In the 90s: Nottingham Forest (part two)


Part one of this journey featured the final days of Brian Clough’s golden era and four domestic cup triumphs from six Wembley visits in four years. As Clough retired in May 1993, Forest found themselves relegated from the Premier League. Part two takes a look at life after Old Big ‘Ed as Forest headed into unfamiliar territory without their greatest ever manager.

Clark takes the reigns at Forest

Whoever stepped into the void left by the departure of Brian Clough was going to have a lot to live up to and big shoes to fill. The job went to one of the club’s European Cup winners in Frank Clark, and he was immediately tasked with returning the Tricky Trees to football’s top table.

Investment was made in the summer with the acquisitions of Stan Collymore from Southend United for £2.75m, Welsh international David Phillips from Norwich City and Norwegian Lars Bohinen. But Forest took time to adjust to life in the First Division with just three wins in their opening ten games.

As the side began to gel though, Collymore found his form. Having helped Southend to First Division survival in the 1992/93 season with 18 goals in just 31 games, he would bring the firepower Clark needed to get the Reds back where they belonged, the Premier League.

A run of ten wins from 15 games between November 1993 and February 1994 put Forest in the hunt for promotion and a return of ten goals from these games made Collymore’s £2.75m price tag seem like a bargain.

The cup heroics that had taken Clough to Wembley six times in four years were not to be repeated in Clark’s first season. Sheffield Wednesday ousted the Reds in round three after a replay while promotion rivals Tranmere Rovers got the better of Forest in the League Cup fifth round.

In the long run, it didn’t dampen spirits around the club. The chief aim of the 1993/94 season was promotion. Nothing more, nothing less.

And a tally of 19 league goals (25 in all competitions) from Collymore ensured that objective was achieved as Forest finished runners up behind Crystal Palace.

A fitting finale to the season saw club captain Stuart Pearce get the winner at London Road as Clark’s Red Army won 3-2 to go straight back up at the first attempt.

Glory, glory Nottingham Forest

The next two seasons were to be quite possibly my favourite two seasons ever as a Forest fan. I wasn’t born when we won two successive European Cups, so as much as a top-four finish is seen by many Manchester United and Arsenal fans as failure these days, that is the best Forest have done in my lifetime.

Fresh from reaching the 1994 World Cup quarter-finals in the USA, Dutchman Bryan Roy was signed for a then club record £2.9m from Italian side Foggia and he would prove to be a worthy strike partner for Collymore.

Roy had an immediate impact as he grabbed the winner on his debut, a 1-0 win at Portman Road that saw Forest begin life in the Premier League according to plan.

A home 1-1 draw against reigning champions Manchester United gave hope of a strong season ahead but when Forest had won 2-0 at Aston Villa on 22 October 1994, Forest fans were in dreamland.

Eight wins and three draws from our opening 11 games meant we sat second in the league, two points behind Newcastle United and five points ahead of third-placed Manchester United.

Unfortunately the bubble burst. It had to. A run for four defeats from the next six games certainly put us back in our box on Trentside as reality set in. By the time we got back on track with a 4-1 home win against Ipswich, Forest had slipped to fifth, ten points behind new leaders Blackburn Rovers and an away clash at Old Trafford beckoning.

In one of my all-time match highlights, Forest inflicted a first home defeat of the season to Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils. A 20-yarder from Collymore was followed up with a deflected Pearce piledriver and despite Eric Cantona heading home at the near post, Forest held on for all three points.

Buy an iconic Eric Cantona poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy an iconic Eric Cantona poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

The school playground was mine on Monday morning. With the 10-year-olds in my school always slating Forest – inevitably they supported Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – this was my chance to take the bragging rights.

I didn’t have many chances back then! And in one of the most ridiculous break time bust-ups, I knew I had won the battle when one of the girls in my class ran out of footballing insults and opted for a cheap insult that wholeheartedly backfired.

She quipped, ‘yeah well, at least I’m not a girl’. Needless to say, she got hounded by an unforgiving crowd. I’ll spare her name from the records!

Inconsistent results to the start of 1994 saw Clark’s men slip down the league table but following a 1-0 defeat at Highbury on 21 February, Forest would finish the season unbeaten.

The run of 13 matches saw no fewer than seven victories – including a staggering 7-1 away win at Sheffield Wednesday – as Forest went from fifth in the league up to third. Blackburn Rovers and United were uncatchable and the title went the way of the Lancashire side on the final day of the season.

For Reds around the globe though, we were the best of the rest. Not only did Collymore grab 22 league goals but Forest were back in the big time and the 1995/96 season would include a voyage back into Europe, having qualified for the UEFA Cup.

Forest’s third-place finish remains the best from a promoted side in the Premier League era.
Collymore was rewarded with his stunning efforts as he completed a summer move to Liverpool in a then-English record fee of £8.5m.

