In 1979 Forest won the European Cup by beating Malmö 1–0 in Munich's Olympiastadion, only two years after promotion to the top division in England.
Remarkably they retained the trophy in 1980, beating Hamburg 1–0 in Madrid, thanks to a strike from John Robertson and an outstanding performance by goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

Beside Shilton, key players of that era included right-back Viv Anderson (the first black player to play for the England national team), midfielder Martin O'Neill, striker Trevor Francis and a trio of Scottish internationals: winger Robertson, midfielder Archie Gemmill and defender Kenny Burns.

John Robertson was the main attacking architect. In his autobiography Clough noted that "Rarely could there have been a more unlikely looking professional athlete... scruffy, unfit, uninterested waste of time...but something told me he was worth persevering with." but that "[He] became one of the finest deliverers of a football I have ever seen – in Britain or anywhere else in the world – as fine as the Brazilians or the supremely gifted Italians."

In February 1979, Brian Clough had elected to spend the money that Forest had made from winning the league title in 1978 on a forward from Birmingham City. Trevor Francis became Britain’s first £1 million footballer, famously being introduced to the media by Clough who was in his red gym kit and carrying a squash racquet.

Later that season Forest beat defending champions Liverpool in the first round of the European Cup and advanced to the final. Due to UEFA registration rules the first game that Francis was eligible for was the final itself and, with Martin O'Neill injured and Archie Gemmill not selected by Clough, Francis was picked to play his first ever European club game. Forest took on Swedish side Malmö in the final in Munich, and a major instalment of the huge investment money was repaid with francis scoring the only goal just before half time.

Francis arguably did not achieve his full potential as a Forest player. This may partly be due to Clough frequently playing Francis on the right wing, rather than in his preferred position as a central attacker. He was in the side which lost the League Cup final to Wolves in 1980, but missed the European Cup final against Hamburg due to an Achilles injury. Somehow the success of his Forest career never quite reflected his huge fee. But there was always that night in Munich.

In 1979, under their maverick manager Brian Clough, Nottingham Forest won European club football’s biggest prize beating Malmo from Sweden 1-0 in Munich.
With Malmo sitting back in defence, the game was merely about whether Forest could break through.

Despite constant pressure, the English side had still failed to score as first half injury time began, but then John Robertson, a man who was now one of the most feared wingers in European football, beat two Swedish defenders on the left hand side before whipping in a cross. Goalkeeper Jan Möller, did not come out to clear the ball, and at the far post was Trevor Francis, playing in his first ever European game, to head the ball into the roof of the net.

In a competition that had started with the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Liverpool taking part, it was Nottingham Forest who had run out winners, even eliminating the current holders Liverpool (who had won the last two finals) in the first round. They had shown what man management and teamwork could achieve and they would be back the following season to successfully defend their title.

In 1997, FourFourTwo magazine declared that John Robertson was 63rd in the 100 greatest footballers of all time. He was also voted No 1 Nottingham Forest player of all time, forcing Stuart Pearce into second place, in a 2005 poll run by fans.