In the 90s: Nottingham Forest (part three)

Nottingham Forest Pierre Van Hooijdonk

In part two of their rollercoaster ride through the 1990s, we saw Nottingham Forest bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt before taking on European giants Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 1996. However, as with the conclusion of part one, the second chapter ended in relegation. With Dave Bassett at the helm, could Forest keep the yo-yo spinning and reclaim their spot. The final chapter of Forest in the 90s has the answers.

Bouncebackability at its finest

After the highs of a run in Europe just two years earlier, Forest found themselves back in the second tier as the 1997/98 season began but confidence was high for a quick return to the Premier League.

Having come into the club in March, Bassett had his first pre-season to work with his squad and set out the standard for the forthcoming campaign. For Dutchman Pierre van Hooijdonk, it would be time to step up and give something back for his £4.5m transfer fee from Celtic after a dismal start to life at the City Ground.

Four wins from four in August put Forest in pole position as a three-way title battle began with all three relegated sides – Forest, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland – all vying for the Division One title. A hat-trick from van Hooijdonk sealed a 4-0 home win against Queens Park Rangers as the Reds bagged 10 goals in their first four games. A statement of intent by all accounts.

Leading the line alongside Kevin Campbell, the Dutchman had finally found his scoring touch, and despite losing two of their next three matches, Forest would win eight of their following 15 games, clinching a stunning 5-2 home win against promotion-chasing Charlton Athletic and an away draw at Middlesbrough.

Making the most of three home games in the festive period Bassett’s men put their opponents to the sword as the Red Army made a real push for automatic promotion with another four successive wins.

Campbell and van Hooijdonk scored a combined 32 goals by the end of January as they lit up the First Division. Hot on their heels, however, was Sunderland’s Kevin Phillips, who had bagged 14 of his own as Peter Reid’s Mackems settled into life at the Stadium of Light.

1 March was billed as a potential title-decider as Middlesbrough – and the Sky Sports cameras – arrived on the banks of the Trent. Ahead of the game, I had a feeling we would win but a defeat would be devastating and our season could unravel. With Sunderland primed to pounce on any errors, it was win or bust.

Although Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho had moved on following relegation, Bryan Robson had the talents of Emerson, Hamilton Ricard, and former England international Paul Merson to call on.

Buy an iconic Juninho poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy an iconic Juninho poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

But it would be Forest’s day. Van Hooijdonk put Forest ahead with a stunning 25-yard free-kick before Campbell evaded the offside trap to run in on goal and slot home past Andy Dibble for 2-0.

Colin Cooper made it 3-0 with a header which looped over Dibble and van Hooijdonk completed a 4-0 rout from the penalty spot after Steve Stone had been upended in the box. Forest were on fire. Promotion looked to be on the cards. Exciting times.

Just three days later though, as is common for Forest fans, we were brought crashing back to earth as fellow-promotion rivals Sunderland inflicted a sobering 3-0 home defeat, goals from Alex Rae, Allan Johnston and Phillips.

The First Division – and its current inception, the Championship – is deemed the most difficult league to get out of in English football and that could not have been truer of these results.

But if anything, the home loss to Reid’s Sunderland was the wake-up call Forest needed and a run of seven wins in eight games put the Red Army back in the box seat. And when Sunderland lost to Ipswich and Middlesbrough could only draw with Wolves in their penultimate games of the season, Forest were promoted as champions.

Van Hooijdonk finished joint-top scorer alongside Phillips in the league with 29 goals apiece, while Campbell had 24 as the formidable duo stuck to Bassett’s pre-season plan. Forest were heading back to the big time, again.

Van Hooijdonk goes AWOL

The sales of Kevin Campbell to Trabzonspor and Colin Cooper to Middlesbrough, both for £2.5m, paved the way for a controversial start to Premier League life for Nottingham Forest in 1998.

With his strike-partner on his way to Turkey, van Hooijdonk was left isolated at the City Ground. Promises from Bassett of reinvestment never materialised and as the season began in August, neither did the Dutchman.

Let down by the sale of his dynamic partner, van Hooijdonk went AWOL and refused to play. On the pitch, Forest battled to two wins from their first three matches but the off-field shenanigans were clearly having an effect.

As with their last Premier League campaign in 1996/97, a 17-match chain of terrible results saw Forest pick up just seven additional points by the end of December and Bassett was given his marching orders on January 5th.

Van Hooijdonk’s self-imposed exile ended in October when he agreed to fulfil his contract but it did little to change the sequence of the season. And Forest fans will never be able to forget that. Maybe our fortunes would have been better with him in the side from the start of August, but now we’ll never know.

