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big challenge ‘I don’t think Brian Clough would have been great in the modern era’, says ex Nottingham Forest star


Tommy Gaynor at the City Ground, where Nottingham Forest host Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final

Tommy Gaynor at the City Ground, where Nottingham Forest host Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final

Tommy Gaynor at the City Ground, where Nottingham Forest host Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final

Jurgen Klopp said all the right things about respect when he was asked this week about Liverpool’s opponents from a lower league in the FA Cup this weekend.

Yes, Nottingham Forest are in form in the Championship and are at home in tomorrow’s quarter-final, but even a Liverpool side with players rested – and Klopp has already confirmed that he’s serious enough about the tie to play Alisson instead of giving Caoimhin Kelleher game time – should be able to account for Forest.

Yet there was a time when Forest were one of the few clubs in England who were able to lay a glove on one of the best-ever Liverpool teams. On their way to winning the league in 1987/88, only two teams were able to beat Kenny Dalglish’s side: previous champions Everton, and Forest.

And an Irishman had a key role for those heady days, when Forest were a force in the English game, headed by the incomparable Brian Clough.

“They were great days, it was brilliant to be part of all that,” says Tommy Gaynor. The Limerick-born attacker is now far from the daily grind of football with his days taken up in car sales with James Barry Motors in Limerick. He hasn’t been in the game since a brief spell as Kilkenny City manager in 2007 and has with no urge to get back involved.

But Gaynor (59) left his mark, especially in Nottingham. His career began and ended in the League of Ireland, where he played for 11 clubs, including three different Limerick outfits (“as my late father told me, if you play for Derry and Harps, you have done them all,” he jokes) but that five-season spell at Forest (1987-1992) was his peak – heady days of top-flight football, cup runs and Wembley glory.

Signed by Clough from Doncaster Rovers at the start of the 1987/88 season, injury and intense competition for places restricted Gaynor to 53 league games (10 goals) across his five seasons, but he’s still fondly remembered there, especially for the role he played in a League Cup final win in 1989.

No league medals, two FA Cup runs halted at the semi-final stage by Liverpool and no caps, but no regrets for Gaynor who enjoyed the ride at a time when Forest could mix it with the best.

And Liverpool were the best.

“We had a great side, a team of internationals, basically, Sheringham, Clough, Pearce, Walker, later Roy Keane. I had five years there, we finished third in the top division in England, unfortunately we were up against a very good Liverpool team for all those years,” Gaynor recalls.

“They were just a super team, the best team in England, they were the best team for a five-six year period. Alan Hansen was a midfielder disguised as a defender, he just marshalled that defence so well and was so good on the ball.

“John Barnes was, to me, the best player in England at that time, Ian Rush and John Aldridge up front, Ronnie Whelan in midfield, every player on that side was just brilliant.”

In his debut season at Forest, they played Liverpool three times in a hectic 11-day spell close to the end of the season: a 2-1 home win in the league for Forest only one of two losses in the league for champions-elect Liverpool, then a 2-1 victory for the Reds in the FA Cup semi-final, and heavy loss.

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“They were hard matches against Liverpool. I remember being on the receiving end of a 5-0 drubbing in Anfield, which was hard to take, I was on the bench that day and I was probably glad I didn’t play, no one likes to lose 5-0. We’d beaten them 2-1 just before the 5-0 and they were hurt,” Gaynor says.

Gaynor was more prominent in the Liverpool battles the following season (1988/89), a season when trauma trampled the English game. Gaynor was in sunny Sheffield for the Forest-Liverpool Cup semi-final which was halted by the Hillsborough disaster, and once the game was refixed for a month later, Gaynor started, in what turned out to be an emotion-tinged 3-1 win for the Reds.

“That was a hard time for everyone involved in football but especially the Liverpool lads. Everton had already made it into the final, in England the whole country, maybe the whole world, was crying out for an all-Merseyside final and it was probably fitting that it ended up that way,” he says.

In his first two seasons at Forest, Clough’s side were well ahead of the likes of Manchester United.

