his players in the hope of inspiring a shut-out.

But having conceded only three goals in seven games since Christmas, Leicester have become far meaner. "I am Italian, we like clean sheets," said Ranieri. "Every time we concede a goal it hurts us."

Image: Wes Morgan played for Forest before enjoying success at Leicester

With two experienced centre-backs in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, as well as a quality goalkeeper in Kasper Schmeichel, the Foxes boast an uncompromising back-line.

Shilton has noted the similarities. "I do see parallels," said the 125-times capped England goalkeeper. "They've got a great spine to the team, which is what we had at Forest.

"The two centre halves are big imposing figures who don't mess around and know how to put a tackle in, just like we had with Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns."

Leicester's Riyad Mahrez is the go-to man much like John Robertson was for Nottingham Forest
Image: Leicester's Riyad Mahrez is the go-to man much like John Robertson was for Forest

Wizards on the wing

Every team needs a bit of magic and Mahrez has been doing it for Leicester all season. With 14 goals and 10 assists, nobody has contributed directly to more Premier League goals this season.

A £400,000 signing from the French second division in 2014, Mahrez's rise has been swift and he's now among the most sought-after players around.

"Riyad Mahrez has come from nowhere," added Shilton, "a bit like John Robertson did for us. He's that sort of tricky winger that defenders hated playing against."

Riyad Mahrez has come from nowhere, a bit like John Robertson did for us. He's that sort of tricky winger that defenders hated playing against.
Peter Shilton

Forest skipper John McGovern described Robertson as "Ryan Giggs with two good feet, not one" and with 12 league goals that season, he was the team's joint-top scorer in 1977/78.

"When people ask me who was the best player I played with, I don't even hesitate," Lloyd told Sky Sports. "He was a magician, whenever we were in trouble at the back my outlet was John Robertson.

"Give him the ball and he'll give us a rest or he might create something. He was our main man to get us out of trouble." Leicester players might well feel the same way about Mahrez.

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John Dillon of the Evening Standard feels there is substance to Leicester's title bid

Will it have the same ending?

Forest pulled away from Everton in the spring and eventually finished seven points clear of second-placed Liverpool. They drew six of their final eight games but had gone unbeaten since November.

Leicester must fend off the challenges of Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham if they are to complete one of the most astonishing accomplishments in the history of English football.

It's a huge task. But as the pressure mounts, perhaps Ranieri's team can draw inspiration from what was achieved by their East Midlands rivals up the M1.

Nottingham Forest (back l-r) Peter Shilton, Chris Woods, John McGovern, Ian Bowyer, David Needham, front Larry Lloyd, John Robertson with 1979 European Cup
Image: Nottingham Forest went on to win the European Cup in 1979 and 1980

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