As if the Dutchman’s escapades had not been embarrassing enough, Forest appointed Ron Atkinson as the new manager on 11 January 1999, with survival his target. Realistically, it was mission impossible. But, you have to give everyone their chance.

Atkinson took Forest’s embarrassment to new lows though when he stepped out as manager at the City Ground for the first time five days later, only to sit in Arsenal’s technical area. It was a sign of bad things to come.

January was closed out with a 1-0 away win at Everton and finally, Forest fans had something to cheer about. In the next game though, the harsh reality of just how bad we were was clear for all to see.

It took Dwight Yorke just one minute 24 seconds to put Manchester United ahead. That all-encompassing optimism that lives in a teenager’s love for their club was rewarded when Alan Rogers levelled four minutes later but that was the best it got.

Andy Cole made it 2-1 in the next passage of play but United were on course for a treble and their dominance told in the second half. Cole extended the lead and Yorke made it 4-1 after 66 minutes. Cue the substitutions and maybe a reprieve for Forest.

No. In came the baby-faced assassin, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. You might know him. Four goals in 12 final minutes made it the best substitute appearance of the modern game and, needless to say, there were tears before bedtime. Utter humiliation.

As expected Forest went on to be relegated while Manchester United clinched the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup for a stunning treble in what no other English side has been able to match since.

While the campaign was definitely one to forget for Forest fans, we can still take some pleasure from our last three Premier League matches. Atkinson was not to have the influence that the club needed but three wins from the final three games – against Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City – meant we bowed out with some semblance of pride. The yo-yo, and Forest dropped again as Atkinson departed.

A life outside the Premier League

Unsurprisingly, van Hooijdonk was sold in the summer as he opted for a move home, a £3.5m sale to Vitesse Arnhem ending three years in Nottingham. David Platt was appointed player-manager as Atkinson’s successor as Forest faced up to a new season in the second tier of the domestic game.

With Campbell and van Hooijdonk out of the picture, Forest had to rely on a very different set of attackers as they sought an immediate return to the top table for the third time in the decade. In Dougie Freedman, Marlon Harewood and Stern John there were options, but some strange transfer business from Platt left fans bewildered.

Given £12m to spend, the former England midfielder signed an Italian trio of Gianluca Petrachi (£1.2m), Salvatore Matrecano (£1.2m) and Moreno Mannini (free), as well as Ipswich Town striker David Johnson (£3m).

None of the Italians managed to make a significant impact at the City Ground, with two returning to Italy in the next transfer window and the third, Matrecano, suffered ligament damage and appeared just 13 times for the Reds before his contract was terminated in 2001.

It was to be a difficult season for Forest as they readjusted to First Division life and by the end of September they had recorded just two league wins from nine games. It went from bad to worse as the 90s ended with a run of seven defeats in 11 matches.

As the year 2000 beckoned, Forest were facing down the barrel of successive relegations as Platt failed to make an impact. Off-field battles with experienced Forest stars affected the team, while the club were falling into further debt through poor managerial decisions and signings.

A young John Terry joined the club on loan from Chelsea in January and suddenly the performances picked up. Just 20-years-old at the time, Terry had an assurance with his game that built confidence throughout the team. And Forest pulled themselves clear of relegation with a seven-match unbeaten run, eventually finishing in 14th-place, a position that did not truly reflect the reality of a monstrous season at the City Ground.

The battle to get back to the Premier League goes on for my beloved Nottingham Forest almost 20 years later. In 2003 Paul Hart led us to the playoffs but by 2005 we had gone the other way.

Three seasons of doom in the newly-named League One were just soul-destroying but a run of four wins in the final four games of the 2007/08 lifted Forest from fourth in the league into the automatic promotion places and restored their Championship status.

Further play-off heartache awaited in both the 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons, as first Blackpool, and then Swansea, thwarted our efforts in the semi-finals but mid-table obscurity has become our lifestyle now.

A final day survival bid was successful in 2016/17 as Blackburn Rovers fell to League One on goal difference and a period of rebuilding is underway with new chairman Evangelos Marinakis.

Around £30m was invested in the summer as Aitor Karanka took on the promotion challenge. However, a poor run of results since the start of December seems to have sealed Forest’s fate for another season in the second tier.

Karanka walked away in January, with European Cup winner Martin O’Neill taking over. It may be too late for a play-off challenge but my hope is that O’Neill is given time to settle in, get a pre-season under his belt and build for next year. 20 years of hurt goes on. The pain is real.