1979 is, of course, famous for being the year that delivered the European Cup to the City Ground for the very first time. Representing the first of what would famously become two consecutive European Cups for Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough, it is a story that never fails to inspire the underdog teams of English football. However, as runners-up in the 1978/79 European Cup, the Malmö FF squad that fell to Forest are often criminally overlooked by history – particularly when recalled from an English perspective.
Prior to 1974, few could have guessed that Malmö FF, a club from a humble coastal region of southern Sweden would soon find itself in the midst of a golden era. Although league titles were not an absolute rarity, the Allsvenskan trophy had been absent from its tomb at the Malmö Idrottsplats for two seasons, prior to Bob Houghton’s arrival at the club. A very ‘English’ manager, Houghton quickly (and successfully) migrated in a direct, fast-paced and uncompromising English game across the North Sea to Malmö.
It did not take long for Malmö to become by far the fittest and most aggressive team in the country. Duly, they won the 1974 Allsvenskan by a resounding nine-point margin and successfully defended their title the following year. The subsequent European Cup campaigns, on both occasions, were unremarkable. In the 1975/76 edition, Malmö scraped past East German side Magdeburg on penalties but fared less well on the other side of the Berlin Wall. A 2-1 aggregate defeat to eventual cup winners Bayern Munich saw Houghton’s side sink without trace, dismissed by a true giant of European football and consigned to a footnote in the history books – although they did win the home leg 1-0.
Malmö FF “Road to Munich” – Part 1 (Swedish Language)
In the 1976/77 European Cup, Malmö fared even worse. They fell at the first hurdle, to Italian club Torino, and had by then also relinquished the Allsvenskan trophy to Halmstads BK. For the first time since his arrival at Malmö, Bob Houghton was enduring a bleak period of much scrutiny, the type of which has often been the death-knell for a lesser man. No doubt taking inspiration from Brian Clough, the man who would, in the not-so-distant future be his opposite number in a European final, Houghton sought to reinvent the ‘spine’ of the team. Curiously though, it would utilize the right side of the field rather than the centre, with the focal point being pace and an element of surprise, as defensive solidarity was still one of the team’s strong points.
Today recognized as two of the club’s most notable players, Roland Andersson and Robert Prytz arrived in 1977, together adding an extra degree of field coverage which would prove vital towards building the squad’s overall chemistry. For his part, Andersson had already spent six years at Malmö before departing for Djurgardens. His departure signaled the aforementioned downturn in Malmö’s fortunes.
Re-signing for Malmö as a 27-year old in the prime of his playing career, Andersson’s performances illustrated perfectly what the squad had missed during his absence. Prytz, on the other hand, was a young upstart, who was just seventeen years old when promoted to the senior squad for Malmö’s European cup campaign. He played with a type of poise that defied his tender age, and his pace on the wing often startled players many years his senior. In time, he would become an international player, earning 56 caps for Sweden.
A respected manager and new additions are just two elements of a ‘successful’ team, but they would be rendered meaningless without a loyal and inspirational captain. Staffan Tapper was that captain, consistently acting as the beating heart of the ‘midfield engine’ that made Malmö’s European adventure possible. Appropriately, he too hailed from Malmö, and his appearance in the 1979 European Cup final represented the culmination of eleven years’ exemplary service for Di Himmelsblått. Today, he remains a vital part of the club, as its youth talent coach.
Malmö FF “Road to Munich” – Part 2 (Swedish Language)
The Final Act
The eleven Swedes that took to the Olympiastadion pitch that night all embodied the Viking spirit of their ancestors. More topically, post-war child Houghton’s never-say-die, bulldog attitude was also reflected throughout the squad. However, with away goals at a premium, such passion had been largely shelved in the preceding rounds, making way for a defensive game that served to snuff out the danger men and frustrate the opposition. After scraping past AS Monaco, few fancied Malmö to make it past Soviet representatives Dynamo Kyiv. After holding a side containing club legends Oleh Blokhin and Leonid Buryak to a 0-0 draw in Kiev, Malmö won the return leg 2-0.
After beating Wisla Krakow 5-2 on aggregate, with an Anders Ljunberg hat trick proving the difference between progression and elimination, Malmö reverted to type in the semi finals. A 0-0 draw away to Austria Vienna put the tie on a knife-edge, but a solitary goal from Tommy Hansson ensured that Malmö FF would become the first and (to date) only Swedish team to reach a top-tier European cup final.
By sheer contrast, Malmö’s final opponents Nottingham Forest had been by far the most entertaining side in the competition. Typically for a Clough team, the reds of Nottingham began their own European adventure by stunning the Reds of Merseyside, with a 2-0 win at the City Ground.
Malmö and Nottingham Forest met again in the 1995/96 UEFA Cup. Malmö beat Forest 2-1 at home, but were eliminated on away goals after losing 1-0 at the City Ground in the return leg.
As reigning European champions, Liverpool were expected to overturn this deficit at Anfield in typical crushing fashion. European football bettors, especially if granted the opportunity of a free £50 bet from Coral, would have not hesitated in backing them to win the competition yet again, but Forest had other plans. Football lore recalls that Clough, sensing his team’s nervousness on the eve of the Anfield trip, instructed his entire team to drain a crate of scotch and engage in a bonding session. It was undoubtedly the act of a maverick, but Forest defied the odds and held out for a 0-0 draw at Anfield to progress.
Any team playing with a hangover and still pulling off a clean sheet at Anfield in the late 1970s knew they could not fail to hit the stratosphere thereafter. In the subsequent rounds, Forest managed at least four goals on aggregate. The final itself was not an exemplary display of football, but never once proved short of passion, and a solitary goal from Trevor Francis on the stroke of half time proved the difference.
Though it was a losing final for Malmö, they could at least have the satisfaction of knowing that they made a Brian Clough team look decidedly mortal. Those who crave an entertaining brand of football may hate Malmö for championing a defensive style, but it was not without good reason, nor an element of surprise. Ultimately, Houghton’s side served as a model example of how any team can stifle any opposition on the European scene under the right setup. To the more open-minded observer, Malmö remain a symbol of inspiration for teams that do not represent the more celebrated and decorated nations of European football.