Ian Ladyman explains why Nottingham Forest have found themselves incapable of breaching the growing gap between the Premier League and the First Division
Looking back on what is likely to be a short stay in the Premiership, Nottingham Forest fans will wonder just when it all went wrong for their floundering club. They will have to look back further than this season to find the answers.
For the sad fact is that this was a season that was doomed before it had even begun. The real damage was done during the summer. Forest ended last season as champions of the Nationwide League, having amassed 94 points on the back of some shrewd investment in the transfer market and of course the exploits of Pierre van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell. The team was better than any in the First Division but crucially short of what was required for the Premiership. Dave Bassett knew he needed at least four new players if he were to give the club a fighting chance. He wanted a third striker, a right back, a centre half and a left winger. But pretty soon he learned he was not to get them, at least not until he sold some of what he already had.
A protracted and often bitter takeover more than a year earlier had apparently laid the foundations for progress both on and off the field, taking the club from what had been very much a corner shop outfit to plc status in no more than 16 months. Relegation in 1997 had not, it transpired, been disastrous. Now Forest had the chance to move forward once more. They could either invest in the future or sit back, content with what they had achieved, and hope for the best.
Privately, Bassett was devastated by the Forest plc’s decision not to give him a single penny to spend in the summer. In fact, things got a good deal worse. Kevin Campbell, still to sign a new contract, was sold to Trabzonspor by football director Irving Scholar without the approval of his manager. And, of course, Van Hooijdonk chose this point to announce he was taking an extended holiday. Suddenly just weeks before the start of the most important season in their recent history, Forest were in pieces. Opening day at Arsenal saw a Forest team including veteran midfielder Glyn Hodges, lately of Hull City reserves, and a raw, unknown French striker called Jean-Claude Darcheville, who was asked to fill the void left by Campbell and Van Hooijdonk on his own. Somehow, Forest almost held the champions to a draw, eventually going down 2-1. Successive wins over Coventry and Southampton followed but the cracks were too wide to be papered over. England were actually playing a Test match against Sri Lanka on the weekend of Forest’s last victory in 1998, on August 29th, and since then the season has been one of unspeakable despondency.
Bassett certainly made his mistakes during the run of 17 league games without a win that eventually brought about his sacking in early January. His decision to sell club captain Colin Cooper to Middlesbrough in the season’s opening week was the wrong one, for example, while the one major signing, £2.5 million midfielder Nigel Quashie from QPR, has been a disappointment.
Inevitably, some Forest fans were pleased to see the departure of Bassett, who had never been accepted as a suitable man for their club. However, it is with the club’s plc board that the majority of supporters lay the blame.
With major shareholder and chairman Nigel Wray preferring rugby union and his beloved Saracens to football and football director Irving Scholar living on the Côte d’Azur, only the club’s chief executive Phil Soar has a Nottingham base. There has always been a suspicion of the board among the supporters and this has escalated to near mutiny at times this season. After-match protests have been an intermittent feature of the season, reaching such a level that Soar, whose car has twice been attacked, no longer brings his teenage children to matches. Soar, the only member of the board to comment publicly to the supporters these days, has argued cogently at times that Forest – already in debt – cannot afford to borrow further in order to spend on the team. Indeed, he has said that Forest have to accept their place in football’s new hierarchy.
It is, however, an argument that won’t wash. Soar’s consortium swept to power two years ago on the back of grand promises. Yet when Forest fans look at what they have now – a poor team, no money and an uncertain future – and compare it to what they had then, it is no wonder they are disappointed. One of Dave Bassett’s favourite sayings towards the end of his reign was that the real Nottingham Forest was nothing like the one he had been shown in the brochure in 1997. Very soon, unless Ron Atkinson can work a miracle, Forest will be nothing like anything we have seen by the banks of the Trent. The club cannot afford to bankroll another season in the First Division and as a result, Forest will play Nationwide League football next season without the likes of Steve Stone, Scot Gemmill, Chris Bart-Williams and, of course, Van Hooijdonk.
Forest once went down with the football world saying they were too good for the First Division. One wonders this time if they ever had a prayer of being good enough for the Premiership.
From WSC 145 March 1999. What was happening this month