I always look at Nottingham as a city, as being filled with quite fickle people. I include myself in that because I’m a Nottingham person, and I think the town smiles when Forest do well and the town is down when Forest do badly.
Darren Fletcher, Century FM, 2001
It was Tuesday 4th December 2001 and the news had begun to break. Nottingham Forest’s shares had been suspended. The club’s previous accounts had stated losses of £105,000 per week and according to a statement provided on behalf of the Stock Exchange, the club had ‘continued to incur pre-tax losses at broadly the same level’ ever since. Borrowings had also increased.
The problems were confounded further when Forest failed to publish their accounts for the financial year ending May 31st 2001. That then chairman Eric Barnes claimed to have ‘no idea’ when they would be submitted, only served as a further embarrassment to the club and a damning indictment of how low it had fallen. It was something of a knockout blow to the club’s already spoilt public image.
At this point in time, Paul Hart had taken over as manager from the universally loathed David Platt; Forest having finished the 2000/01 season in 11th place. Hart had already experienced heartbreak with Forest in April 1984, the infamous night his goal was unjustly ruled out by a bribed referee in the UEFA Cup against Anderlecht. UEFA shelved evidence of the bribery for four years before handing out a lenient punishment to the Belgian club and it’s a subject that ‘still rankles’ with Hart to this day. His tenure would be a rollercoaster of emotions, tinged with disappointment and frustration amidst some of the more enjoyable moments in the club’s recent history.
During the 2001/02 season, Forest’s squad began to transform. They didn’t spend a single penny in transfer fees, bringing in goalkeeper Darren Ward from across the Trent at Notts County, along with Adam Proudlock (loan) and Nicky Summerbee on a pay-as-you-play deal. Youngsters Craig Westcarr, Liam Kearney and John Thompson made the step up from the youth side. Consider that at the start of the season, every player was placed on the transfer list due to the club’s financial woes. Consider that they sold their youngest ever captain Jermaine Jenas, Alan Rogers, Andy Johnson and top scorer Stern John before letting go of Chris Bart-Williams for nothing and it’s a wonder The Reds stayed up. In the end, they finished 16th and made a profit in the transfer market of £8m, which was largely aided by Jenas’ move to Bobby Robson’s Newcastle.
While Hart will have seen that season as a success, watching the club’s treasured young asset leave will no doubt have hurt. This was a man who prided himself on youth development and moulding players to become something special. His hand was forced in the scenario he found himself in.
Hart’s career with Forest was marred by frustration but what would follow in the 2002/03 season would no doubt remain with him for the rest of his life and would endear him to Forest fans of a certain generation for as long as they live too.
Forest released numerous players at the start of the season, but brought in the vast experience of Des Walker, Davy Oyen from Anderlecht and Eoin Jess from Bradford. Most impressive of all was the February loan signing of Manchester City striker Darren Huckerby. The Nottingham-born forward would go on to form a formidable front three alongside Marlon Harewood and a sparkling David Johnson. Huckerby would play just nine times for The Reds but he contributed five goals to the trio’s 50 that season as Forest finished in the play-off places. This team was a far cry from the one of the previous season; Forest recorded a vast array of impressive wins, including a 4-0 hammering of Sheffield Wednesday, a 3-0 win over Sheffield United, a 6-0 rout of Stoke City, two 4-1 wins over Gillingham, a 4-0 win over Norwich and a first win (3-0) over Derby for seven years.
They would go on to lose in the play-off semi-finals against Sheffield United but Paul Hart’s team of 2002/03 is widely regarded as one of the last great Forest sides. It wasn’t world class and in footballing terms, they didn’t win anything, but what that team did was give hope to Forest fans at a time when there was none. It was a wonderful team that played with a wholehearted commitment that we didn’t see again on Trentside until probably 2009/10. It was Michael Dawson’s breakthrough season at the age of 18. The first team had five teenagers in it and key players such as Andy Reid, Gareth Williams and Marlon Harewood were aged just 19, 20 and 22. It was perhaps the last collection of cult heroes Forest had.
The squad gradually fell apart following the club’s failure to gain promotion. Forest couldn’t afford to keep Darren Huckerby – a potential signing only if they were promoted – and during the season, the sale of David Prutton to Southampton for £3.75m meant that they turned over a transfer profit once again. But at a point in history when many felt that just one or two additions could have taken the club to the next level, there were two departures. The inspirational Riccardo Scimeca and Marlon Harewood left for nothing and a meagre £750,000 respectively.
