If you ask any football fan what age they were when something happened in the world, more often than not, they use specific events and competitions to bookmark where they were and what they were doing.
For Nottingham Forest, they are reaching a level where it will be harder and harder for fans to remember what they were doing when they were one of the greatest teams in Europe.
Football Whispers spoke to Daniel Story, a proud Nottingham Forest fan and named Writer of the Year at the recent Football Supporters’ Federation awards, trying to get to the bottom of what’s happened at Forest.
“I guess to some extent that is true, certainly in terms of the European Cups. Yet, I actually don't think that's such a bad thing. For so long the cliché with Forest was that fans spent so long harping on about “those glorious European nights” that it hampered the club's progress. I think that's overstated, but you do hear a lot less of that kind of phrase.”
On a balmy night in Madrid, John Robertson’s 20th minute goal was enough to beat Hamburg at the Santiago Bernabeu on the 28th May 1980. For the 20,000 fans that still frequent the City Ground every week, anyone under 40 years old will struggle to remember the event without help from someone recalling tales of their once great team.
“I don't remember any glory days of the European Cup,” Daniel admits. “One of my earliest Forest memories is my mum going to the FA Cup final in 1991 and leaving me with a family friend, and my first game was a 2-1 win over Everton in August 1991. Obviously, I heard the stories of Cloughie, who was in his sad years by my time, from my mum, but in Nottingham you hear them from everyone. Everyone above the age of 45 has story of or about Clough that they will regale with misty eyes.”
Led by the footballing visionary and motivator, Brian Clough, his team of British players, on the back of winning the 1978 league title, would go all the way to the European Cup final before beating the German side to sit on top of the footballing pyramid.
As well as winning the league title in 1978, Forest would finish in the top three from ’77 to ’79, winning two consecutive League Cups and then losing 1-0 to Wolverhampton Wanders in 1980 to stop them making it three-in-a-row. But as Daniel told the site, it doesn’t mean that was the end of Forest enjoying any kind of success:
“It's a mistake to think that 78-80 were Forest's last glory days. We went to Wembley for six finals in four years between 1988 and 1992, and were in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup as late as 1996 after finishing third in the Premier League. Plenty of fans, me included, remember those days vividly enough to cause a sting of regret that they seem gone.”
Unfortunately for modern fans like Daniel, the end of Forest winning trophies came in 1990. Losing two cup finals didn’t help, but in the post-Clough era they became somewhat of a yo-yo team, moving up and down from the top division from 1993 to 1999.
Stuart Pearce became the hero little kids could aspire too. Although a Londoner, after signing in 1985 and playing for 12 years at the City Ground, he became one of their own. He and the likes of Colin Cooper and Steve Stone were the hard-workers, winning fans acclaim with their no-nonsense style and rewarded with England caps.
To complement their industry, Dutchman Bryan Roy, Norwegian Lars Bohinen and Stan Collymore were regarded as the ‘entertainers’.
“We missed out on the Premier League title to a bankrolled (by 1995 standards) Blackburn team and a Manchester United side that had also spent serious money,” explained Storey. “The way we started and ended that season was outrageous, really. We were unbeaten until October 29, and then unbeaten again from February 21 until the end of the season.”
A combination of being relegated just as Sky’s money started to roll in and Clough’s decline into alcoholism started Forest’s slide. His position as a club legend was so ingrained that it was almost impossible to replace him without committing treason. However, that wasn’t the killer blow for the midlands club.
From speaking to Storey, other factors were just as much to blame. The Heysel ban that stopped Forest from building on their European success was huge. Losing the 1984 UEFA Cup final to Anderlecht in 1984, when it later became clear that the referee was bribed. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it could have been the trigger to another winning period in the club’s history.
After the team that finished third in ’95, Storey explains that the collapse out of the Premier League in 1999 is a moment they have still to recover from:
“Relegation was disastrous, truly as the money was coming in to the game. It left us with debts, a problem exacerbated with the appointment of David Platt. He spent big money on players, was an awful manager and cemented us as a second-tier team.”
Debt issues, magnified by the collapse of ITV Digital and poor management appointments added to their woes. In the last 16 years, the best Forest have managed is third place in the Championship in 2010, dropping down to seventh in League One in 2006.
Similar to Leeds United’s story, ownership stability has been a massive issue. Bought over by the Al-Hasawi family in 2012 after the sad passing of Nigel Doughty, and as Storey wrote in 2015, their time at the club has been far from positive:
“Forest have become a parody, a symbol for the all that is distasteful and unpalatable in the modern game. We have had seven managers, seven insistences that the right man is in place to take the club forward, and yet all we’ve done is fallen backwards. Patience is a long-lost virtue.”
You want to see the positive, the glimmer of hope in the Forest story, but with the current ownership showing no signs of changing their ways any time soon, the doom and gloom seems likely to continue at the City Ground.
American businessman, John Jay Moores, once owner of the San Diego Padres baseball team, has been linked with a £50 million takeover move. He tried this in 2015 with Everton too and these stories can come and go all too easily.
I would like to wish all the supporters, the staff and the players all the best in the near future. #nffc
— @FAWAZ_ALHASAWI (@fawaz_alhasawi1) November 2, 2016
Al-Hasawi’s tweet would have given the fans hope that a deal may be done before the year is out. Then, and only then can Forest look to the future with tepid optimism. Which is perhaps better than the constant impending doom that has engulfed them for at least the last decade.