Monday, July 26, 2010

Rowdies Battle Nottingham Forest, 7/25/80

In 1865, the deadliest war in U.S. history -- the Civil War -- came to an end, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution officially abolished slavery, and John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

At the same time in England, a group of young men formed a football club that would become known as the Nottingham Forest Reds. They would play their first match in January 1866, beginning a tradition that continues to the present day. A club steeped in history and championships, only two clubs in all of England --Stoke City and Notts County -- are older than Nottingham Forest.

On July 25, 1980, this team so steeped in lore came to Tampa for an exhibition against the Rowdies as part of a three-game North American tour.
The Reds were riding on a high as well, having just captured the prestigious European Cup championship in the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons.

They were clearly one of the best soccer teams in the world, while the Rowdies were 14-11 and chasing Ft. Lauderdale for 1st place in the American Conference's Eastern Division. The contest against Nottingham Forest would give the Rowdies a chance to measure themselves against a top flight club, and perhaps through a good showing, provide some momentum for their playoff push.

The Reds, meanwhile, were preparing for the start of the English League season in August.
Still, Rowdie defender Manny Andruszewski had no doubt the Reds would put their best feet forward.

"People are playing for places," he said. "I don't think they are the type of side who will not take the game seriously."

Exhibition or not, Nottingham Forest had no intention of underestimating Tampa Bay, and were certainly aware of another elite English team that came in to Tampa to play the Rowdies and left with a loss.

In May 1978, the Rowdies defeated Manchester United 2-1 in an exhibition at Tampa Stadium. Although Manchester United played without its starting goalkeeper and several other players preparing to play for Scotland in the World Cup, the victory showed that the Rowdies could compete with an English First Division team.

Mike Connell, who scored Tampa Bay's first goal of the game, said that the result "got the attention of people in Europe and helped establish that we were a serious and committed club."

Head coach Gordon Jago said of Manchester United that "it may be some time before we have a team of this caliber in our area again."

It took slightly over two years, but the arrival of Nottingham Forest signaled that time. If fans were hoping for a wide-open affair with a ton of offense, however, they may have left Tampa Stadium disappointed. Those who preferred a tightly played defensive battle got their money's worth and then some.

All told, 21,857 fans showed up on a humid July evening for a game that ended in a 0-0 tie.

Nottingham played their game to perfection, a patient, defense-first philosophy that sought to capitalize on a frustrated opponent's mistakes.
The Rowdies, meanwhile, avoided the temptation to play into Nottingham's hands and stuck to a defense-first style of their own. That the Reds were without three of their best forwards -- John Robertson, Ian Wallace, and "Mr. Magic" Trevor Francis -- certainly decreased their scoring opportunities.

Nottingham took only nine shots on goal the entire game, and only three required Tampa Bay goalkeeper Winston DuBose to save. He turned way Nottingham's best chance 77 minutes into the game, stopping a one-timer off the foot of striker Gary Birtles to keep the game scoreless. The Rowdies did not fare much better offensively, taking 15 shots with only four getting on goal.

The key factor in the nature of the contest turned out to be the placement of the off-sides line, normally located on the 35-yard, but for this game placed at midfield.

"When you play with the midfield stripe as the off-sides line as we did tonight, it makes for a very defensive game," Jago said after the game.

Mike Connell agreed, saying "there is so much space behind you that you must not give a man room to run."

For their performance, the Rowdies earned plenty of accolades from Nottingham following the game.

"Tampa Bay certainly gave us a hard going-over," said Nottingham Forest head coach Peter Taylor.

"They played us out of our skin. Our players are tired and that is the way it should be. It is very competitive over here, much more than I thought it would be."

Even the fans drew raves from the visiting players.

"The fans were well-behaved," said goalkeeper Peter Shilton. "It was a nice atmosphere, especially compared to some England matches."

The Rowdies were plenty pleased with their own effort, and certainly were not lamenting the outcome.

"It's no disgrace not to score against one of the best defenses in the world," midfielder Steve Wegerle said. "Anyone who wants to moan about that game doesn't know anything about soccer."

On this historic night in Tampa, Rowdies fans were given a lesson in defensive, European-style soccer by one of the best and most-storied teams to ever visit Tampa Stadium.

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