“In my first year there (1987/88) we finished third, Liverpool won the league. At Christmas we beat Arsenal, away, to go second but we were still behind Liverpool, yet we were able to give them a good game” he says.

“The next season (1988/89) when it was that Liverpool-Arsenal battle on the last day, we finished third and the next year we finished ninth. We were top half every year.

“But we could have won the league in 1987/88. It was between us and Liverpool, we were the two best teams in England at the time. We were just unfortunate to come up against them, in the league and in the cup, they beat us twice in the FA Cup semi-final.”

The cups would bring some joy to Forest, and to Gaynor. In 1988/89 they had two successful trips to Wembley, beating Luton Town in the League Cup final and three weeks later defeating Everton in the Simod (Full Members) Cup.

But Gaynor was almost denied those days out. “The year we won the League Cup, I got injured in January, in a Simod Cup game at Stamford Bridge, I did my knee cartilage. I got injured in the first half but played on, we went to extra time, I scored the winner… and I was out for three months,” he says.

“That was back in the day, you just got the magic sponge and went on your way, But I came back to play in the League Cup final. It was fantastic, to come back from injury, get into the side and play, and play well, was amazing.”

Five years of working under Clough taught Gaynor a lot. He’s asked about one story of local legend: when asked by the local press what injury was keeping Gaynor out of the Forest side, Clough responded “He’s Irish. He probably fell over coming back from the pub”.

No offence was taken. “That’s how Clough was, his way of deflecting things,” Gaynor says now.

“I don’t remember him saying that, I have heard the story, maybe he said it, but it’s the kind of thing he would have said and there was no offence intended.

“He put you at ease. I roomed with Des Walker, we were up in our rooms in the hotel the night before the ‘89 League Cup final but we couldn’t sleep, we were tossing and turning.

“We went downstairs to the hotel, Clough and his staff were there playing pool. Me and Des joined in, played a few games of pool, had two halves of lager and went back to for a great night’s sleep, we slept well and played great at Wembley the next day. That was Clough, his man-management was superb.”

Gaynor was also on hand to see a young Roy Keane emerge with Forest. “You could see from day one that he was so talented, it was just pure, raw talent. He was his own man when he came over, he had a good head on his shoulders and knew the story, he could turn it on any time he wanted,” he says.

“We had a similar background – from Ireland but not from Dublin, we’d played in the League of Ireland. I would try to point him in the right direction but when a lad is young, they never go in that direction, they need to find their own way and he did settle in well at Forest. He was great to play with, he had this energy, he’d come in at the end of a game and he could easily go out and play another 90 minutes, he was that good, and that fit.”

Injury also denied him a day out in the FA Cup final in 1991. “I played in every round but got injured before the end and didn’t get in, not in time.

“I think myself and Roy played in a reserve game on the Wednesday, the Cup final was on the Saturday, for both of us that was our first game back after injury, Roy came through and played in the Cup final but I didn’t. It was hard, playing in every round and not playing in the final, but that’s life,” he says.

His Forest days wound down as Gaynor played rarely in his final season there (1991/92) and after a spell with Millwall, he returned to Ireland, for family reasons, in 1993, and there followed a Discover Ireland tour (Derry City, Cork City, Athlone Town, Bohemians, St Pat’s, Limerick and Kilkenny).

He watched from afar as Forest slid out of contention and down the ladder of the English game, while his attendance, as a special guest of the club, for Martin O’Neill’s first game as Forest manager in 2019, was his first time there in 25 years, but fans still remembered him from his key role in the 1989 League Cup win.

“It’s been a rough few years for Forest,” he says. “It’s a club that’s geared for the Premier League but they just can’t get there, they have a great fan base, their supporters are superb and it’d be great to see them back in the Premier League. They are seventh in the Championship and have a chance of going back up.”

He knows his era has passed. “I would rather play when I did rather than now, it’s all a bit sterile now, it’s all stop-start. When I played, if someone tackled you, you got up and got on with it, you moved on and maybe you got your own back later on,” he says.

“It’s tough to manage players and that’s how hard it is now, look at Man United, they are a shambles, it’s tough for managers now and I don’t think Clough would have been great in the modern era.”

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