Ewood tears on darkest day

The cash was splashed as Forest prepared not only for a Premier League title punt but a European adventure. The money from Collymore’s sale was reinvested in Arsenal striker Kevin Campbell (£2.8m), Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Chris Bart-Williams (£2.5m) and Torino’s Andrea Silenzi (£1.8m).

Silenzi was expected to bring Italian flair to the side having finished third in the goalscoring charts in Serie A in the 1994/95 season.

That promise never really materialised and Forest, despite another fabulous start to the season, couldn’t maintain their momentum after losing a striker of Collymore’s calibre.

That said, six wins and five draws from the opening 11 matches put Forest in third place once more, ahead of a trip to champions Blackburn Rovers, who were suffering a title-winning hangover down in 14th position.

The trip to Ewood Park remains one of my worst moments in football as we made the trip over from Northern Ireland on the ferry. We arrived in Lancashire full of confidence after a thumping 4-1 home win against Wimbledon a week earlier but nothing could prepare us for what unfolded.

A formidable strike partnership of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton put Forest to the sword. At just 2-0 at half-time, there was still hope of a fightback, but that was all but extinguished as the SAS battalion clicked into gear.

I’d been quite the fan of Silenzi and his mop of long hair and so thought we might get back into the game when he replaced Jason Lee on 51 minutes. But it wasn’t to be.

Shearer made it 3-0 six minutes later and after Steve Chettle saw red just after the hour mark, Shearer completed his hat-trick for 4-0.

To make matters worse, Bohinen, who had transferred to Rovers in the summer, bagged his second of the match before Mike Newell and Graeme Le Saux compounded a truly horrific day as Forest lost 7-0.

Needless to say, 11-year-old me was in tears for most of the journey back to Stranraer and when we arrived home to seven bottles of 7up on the front doorstep it was all too much for me and I declared that I could never go back to school.

A dreary league season by all accounts but better results followed as we clambered to ninth in the league. There was thankfully more success in the cup competitions with runs to the quarter-finals of both the FA Cup and UEFA Cup.

European joy casts out league demons

It was my first experience of European football and it was the only way I could hold my own in the school yard throughout the 1995/96 campaign. As every other British club stumbled, Forest embarked on a journey that took them to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup.

I felt like I was missing out as Forest’s second-round home clash with Auxerre coincided with my sister’s trip to Nottingham and she had the chance to witness the club progress to round three. A boring 0-0 by all accounts, but Steve Stone’s winner in France was enough to see us through.

Lyon were next up and it was Paul McGregor who got the only goal over two-legs as Forest set up a quarter-final at European giants Bayern Munich.

My dad had already gone to America for the 1994 World Cup to support Ireland and when he announced that he was going to Munich for the away leg, I was devastated when my parents refused to let me go too.

The fact we were at this stage at all was amazing. There were just 16 minutes on the clock though when Jurgen Klinsmann – Germany’s most feared attacker – put the hosts ahead and it looked like it was going to be a long night for Clark’s travelling men.

Steve Chettle hadn’t read the script though and just 60 seconds later Forest were level when he announced himself unmarked at the back post to head beyond Oliver Kahn. 1-1. Could we possibly give the Germans a run for their money?

As it happened, no. Mehmet Scholl put Bayern 2-1 up before the break and the game ended that way. We had an away goal though. Bring them back to the City Ground. Nick a 1-0. We’re through. Easy.

Well, no. A 5-1 away win for Bayern was more fitting of their dominance over the two legs and Forest whimpered out of the competition 6-2 on aggregate.

It remains though one of my highlights as a Forest fan. We went and we mixed it with the big boys. Unfortunately, we haven’t been anywhere near since.

Van Hooijdonk fails to impress

As the season ended Silenzi was sent back to Italy – on loan to Venezia – while Jason ‘he’s got a pineapple on his head’ Lee and Tommy Wright left the club for Watford and Manchester City respectively.

Celtic’s Pierre van Hooijdonk became the man to link up with Bryan Roy after his £4.5m move to the Midlands but despite an opening day triumph against Coventry City, it was a very bleak season.

Kevin Campbell took the match ball home in what remains the only Forest hat-trick of the Premier League generation at Highfield Road but a run of 16 winless games saw the Reds slump to the bottom of league and Clark, who had done a terrific job restoring Forest to the top table, was sacked just before Christmas.

Stuart Pearce took on player-manager duties and oversaw a 2-1 victory at Highbury as Forest stunned their hosts and title contenders Arsenal. He would pick up the Manager of the Month award for January 1997 with five wins (two cup games) and a draw from six matches but by the time Forest had brought in Dave Bassett as permanent manager in March, Forest were all but relegated.

Campbell and Alf Inge-Haaland top-scored with just six goals apiece as a dismal campaign returned just six victories and Van Hooijdonk contributed just one goal for his £4.5m fee. A season to forget but, hopefully, there would be more to come from the Dutchman in 1997/98.

Join me in the coming days for part three of Nottingham Forest in the 1990s as we round out the decade with Forest’s return to the second tier of English football. How would van Hooijdonk fare at a lower level and could Forest bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt?