Nottingham Forest have lost another manager and are playing their worst football of most fans’ lifetimes. Al Needham looks around frantically for signs of hope
When Joe Kinnear accused the supporters of Nottingham Forest of living in a time warp last month after resigning as manager, it was hard to deny that he had a point. After all, fans in pubs, factories and offices across the city have done little else this season than casting their minds back and trying to remember a Forest team as uniformly lamentable as the current one. The relegation teams of 1993, ’97 or ’99? The Matt Gillies-Dave Mackay-Allan Brown era of the early 70s, when Forest trod water in the old Second Division?
Actually, Forest haven’t been this bad since 1951, when they were moored for two seasons in the third tier. At the time of writing, they are second from bottom and fans are scouring the top half of League Two to see who they’ll be playing next season. No disrespect to the people of Yeovil, Scunthorpe or Southend, but the names of your cities are being bandied about in tones of unremitting dread. It’s been that bad a season. The most galling thing is the Kinnear era started with so much promise.
The usual names were in the frame after the sacking of Paul Hart – Stuart Pearce (because, well, he’s Psycho), Nigel Clough (because his Dad did a bit of a job for Forest a while back) and Glenn Hoddle (because, well, God knows). Kinnear was never even considered by speculating fans and press – apart from one paper, who mentioned that Roy Kinnear was on the shortlist – on reflection, that wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.
When Kinnear was installed by chairman Nigel Doughty, a fug of serious unease (ie, he only manages Wimbledon-type clubs) tempered with grim reality (ie, nowadays, we are a Wimbledon-type club) settled on the City Ground. But at the beginning, it appeared to be a stroke of genius. Kinnear saw potential – having served time at Wimbledon and Luton, he was amazed a struggling second-tier club took so much support away. The fans approved of the way he dragged the club out of the relegation zone, with only two defeats in the last 17 games of the season. By the end of May, it looked as if Forest were finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but failing to take notice of the large pillars they were veering towards.
During the close season, Forest made two crucial errors. First, an incredibly ill-advised tour of America that knackered up pre-season training and led to Forest not winning any of their first nine league games. The second was a season-ticket renewal campaign that consisted of letters to supporters emblazoned with the slogan “We’re serious about promotion – Are you?” Kinnear had nothing to do with the campaign and in all probability was only being serious about propping up a debt-laden club in the short term and helping it to some sort of Championship respectability, but he was swept along in a wave of delusion and promised “sexy signings”. These turned out to be Andy Impey and Alan Rogers. Sex-wise, this is the equivalent of being invited to the Playboy Mansion, only to find your Mam’s mates from bingo lolling on the sofas.
Then Brian Clough died and the stark reality of Forest’s predicament really hit home. There was some truth in his suspicion that the red half of Nottingham tend to wallow in the glory years somewhat, but what we knew and he didn’t was that even when Forest were champions of Europe, there was a feeling of “enjoy this while you can, because this will never happen again”. It must have been incredibly difficult to run a club at a time like that, when people are congregating in the car park and hanging scarves on the gates, but when ex-players such as Garry Birtles (a regular correspondent in the local paper and stern critic of Kinnear) and John McGovern (assistant commentator, Radio Nottingham) were invited to speak about Clough at assorted events, Kinnear couldn’t help himself from fighting over the torrent tributes to proclaim: “We will be top six by Christmas.” Oh dear.
From then on, Kinnear made blunder after blunder. He had a habit of only talking to the local media after victories, preferring to spend time after defeats locking the team in the dressing room for hours on end. He suffered an injury crisis early in the season, but despite having a transfer budget that was supposedly far better than the one his predecessor Paul Hart was given, nothing happened. He would boast of new signings on a weekly basis, even though some of the clubs involved denied there had been any approaches from Forest.
By the time Forest lost to Gillingham at the end of November, Kinnear had obviously had enough. Not only did he claim that he alone had reduced Forest’s debt from £40 million to £15m, he also went on to say: “I’m not under pressure. I have been told my future is okay, it’s just whether I want it. It is as simple as that. I will go away and think about it and see what I want to do. I’m not particularly bothered what anybody else thinks because it is up to myself.” Not the kind of thing you want to hear from the manager of a club in the drop zone.
Not surprisingly, rumblings of discontent ensued from the stands. There had been talk of a supporter protest at the City Ground for weeks, but seeing as there hadn’t been one of note there since, well, ever, nobody seemed to know what to do. However, when 20 or so supporters held a protest at the QPR game, Kinnear lost his rag, branding them as “morons” and “idiots” and claiming: “I am here for as long as I want to be.”
The final straw came on the eve of the away game against Derby County, when Kinnear called it “just another game”. It might be odd to live in a city with the most unpassionate local rivalry in football and it might be a game currently between two lumpy East Midlands sides who have seen better days, but whatever Forest v Derby might be to the rest of the world, it is most certainly not “just another game”. Those comments were the nail in the coffin. The 3-0 tonking against our bitterest rivals was the liberal coating of the coffin in cement. A proper, placards-and-all protest was scheduled for the next game, but there was no need for it. Joe wisely put bowed out, claiming the role was “an impossible job”. With Doughty now on record as wishing the money he has spent on the club had gone to charity instead and that the money tap will be tightened up with pliers next season, he’s right in that assumption. But it didn’t have to be this way.
So what now? Mick Harford is already struggling and with Forest still seeking their first away win, surely its time for someone new to shake things up, take the club by the scruff of the neck and launch it into a new era. The fans choice? According to a poll in the local media, 65.4 per cent of Forest supporters want… Stuart Pearce and Nigel Clough. The heart sinks.
From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month