Forest's long and steady decline has roots in relegation of 1999
SOCCER ANGLES:The twice champions of Europe are in the Championship drop zone and could struggle to find a way out, writes MICHAEL WALKER
WHEN TRYING to pinpoint where it all went wrong for Nottingham Forest, it feels like you’ve just been informed of the old line: “Well, I wouldn’t be starting from here if I were you.” The subject of Forest’s modern decline brings forth enough dates and faces to dazzle a physicist, but if one has to be selected for its lasting impact then perhaps it is the Premier League relegation of 1999.
That season, 1998-99, was crushing. It had followed promotion and presumably there was some optimism about the club staying in the Premier League, about being back where Forest belong.
Then the star striker Pierre van Hooijdonk all but went on strike, vacating the premises. There was a collective gasp and a trail of turbulence that brought a bottom-spot, not a narrow, relegation.
Forest have been out of the top flight ever since and it might be argued that, 13 years and nine managers on, they are still being buffeted.
Today, from the Championship relegation zone, they host leaders Southampton. In nine of their last 11 games, Forest have failed to score. Next Saturday they go to second-placed West Ham. The twice champions of Europe are in peril. Some say they are already a Brian Clough quiz question.
Dave Bassett was the Forest manager back at the start of 1998-99, though soon he would give way to Ron Atkinson. On his first day, Atkinson climbed into the away team’s dugout and things never really improved. Atkinson did not last the season and never managed a club again.
Forest had settled at the bottom of the table the week before Christmas and never got off it. Along the way they lost 8-1 at home to Manchester United. A pattern, of pain, was establishing itself at the City Ground.
They had two previous relegations from the Premier League. Each had been met with the response of automatic promotion, but not this time, not after 1999.
David Platt, now Roberto Mancini’s assistant at Manchester City, became Atkinson’s successor. The consensus is that Platt spent £12 million and Forest got worse. Relegation had been compounded. Forest were on a path that would lead to another relegation, to the old third division.
It turns out that Platt was merely the first of eight men to succeed Atkinson, the latest of whom is Steve Cotterill.
Arriving in October from the ongoing economic mess that is Portsmouth, Cotterill must have thought, and possibly was told, that Forest were no Pompey. After all, under Billy Davies Forest had reached the play-offs in the last two seasons, and though it was Blackpool and Swansea who went on to Wembley, and the Premier League, Forest’s squad was clearly of a standard.
Even at such a prestigious club, however, it would be natural to seek assurances, about future investment in particular. That Cotterill was Forest’s third manager of 2011 after Davies and Steve McClaren both left acrimoniously should have been some kind of alert.
Davies and McClaren wanted to sign new players and felt they were being hemmed in by a board that thinks it has spent plenty. McClaren walked after four months; those Davies play-off losses may come to be seen as destinations, achievements, rather than dead-ends, anti-climaxes.
And Cotterill is yet to recruit in January. Like many managers he must sell to buy, and if there is to be business done this month it could entail the disheartening sale of the highly-rated 18 year-old central defender Jamaal Lascelles.
The promising Lascelles is due to return from injury soon, but by the time he does it could be in the colours of Arsenal.
Behind the scenes, Arsenal have been eagerly chasing the teenager and a bid of £5 million has been reported. Ten years ago, it was the same amount, the same story, with Jermaine Jenas and Newcastle.
But if the manager gets hold of money – and it is an if – Cotterill could buy the striker he feels he needs, though his superiors at the City Ground will probably point to Dexter Blackstock, Ishmael Miller, Matt Derbyshire, David McGoldrick, Marcus Tudgay, Gareth McCleary and Marlon Harewood and say that there should be goals somewhere among that pack.
Tudgay’s and McCleary’s goals at Ipswich a fortnight ago ended the dismal sequence of zeroes, but it is no guarantee that there will be more against Southampton and, of the Championship top 10, Cotterill has yet to take his players to eight of them.
“I hope it’s the start of something,” Cotterill said this week about the victory at Ipswich. Now he and we await to see if the downward development has been arrested, or if there is erosion so deep within the club it makes the manager’s name, if not irrelevant, then less and less so.
A bad personnel decision, once recognised, tends to mean the next man is asked to stretch himself to cover the previous error. This could be Cotterill’s lot. It could be that of every Forest manager since Van Hooijdonk and Platt. A third manager in 2011 was a worrying echo of 1998-99, and of 2004-05, when a combination of Joe Kinnear, Mick Harford and Gary Megson could not prevent a fall into League One.
It took the club three seasons to get out of the third tier, during which they experienced yet another play-off defeat, to Yeovil.
That is another name, another date to disorientate. It is another landmark on a bewildering road that seems to lead Nottingham Forest onward and downward.
Pop Robson first to see McClean’s worth
BIG-SMILING Bryan “Pop” Robson was once West Ham United’s record signing and scored goals freely wherever he went. He should be able to recognise talent, therefore, and in James McClean, did so after seeing just a couple of recent Derry City games.
Robson recommended McClean to Sunderland and the Derryman is now part of the Martin O’Neill transformation on Wearside.
The Premier League is impressed and so is the other managerial O’Neill, Michael. Michael would like McClean to sign up to Northern Ireland but McClean’s words last week sounded non-negotiable: “I have declared myself for the Republic. Hopefully this now puts the matter to bed.” So it’s over to Giovanni Trapattoni. Will Trap bring in McClean to have a look at him, to consider him for Poland this summer? If so, like McClean, Trapattoni may one day wish to thank Pop Robson, as it’s not known how often the Italian gets to the Brandywell.
SO NEIL Warnock is no more at QPR. The whys and wherefores of his departure from Loftus Road will not concern a number of clubs in the Championship, who will note only Warnock’s availability and his record of getting Sheffield United and QPR up from that division to the Premier League.
That will appeal to chairmen, and Leeds United manager Simon Grayson will have been pleased that Leeds played so well in the Thierry Henry comeback game on Monday. Leeds are back in London today at Crystal Palace. It is near enough to Stamford Bridge for Grayson to recall that his chairman Ken Bates, while at Chelsea, offered Warnock the manager’s job.