The 2003/04 season was bizarre in the sense that Paul Hart was told there was no money available to strengthen the squad. In itself, that isn’t so strange, he’d have been used to it, but Forest were under new ownership with Nigel Doughty having taken over in 2002. The real confusion comes from the fact that 2003/04 was the first time in 3 years that Forest actually spent more money than they made. They paid fees for Marlon King, Gareth Taylor, David Tarka and Paul Evans. Had Hart been told the money was there prior to their arrivals, it is possible that Scimeca and Harewood may have stayed. We can only speculate on who may have been available as a free agent that summer, but surely the club could have improved on what they already had without paying fees alongside keeping their best players.
After a decent start to the season, Forest hit a 17-game winless run that started in November and didn’t end until the last week in February. Between 13th December and 14th February, The Reds failed to even score a goal. I still remember Darren Fletcher (now of BT Sport) on commentary for local radio that game and him going absolutely wild when Andy Impey’s goal against Walsall ended that run. It was just pure, unadulterated joy; raucous screaming down the microphone. Were it not for the fact that it came at an embarrassing time in Forest’s history, it would be on the commentary archive at the National Football Museum. Of course, we didn’t win that game though. We never beat Walsall.
That was a great moment, but that season should have been the one where we challenged for promotion. David Johnson’s leg break against Sheffield United proved pivotal in the end and effectively ended our season in September. The team dealt with it fairly well at first but the goals inevitably dried up and the sad thing is that one of the league’s finest marksmen never really recovered. In the end, Forest finished 14th. The following season, we were relegated.
Michael Dawson, Andy Reid and Gareth Williams were all sold and Darren Ward left on a free following relegation. By the time our season in League One kicked off, the squad was virtually unrecognisable from that of the previous year.
When I look back over my time as a Forest fan, I realise that very little has changed. For the vast majority of our history we’ve been a very average club which every now and then achieved something remarkable or threatened to do so and then crumbled. During my lifetime, we have always been a club who struggles to hold onto its prized assets. Yet we keep generating them at a frightening rate. I’ve been teased with the prospect of promotion to the Premier League, only for it to be snatched away from me time and time again. This is a club that signs players either too early or too late, at the wrong time in their career and often when the game transitions and leaves them behind. Think of George Boateng, Marlon King, Grant Holt, Neil Lennon, Andy Cole, Matty Fryatt and so on. This is the nature of not being a top side anymore.
Gone are the days of Cloughie leaving Sir Alex Ferguson waiting in the City Ground car park out of principle, just to reject a transfer approach he never intended to discuss. We’re adept at letting our top players go. If we ignore the youth products mentioned previously, you can still turn to Felix Bastians, Karl Darlow, Jamaal Lascelles, Oliver Burke, Patrick Bamford and Wes Morgan for further proof of this. The academy has generated a lot of cash for us and will continue to do so long beyond the point when Ben Brereton finally makes his move to Blackburn permanent. It’s frustrating, but if there is to be a ‘Forest way’, this is what it is. This is all I’ve ever known. My introduction to Forest was at a time when they were in financial ruin, an iconic, yet perenially misrun club. There have always been long periods of mediocrity with the occasional thing to get excited about, but they’re mainly players and individual games as opposed to flickers of success. Forest, to me, have largely been a club known to give youth a chance, both out of necessity and a pride in youth development. It’s a club that’s always sold its best players for too little money. I watch the videos from the 70s, 80s and 90s and while I know they were Forest teams, I don’t recognise them as being what this club is about. It must have been amazing to be a part of and I’m glad that at least a couple of generations witnessed this club being successful during their lifetimes, but I wasn’t there, I can’t say that’s the club I know.
Darren Fletcher was right about Nottingham people being fickle, at least with our emotions and the things we say about Forest. We get carried away when we win and we are seriously down when we lose. Nottingham is a city where sport is so important that it really does have such an impact on its people. As he pointed out, he’s a Nottingham lad, he was brought up as a Forest fan, he hosted a Forest phone-in on Century FM alongside European Cup winners Larry Lloyd and Garry Birtles in the early 2000s. He’s been there. His quote from 2001 is still as relevant today as it was 17 years ago, and we’re like that because we’ve seen it all before and we expect to continue to see it time and time again, just with modern twists.