For the inaugural Premier League season under Brian Clough, Nottingham Forest brought in only two players who commanded a transfer fee – Neil Webb returned to the City Ground from Manchester United for £800,000 while Robert Rosario cost about half that from Coventry City, giving a total spend of £1.2 million. Thirty years on and Forest broke the Premier League record for the number of incoming players, as Serge Aurier became the twenty-second to join the club since the transfer window opened on 10 June, for an overall expenditure of £146 million.
Forest fans had waited 23 years to return to the top flight and understandably their joy was unconfined after sealing promotion by beating Huddersfield Town 1-0 in the Championship play-offs Final. The victory parade in the city’s Old Market Square attracted thousands of supporters as the players joined manager Steve Cooper and owner Evangelos Marinakis on the balcony of the council offices the day after their Wembley triumph. For the host of that celebration, Matt Forde, the political comedian, the positivity has not diminished.
“There is still an overriding feeling of euphoria, even after a couple of recent defeats,” Forde says. “Getting promoted into the Premier League was like a bullet of pure adrenalin. Considering we had pretty poor starts in the last few seasons in the Championship, the level of stress is minimal by comparison.” Indeed, Forest have collected as many points after six matches this season than they had in the first six matches of the last two seasons combined.
Inevitably many of the players who joined Forde in those celebrations were not going to be at the club soon afterwards. There was always going to be a high turnover of players as Cooper had to replace the handful of loanees, such as Djed Spence, Philip Zinckernagel and James Garner. “We also accepted that there had to be an upgrade on the existing squad,” Forde says. “So for example, Brice Samba who was such a big personality and performed heroics in the play-offs semi-final shootout has been replaced by a better goalkeeper in Dean Henderson. He has certainly made a strong connection with the fans.” Henderson has further enhanced his reputation with penalty saves from Declan Rice and Harry Kane.
“There have been almost as many departures as arrivals,” Rich Ferraro, host of the 1865 podcast, says. “Including several players, such as Braian Ojeda and Jonathan Panzo who were brought in on the expectation that we would still be in the Championship this season so they have gone out on loan. We have had two months to prepare for the Premier League, something that was completely unexpected.”
Ferraro points out that Marinakis has never shied away from the challenge of refreshing the squad, in the five years he has been in charge of Forest he has brought in nearly 80 players. Marinakis was extremely bullish when he addressed the fans at the victory parade but some were a little wary of the lofty ambitions of the Greek media mogul as football journalist Daniel Storey explains. “He stood on the steps of the council offices and spoke about thriving in the Premier League rather than just surviving, which was maybe a little bit ahead of our expectations. It is much more likely that we will be in a relegation battle and right now I would snap your hand off if you offered me 17th place and staying up on goal difference.”
Storey feels that the mass influx of new players has slightly undermined the notion of loyalty with some of the supporters. This was evident in the home match against Bournemouth when Forest blew a two-goal lead as there were rumblings of discontent aimed at some of the players who performed so impressively at the club last season. Steve Cook, Scott McKenna and Joe Worrall are not the quickest back line in the division and Storey feels that the fans need to afford them some slack as opposed to castigating them for their lack of pace. Forde agrees with Storey. “The negative chat online is not helpful. Ryan Yates has been singled out as not being good enough but he was instrumental in last season’s success.”
“Players such as Yates and Worrall deserve better treatment,” Ferraro says. “They should be rewarded for all their efforts over the last few seasons with the chance to play in the top flight.” As for the players who have arrived at the club, he maintains that there can be a connection established between them and the fans. “As long as those players are giving their all then we will accept them relatively quickly. Neco Williams has been a shining example over the opening matches, by giving his all in every single match.”
Some question initiating so much change on the playing side, with Marinakis’ son Miltiadis instrumental in the influx of new blood. A fan survey conducted in the Nottingham Post in early August revealed that 86% were happy with the transfers while 88% were ‘on board with the owners’. Ferraro sees Cooper’s main challenge as being able to maintain confidence if they go on a sustained bad run, which they have not experienced since he took over. “He instilled such a good mentality in those players but the big question now is how does he deal with a series of defeats and the waning confidence?”
“As fans we have to realise that it takes time to bed in new players,” Forde says. “Things are extremely positive with both the owner and the manager and we are going in the right direction. It will take time but by the end of the season we will be a Premier League club.” Storey is concerned that if Forest are still towards the bottom of the table in a month or so the owners might panic and Cooper could be jettisoned before the break for the World Cup in November. A little over a year since he brought about a truly remarkable resurrection of the club the Welshman could be joining many of his players who gained promotion, on the way out of the City Ground and that would damage their chances of staying up. Forest fans will hope that this season does not end as 1992/93 did, in relegation.
- This piece will also appear online at the Guardian.