‘The finest exhibition of football’ – Unrelenting Liverpool slice Nottingham Forest for five

A merciless performance considered ‘one of the finest exhibitions of football’ saw Liverpool dispatch Nottingham Forest to the tune of 5-0 in 1988.

When Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest arrived at Anfield on April 13, 1988, they were considered one of the best teams in the country.

It was the third encounter between the two sides in the space of 11 days, with the visitors first having inflicted a 2-1 defeat on Kenny Dalglish’s men in the league before the Reds exacted revenge to progress to the FA Cup final at Forest’s expense with a 2-1 win at Hillsborough.

The two contests framed the clash at Anfield as one which would be far from straightforward, but the 39,535 fans in attendance would bear witness to a performance which would be heralded as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever outings.

“It was the finest exhibition I’ve seen the whole time I’ve played and watched the game. You couldn’t see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil. The moves they put together were fantastic.”

Those were the words of the legendary Sir Tom Finney, England and Preston forward and few would disagree.

John Aldridge Liverpool

Dalglish named the same starting XI as the one who had dispatched Forest in the FA Cup semi-final merely days prior, and they headed into the clash in the knowledge that a win would move them to within just one point of their 18th title – and the seventh in nine seasons.

What would follow would be the finest exhibition of football seen at Anfield as the Reds put Forest to the sword with an emphatic 5-0 victory which erupted from the 18th minute onwards.

The warning signs had been there, Steve Sutton’s goal was peppered with shots before Ray Houghton found the breakthrough with 18 minutes on the clock as the Reds sliced through Forest with frightening efficiency.

John Barnes laid on the assist and later had a shot ricochet off the upright as Liverpool inundated the Forest goal with one shot after the other.

The inevitable second goal followed with eight minutes remaining in the half after Peter Beardsley delivered a stunning pass which split the Forest defence to set John Aldridge on his way for his 26th goal of the season.

Heroics from Sutton would keep the deficit at 2-0 at the break, but as a report in the Times had stated: “Liverpool were merely stoking their embers. Once they blazed, the sight was as breathtaking, as colourful, as enchanting and as riveting as watching the most lavish firework display.”

Few could have lived with Liverpool’s relentless attacking display and show of unity across every department and it is no surprise that Forest capitulated further in the second.

Des Walker’s withdrawal at half-time due to an ankle injury did little to inject any hope of a turnaround, but the damage had been done and the Reds’ form made it so few in world football would keep them at bay for a further 45 minutes.

A punch drunk Forest couldn’t even manage 13 as Gary Gillespie was the one to make it 3-0 at the Kop end after volleying a left-footed effort into the roof of the net from close range.

Beardsley’s stupendous performance was then rewarded with a goal in the 79th minute after finding himself on the end of yet another stunning team move, with Aldridge adding the finishing touches with 88 minutes on the clock.

When the final whistle echoed around Anfield the scoreboard read 5-0, the merciless destruction defined by pace, precision and instinct was complete. If one ever needed an example of Champaign football, this would be it.

The Reds made it look effortless and as the BBC’s Alan Green said at the time, “Liverpool deserved all these adjectives tonight.”

Steve McMahon, Liverpool - Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

For Barnes, the game stands out more than any other in his career “because that was the best team performance.”

“When footballers can embrace that ideology of a team playing well and being part of that team and getting success. We won 5-0 for a 90-minute performance against a good side who were the third-best in the country,” he told LFCHistory.net.

Liverpool were ruthless and presented an aura of invincibility in what was one of the best team performances ever, and they were duly rewarded seven days later when they officially secured their 17th league title.

Liverpool XI: Bruce Grobbelaar; Gary Gillespie, Gary Ablett, Steve Nicol, Nigel Spackman, Alan Hansen, Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge, Ray Houghton (Johnston), John Barnes, Steve McMahon (Molby)