THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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Players use a variety of tactics to agitate for moves but they don’t always work out, as Forest fans who remember Van Hooijdonk's transfer saga can testify

19 October ~ Protracted transfer sagas are as much a part of summer as the unpredictabilities of the jet stream and England’s upper order batsmen. This year has seen a number of players angling for moves and the case of Diego Costa in particular brings to mind the antics of another striking striker almost 20 years ago.

When Pierre van Hooijdonk arrived at Nottingham Forest from Celtic in 1997 he was viewed by supporters as a considerable upgrade on the last centre-forward bought to try to keep the Reds in the Premier League. However, like Robert Rosario four years previously, the Dutchman managed only one goal between signing in March and Forest ending the season bottom of the division.

He came into his own, though, as Forest bounced straight back as Division One champions. His aerial presence and lethal long-range shooting were too much for second-tier defences to cope with. He brought the best out of the hitherto unimpressive Kevin Campbell and they formed a deadly partnership. For a while it looked as though Van Hooijdonk might break Wally Ardron’s all-time club record of 36 goals before he ended up with a mere 34 in all competitions. Campbell weighed in with 23 and it was the first time since the 1950s that a Reds front pair had each scored more than 20 league goals.

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Van Hooijdonk had all the makings of a Forest legend. There were echoes of the “Psycho!” chants for Stuart Pearce as he lined up free-kicks with “Pi-e-erre!” ringing around Trentside. I found myself embraced by a complete stranger for the first time at a match when Van Hooijdonk single-handedly won a game at Birmingham City with a late brace. It seemed he could do no wrong.

But maybe we shouldn’t have been too surprised by what happened next. His departure from Celtic had come in the wake of his describing a significant wage increase as sufficient for someone homeless to live on but not an international striker. It was clear he wouldn’t hold back from speaking his mind without necessarily considering the consequences.

In the summer Campbell was sold to Turkish side Trabzonspor amid concerns about his fitness, though his success at Everton on his return to England proved he was far from a spent force. As the new season began the club’s popular captain, Colin Cooper, made a surprise return to Middlesbrough, where he had played for seven years at the start of his career. It turned out that this had been the result of a gentlemen’s agreement with manager Dave Bassett, with Boro being probably the only club for which Cooper would have left Forest.

For neither the first nor the last time, a successful Forest side had not been reinforced and Van Hooijdonk wasn’t slow to make his feelings known. Pausing only to recommend the club sign his international colleague Wim Jonk (who subsequently joined Sheffield Wednesday instead), Van Hooijdonk had a transfer request turned down, muttered darkly about not being a slave and embarked upon a one-man strike.

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His actions angered Forest’s officials, supporters and players alike, Steve Stone in particular offering some forthright views. Many no doubt shared his frustration at the weakening of the team, but felt he should have remained professional and got his move by proving his worth on the pitch. The unsettling effect of the dispute was inevitably reflected in disappointing form on the pitch. With Forest reluctant to offload Van Hooijdonk, the stand-off lasted into November, when he agreed to return.

By now Forest were 19th in the table and Van Hooijdonk’s presence couldn’t halt the slide. He scored a respectable six goals in 19 appearances for the struggling Reds, but his strikes met with a cool reception from his team-mates, who preferred to congratulate the player who set up the goal. Similarly the fans were in the unusual position of wanting to celebrate a goal but not the scorer. This was despite the Dutchman’s tally including a goal in the East Midlands derby and a last-gasp equaliser against Liverpool, a combination which would normally go some way to ensuring lasting hero status.

In the end Forest finished bottom of the Premier League and Van Hooijdonk finally resumed his career back in the Netherlands with Vitesse Arnhem, having burnt his bridges as far as British clubs were concerned. The Reds have yet to return to the top flight and few on Trentside will ever forgive Van Hooijdonk’s contribution to the club’s decline. Richard Harrison

This article first appeared in WSC 368, October 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

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