• Matt Appleby

Forest on TV: Steve Elliott and the width of a Highfield Road post

First published in "Forest Review" on Saturday, 8th December, 2019 versus Preston North End

We’ve shared some notable players with Preston over the years from George Lyall to Archie Gemmill, from Nigel Jemson to Paul McKenna.

But this column looks at the lesser known Steve Elliott who unwittingly had a notable part to play in one of the final pieces of the Miracle Men jigsaw.

Back in 1977/78, Elliott and another Steve - Burke - were frequent scorers in the reserves along with a certain Garry Birtles.

We knew of Chilwell local - and Cadland Inn regular - Birtles from his single appearance in March 1977 against Hull but that was in an ill-fated central midfield role; a challenging debut that day against the worldly-wise Billy Bremner.

Burke’s only appearance was as substitute in the Anglo Scottish Cup whilst still at Gedling Comp, giving him the accolade of being our youngest ever player in any competition. He never played in the league though and later departed for QPR in September 1979.

So it was Elliott given the opportunity – ahead of John O’Hare - to replace the departed Peter Withe at the start of the 1978/79 season.

Despite overwhelming Ipswich 5-0 at Wembley in the Charity Shield, the defence of the league title started with a plethora of draws and an absence of goals.

Five consecutive draws followed, with just a solitary Martin O’Neill goal on the opening day against Spurs to show for our efforts.

Elliott made his debut in the first away game, midweek at Coventry, where the 0-0 draw that clinched the league just four months earlier was replicated.

And, here, fate intervenes for the first time.

Local ATV News footage of the match shows Elliott - ironically looking slightly reminiscent of Birtles - receiving the ball in the box from John Robertson, turning neatly and firing across goal.

However, instead of rebounding in for his first Forest goal, the ball hits the post flush and rebounds to safety.

Remarkably, the next three matches were also goalless - at QPR, at Oldham in the League Cup and then at home to West Brom - so Birtles replaces Elliott for Arsenal at the City Ground.

ATV’s Star Soccer covered the game, in which Gary Mills becomes Forest's youngest ever league player and fences were erected to comply with UEFA regulations ahead of the Liverpool European Cup game.

Initially, it looks like the centre forward curse is continuing when Birtles has a first half shot cleared off the line, as we come from behind to win 2-1 against one of the few teams who had some success against Forest in that era.

However, after the match Cloughie taps young Birtles on the shoulder and tells him it is “Birtles” that is the first name of the team sheet for the visit of the reigning European champions the following Wednesday, in what was one of the most eagerly anticipated matches ever held at the City Ground.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Hugh Johns on commentary on that memorable evening of 13th September 1978 was certainly excited by Birtles’ performance, with an early drag back and cross shot eliciting shouts of “Garry Birtles that was explosive!”

In the 26th minute, the ball drops invitingly for Birtles to score at the Trent End where he’d stood on a milk crate with his Dad, Ray, just a few years previously.

Johns is so surprised he hesitates: “Bir…Birtles! His first ever goal for Nottingham Forest. And it just had to be in the European Cup”.

Garry’s life changed forever and the Miracle Men were up and running with the next stage of their remarkable story - European glory.

But, less well known, is the twist for Steve Elliott.

Back-to-back hat tricks for the reserves, coupled with injuries on international duty for Tony Woodcock and Martin O’Neill, gave Elliott a starting place for a final time at Anfield in early December 1978.

Again, history could have panned out so differently - Elliott had the ball in the net early on but only after fouling Ray Clemence.

In the end, that match was another milestone in the Miracle Men story, as the unbeaten league run was finally halted at 42 matches (and the sole Liverpool success in ten matches after Forest's promotion in 1977).

So Elliott never scored for Forest and when Trevor Francis arrived, he was sold to today’s opponents Preston for £95,000.

He made his debut at Deepdale on 17th March 1979 – the same day that Birtles was scoring two in the League Cup Final against Southampton, with another two more controversially disallowed.

Probably unsurprisingly, Preston drew 0-0 but Elliott did then enjoy a career of some repute in the lower leagues – including over 230 appearances and 78 goals at Deepdale.

But who knows how the history of Nottingham Forest FC would now read had that ball rebounded in off the post at Highfield Road in August 1978.

Sadly, it was recently reported that Steve is now suffering from dementia. We wish him and all his family the very best.


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