The 1988 Luton weekender
A version of this article was originally first published in "Forest Review" on Sunday, 19th January, 2020 versus Luton Town
The unusual noon kick off for today’s match is nothing compared to the palaver around our two league fixtures with today’s visitors in the 1987/88 season which, eventually, became possibly the most obscure league matches in our recent history.
We finished third in the top flight that season and finally enjoyed some 1980s FA Cup success in reaching the semi-final before losing 2-1 to Liverpool at Hillsborough - the season before the terrible tragedy at the same fixture and venue.
Luton embarked on an even more memorable cup season, challenging in three different competitions.
Like us, the Hatters were FA Cup semi-finalists, losing 2-1 to Wimbledon in the other tie at White Hart Lane.
Notably, they won the League Cup, beating Arsenal 3-2 with two late goals, including one from ex-Red Danny Wilson.
One season later, of course, we beat them 3-1 in the 1989 final of the same competition, courtesy of a storming second half fightback with Nigel Clough and Neil Webb amongst the goals.
Plus, back in that 1987/88 season, Luton also reached the final of the Full Members Cup, surprisingly losing 4-1 to Second Division Reading who were relegated to Division Three, whilst the Hatters finished a creditable ninth in the top flight.
The Royals had also beaten us on their route to Wembley in our first ever match in the competition and, to complete the neat symmetry, we also won that competition the next season, beating Everton 4-3 in the 1989 final.
However, those 1987/88 cup successes caused havoc with both our club's fixture lists.
Matters were further complicated when the City Ground fixture in November 1987 was postponed just three minutes before kick off with the crowd already in the ground … due to the mist rolling in from the Trent.
Those of us present can attest there was absolutely no chance of the match taking place – from the Trent End I couldn’t even tell how many Luton fans had travelled.
With still no sign of the rearranged home fixture because of our respective cup commitments, the return match at Kenilworth Road in April 1988 was then also postponed as it clashed with Luton’s League Cup final appointment.
With Luton home and away still marked as “TBC” at the bottom of the fixture list, the clubs came up with a novel idea of playing the Kenilworth Road fixture the night before the start of the Football League Centenary Festival weekend at nearby Wembley.
However, the Football League over-ruled and postponed the match so as not to devalue their own centenary "celebrations", much to the despair of our secretary, Paul White, who used his programme column to berate the League.
Albeit, maybe without that heavy-handed intervention, we wouldn’t be able to include that (less than) esteemed tournament in our list of honours to this day …
So, with the season proper due to finish on Saturday, 7th May, 1988, we were left with the highly irregular solution of having to play the two matches after the end of the season – away on the following Friday (appropriately the 13th) and then at home just two days later.
On the Saturday inbetween that weekend was the highlight of the footballing calendar in those days, the FA Cup final, between our respective semi-final conquerors, Liverpool and Wimbledon.
Had we and Luton both prevailed in those semi-finals, it would have been a repeat of the 1959 cup final rather than the “Crazy Gang versus the Culture Club” and, who knows, maybe the league matches would never have been played at all!
However, finally, to the collective relief of administrators, fans and players alike, a league football match between Luton Town and Nottingham Forest finally broke out on the evening on Friday, 13th May, 1988.
For us fans, Luton away on a Friday night caused a number of challenges.
Firstly, I had to skip triple Economics at school; thank you to Mr Sutherland for turning a blind eye.
Secondly, I had to watch in envy as I changed trains in London and saw thousands of Liverpool fans arrive for their FA Cup final weekend - which pleasingly ended in a shock defeat.
And, finally, defeat Luton's away fan ban, which I managed via my discreetly acquired Junior Hatters membership card.
A hardy couple of handfuls of us managed to pass the tests and joined the home fans on the artificial turf at the end of the match for the obligatory end of season pitch invasion.
Displaying the distinct symptoms of a collectomaniac, I even collected a small clump of the infamous astroturf which, almost as disturbingly, I still own to this day.
Almost inevitably, there was still another twist in the tale.
Notts County had qualified for the semi-finals of the Division Three play-offs on the Sunday so our kick off was brought forward to 12.30pm and Notts kicked off at 3.30pm - an extremely rare occurrence that was not repeated until December 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forest and Notts playing on the same day had occurred on a couple of occasions at the turn of the 70s and 80s, when the FA Cup third round draw necessitated some careful planning by Notts constabulary who asked for staggered kick-off times.
In January 1977, Notts kicked-off at 2.30pm, losing 1-0 to Arsenal in front of 17,238, before, at 3.15pm, we drew 1-1 with Bristol Rovers with 17,874 present (including a few Arsenal fans who were not warmly welcomed in the Trent End).
We eventually beat Bristol Rovers 6-0 in a second replay, curiously played in front of less than 6,000 at Villa Park - rare footage of some of those goals is featured in the I Believe in Miracles film.
In the January 1981 third round ties, Notts kicked off at 2pm and us at 3pm, against Blackburn and Bolton respectively.
Notts won 2-1 and we drew 3-3, thanks only to a late Raimondo Ponte goal in front of 22,920 (winning 1-0 after extra time in the replay).
Then, same again in the fourth round but with us playing early versus Manchester United - Trevor Francis scoring the winner in front of a capacity crowd - and Notts playing later, when they lost 1-0 to Peterborough.
In May 1988, many of the 13,106 at the City Ground, me included, took advantage of the rarity of back-to-back matches either side of the Trent to help swell the Meadow Lane crowd to 11,522.
As for the football, Notts lost 3-1 with future Forest assistant manager David Kelly scoring two for Walsall, including an outrageous back-heeled volley from the edge of the box.
Our double-header with Luton, predictably, both finished 1-1.
Luton took an early lead in both matches - Mal Donaghy at Kenilworth Road and David Oldfield at the City Ground - with Lee Glover and Neil Webb equalising early in the second half on both occasions.
We were secure in third place irrespective of our two results so those matches - played after the season proper had finished - were the ultimate dead rubbers … possibly not even remembered by those of you who were there.