It is almost 31 years since Nottingham Forest last competed in a League Cup semi-final but Nigel Clough can still remember those moments with pin-sharp clarity.
Clough’s affinity with the competition the club have won four times runs deep, and as Forest prepare to face Manchester United on Wednesday he is recalling the period when trips to Wembley felt like annual events under his father, Brian.
With Clough Jnr in the team Forest lifted the League Cup twice, in 1989 and 1990, also reaching the final in 1992, and the memories are flooding back for the club’s former striker.
“We beat Bristol City in extra time [in the 1989 semi-final second leg] on a bog of a pitch with snow and sleet hammering down. It was one of the coldest days I’ve ever known,” he says, sitting in his office at Mansfield Town’s training ground.
“There used to be a big bath at Ashton Gate and after the game we all jumped into it, shivering. We’d just got ourselves to a Wembley final but we were more interested in getting warm than anything else.”
Two seasons later, in the 1990/91 campaign, Forest were defending champions twice over and faced Coventry City at Highfield Road. Clough still struggles to comprehend what unfolded over the course of 90 mad minutes.
“We hadn’t lost for two and a half years [in the League Cup] and were 4-0 down after 34 minutes. Loads of Forest fans had gone home, but we got it back to 4-4 [Clough scored an eight-minute hat-trick before half-time] and still ended up losing.
“A bloke in Marks & Spencer came up to me the day after the World Cup final and mentioned it, he said I must have felt like [Kylian] Mbappé.
“I didn’t even get the matchball – Kevin Gallacher got it.”
In Forest’s last appearance in the semi-finals, they faced Tottenham Hotspur over two legs in 1992. The second match was at White Hart Lane and both teams’ preparations were turned upside down by a long delay before kick-off.
“There was a bomb scare at the ground,” recalls Clough. “We were due to kick off in a couple of hours and the bus pulled over in a side road half a mile from White Hart Lane.
“We were just waiting to be told when we could go in. We weren’t given too much information. It felt like hours, so we sat and played cards. I think a few of us went for a stroll.
“We’d had the pre-match meal five or six hours before so I don’t think the nutritionists and sports science guys nowadays would have approved.”
Forest would go on to win the tie, courtesy of a thumping header in extra time from a 20-year-old Roy Keane, and then lose the final to United.
Though nobody envisaged it at the time, it was the end of an era for Forest, and Clough’s father, who retired a year later following the club’s relegation from the Premier League.
“When you see Forest this season on the TV and the supporters' faces, they are absolutely revelling in every minute of it. So they should, because you never know when it’s going to come round again,” says Clough, 56.
“One phrase I hear in football which makes me angry, sad and frustrated is ‘oh, it’s only the League Cup’ – if anyone had said that when we were playing all those years ago, you’d have been out of the dressing room in a flash.
“Every competition we went into, we went to win. There were no weakened teams. Whether it was the Simod Cup, the Zenith Data or the Mercantile Credit you played and they were treated properly.
“It came from my dad, first of all. There was no lesser game or competition. We used to have no fear, whether it was Arsenal at Highbury or United at Old Trafford.”
Up the A60 at Mansfield Town, Clough still keeps a close eye on his old club. He is a huge admirer of Steve Cooper, who has transformed Forest since his appointment in September 2021.
Clough wrote to Cooper to congratulate him after promotion from the Championship and met up with him in November when Forest faced Mansfield in a friendly.
“It’s so good to see them back up there and Steve deserves massive credit for that,” he says. “I think they will survive [in the league] and traditionally the cups always went hand in hand with Forest.
“There have been managers in the past who haven’t embraced the history of the club but Steve gets it.
“You don’t have to get obsessed with it, but at least acknowledge it because fans will talk about it. You can’t ignore the past. It feels like a lifetime ago but it should be celebrated.
“Fans my age come up to me and say their kids had never seen the good times, but now they can enjoy it.”
Cooper faces United on Wednesday in the first leg aiming to protect a home record which has seen them unbeaten in eight matches.
“The atmosphere will be incredible and they have got a real chance,” says Clough.
“I don’t think signing so many players helped initially and it takes three to four months to work out your best team.
“The first few months would have been mayhem, taking a couple of beatings, but it’s about how you react. Gradually they have found their feet and the belief grows.”
For Clough, the full focus remains on Mansfield and taking the club out of League Two.
There remains some lingering disappointment from defeat in last season’s play-off final, but they remain within touching distance of the top-seven.
Clough is now on 1,402 games in management and admits the addiction of match-days will never leave him.
“It’s 24 years now and we keep going. It gets more intense as you get closer to what is perceived as the end. You actually get more animated, and engrossed. Defeats hurt you just as much, that doesn’t ease with time.
“We always try to separate the result and the performance. If you’ve given everything and lost, the fans here will give you a standing ovation. We’d been on a dreadful run last season and played Port Vale at home, we drew 1-1 and missed a penalty but we were magnificent.
“The crowd were on their feet. It was almost emotional for us and the players. They had never experienced it before. I never thought I’d do so many games – my wife certainly didn’t!”