A generation – or two – of football fans will have only ever known Nottingham Forest as second-tier also-rans.
Which is understandable, considering Forest have spent most of this millennium treading water in the shallows of Championship mid-table, with the only interruptions to this rather bland existence being a three-year jaunt into League One and several unsuccessful attempts to progress from the Championship playoffs.
Yet there was a time when Forest were among England’s biggest names. Not just for their exploits as back-to-back champions of Europe in 1979 and 1980, but also for a corresponding period of 15 years or so under Brian Clough during which they rarely failed to compete with the domestic top flight’s elite.
Clough, having sprung the club from the old Second Division in 1975 to the summit of continental competition within a handful of seasons, eventually oversaw Forest’s relegation from the fledgling Premier League in 1992-93. Bringing down the club he’d led out of mediocrity was his final act at the City Ground. What he built, he had also unwittingly dismantled.
Forest, however, weren’t finished just yet, rebounding into the top tier immediately. New manager Frank Clark – whose final game as a professional footballer had been Forest’s 1979 European Cup final victory – helmed a revival with more than a few echoes of the one he’d been part of under Clough. Clark, in fact, had been signed by Clough in the summer of 1975, with the left-back an integral part of Forest’s initial promotion run.
Clark’s side were electric in his first two campaigns in charge, powered by a raging bull of a centre-forward in Stan Collymore and a host of old reliables like Stuart Pearce, Scot Gemmill and Steve Stone. Collymore, in particular, became emblematic, smashing in with angry relish a rake of spectacular goals right up until his 1995 defection to Liverpool.
By the time Collymore skipped town, he’d helped Forest back to the upper echelons of the Premier League. They finished 3rd in 1994-95, seemingly returned to the semi-big time that defined the middle ages of the Clough era.
More than that, though, Forest under Clark were a team of 90s heroes, a production line churning out a succession of deliciously cultish figures: Ian Woan, Jason Lee, Bryan Roy, Mark Crossley, Kevin Campbell, Chris Bart-Williams, Andrea Silenzi. Names that trip off the tongues of football’s countless nostalgia-tragics.
But with Collymore had gone Forest’s cutting edge, despite the arrivals of Campbell and Roy to replace him. In 1995-96, they slipped to 9th, a slide that was merely a precursor to a rather more dramatic fall the following season. As it turned out, Clark’s reign was a condensed version of that of the man he succeeded – albeit without the European glory. Forest were relegated again in 1996-97, although Clark himself had taken his leave in March, making way for, initially, Stuart Pearce as caretaker and, subsequently, Dave Bassett on a permanent basis.
The belated arrival of Pierre Van Hooijdonk from Celtic that same month had failed to prevent what was an inevitability, but the Dutchman’s signing would ensure Forest yo-yoed right back into the Premier League. He and Campbell managed 50-odd goals between them in the second tier. Collymore’s heir apparent had been found.
But it was partly Van Hooijdonk’s actions at the beginning of the 1998-99 campaign that would ultimately serve as the death knell for Forest as a top-flight outfit. Upon returning to the Netherlands from the World Cup in France and being met with the news that, among other sales, Campbell had been flogged to Trabzonspor, Van Hooijdonk was not best pleased. It was, for him, the final straw in an ongoing struggle with the club’s management. So he simply went on strike.
Van Hooijdonk would later reveal that he’d been trying to get out of the club since December 1997, apparently as a result of being unhappy with Bassett’s old-school management. An offer from PSV was rejected, as was another worth £7m from Newcastle. Forest – who’d supposedly agreed in principle to sell – slapped a £10m price tag on him, an amount that was prohibitive for most clubs at the time.
“In the end I had to come back after agreeing with [Forest chairman] Irving Scholar in Monaco that they would sell me to a club for a fixed fee of £3.5m,” Van Hooijdonk told FourFourTwo in 2016.
The strike lasted three months, and by the time Van Hooijdonk returned to Nottingham in November the damage was done. Supporters were furious, many of his team-mates had turned against him, frequently opting not to celebrate his goals, and the relationship with Bassett was broken beyond repair.
Van Hooijdonk later described his former manager as “a rat, a snake…the worst I’ve come across.” Bassett’s response, in 2017, was to label Van Hooijdonk “a w*nker”.
Ironically, Van Hooijdonk outlasted Bassett at the club, with the latter departing in January thanks to one of the earliest instances of what became known as “player power”. It was hardly a shock – Forest had just set a league record of 17 matches without winning.
Ron Atkinson, who took over the tiller, ended up little more a captain brought on board simply to go down with the ship. The team’s rubbishness was encapsulated by an 8-1 home defeat to Manchester United three weeks after Atkinson’s appointment. There was no real coming back from that, and Forest sank once more into the second tier.
Unlike in 1994 and 1998, there would be no instant rebound. They haven’t played in the Premier League since their final match that season against Leicester, a club who for now at least have eclipsed Forest as the highest-flying midlands side.
Come the end of the 2018-19 season, it will be 20 years since Forest were a top tier club – we’ll have to wait and see if they mark that anniversary with a return to the promised land.
Top Tier Rewind is Paddy Power’s weekly nostalgia-fest, looking back at the most memorable players, teams and happenings from – mostly but not exclusively – the English top flight.