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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 30/10/04, 3.00pm
Nottingham Forest
A very hard act to follow
By Mike Smart

"Now I've come back down again, it's worse than it was before; if I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor..."
(James, Sit Down)

So, we come to the last of the triumvirate of East Midlands "Giants". Teams who, if their fans are to be believed, are "Massive Clubs" that don't belong in this division. In fact, it's not just confined to the East Midlands; right across the central region, only Walsall, Kidderminster Harriers and Notts County seem to have managed to resist such delusions of grandeur.

Except with Forest, they aren't really delusions. Here, I suppose I'd better admit that I really quite like Nottingham Forest. Like, and admire. Why? Well, all the Forest fans I've ever met have been decent folk, so that helps, but there's a bit more to it than that. I grew up with Forest being a major force in English football, constantly involved at the right end of the table, despite spending a small fraction of the sorts of money Liverpool and Manyoo dished out in assembling their squads.

The real glory years for Forest came a little earlier, and sort of passed me by: the European Cup wins came either side of my second birthday. But what an achievement! Remember, this was before they decided that the majority of entrants into the competition didn't have to be the champions of anything, and then ingeniously renamed it the "Champions' League".

All of which makes the current predicament all the harder to take. You see, the Wolves fans really ought to have got used to it by now. And what did Leicester do to make their fans think they should be a Premiership club? But for Forest fans, most of whom can no doubt remember some of the finer moments, it must be difficult for them to stomach watching their team turned over at home to Brighton. And being managed by someone like Big Fat Joe.

Now, that's an interesting one. Kinnear seemed like the obvious choice last season - a guy with a proven track record of triumph in adversity. And it worked. But now, a new season and he's still there, and somehow, it just doesn't seem to be a match. And while it would appear unfair to say that the majority of Forest fans want him out, a large proportion of fans seem to be losing patience. Rumours abound. Looking at the message boards, for example, "My mate told me that Kinnear doesn't turn up to training on Mondays and Tuesdays" seemed to be accepted as proven fact five posts later. Mind you, there's something very familiar about that. The style of football on display has been called into question, but maybe that is because it's cool to say, "Kinnear is a long ball merchant", and even cooler to say, "That's not how we do it at Forest." I guess we'll see on Saturday.

So the long and the short of it seems to be that they are in a bit of a mess. Little money, a manager losing his grip and a squad not performing, for whatever reason. I would suggest that the reason, though, is not a lack of talent.

Between the sticks on Saturday will be Paul Gerrard, Darren Ward having departed for Norwich, presumably in the hope that Robert Green will be sold sooner rather than later. Understudies to Gerrard are Barry Roche and John Lukic. No, really. He's eighteen years old, by the way.

At right back, Matthieu Louis-Jean is one of a number of names that seems to have been on a Forest team sheet forever, and I wouldn't be surprised if he has a couple of European Cup medals tucked away at home somewhere. Alan Rogers should play at left back. The back four has something of a settled look, with Wes Morgan accompanying the back-from-injury, promising-youngster-that-nobody-seems-to-want-to-take-a-chance-on Michael Dawson. Other options in defence are Jon-Olav Hjelde and Gregor Robertson. And, approaching his thirty-ninth birthday, Des Walker, although he hasn't played since a sub appearance in the opening day draw with Wigan.

A promising youngster who somebody probably will take a chance on in the near future is Andy Reid, and he may well return from a mixture of injury and suspension. He may have a touch of the Glen Little / David Bellion "I shouldn't be here" attitude about him, but he is a formidable opponent nevertheless. On the opposite flank, the presence of Andy Impey shouldn't hinder Jermaine Darlington's attacking instincts too much. The centre of midfield has seen a settled pairing of Eoin Jess and Paul Evans, although there is a groundswell of opinion that youngster James Perch should claim a midfield start, possibly in place of Jess, after an impressive performance at Doncaster on Tuesday. Eugen Bopp, goalscorer here last season, is in-and-out of the side, and will probably be on the bench, as might Ross Gardner and Brian Cash. Cash is described as a quick player who can cause problems to full-backs, but very lightweight. Remind anyone of a couple of wingers we have at our club? Ex-Stoke man Kris Commons may also feature.

Up front, we will almost certainly see the Marlon King - David Johnson partnership in action. Johnson's a danger, there's no doubt, but he has just two goals to his name this season. My abiding memory of him is his dive to get Robert Page booked while playing for Bury. King has six goals, two of them in the Carling Cup. With Gareth Taylor suspended, the other options up front appear to be Kevin James and Craig Westcarr, with one last-minute substitute appearance between them all season.

This could be the right fixture at the right time for us. We look okay, but unspectacular at the moment, and that could well be enough. However, if Forest play to anything like their potential, it almost certainly won't be enough.

So, back to the reasons I like Nottingham Forest. It helps that we always seem to do well there, and on the back of yet another successful trip to Bramall Lane, success at the City Ground seems fitting. The City Ground was the scene of one of the finest Watford performances I have ever seen, the Micah Hyde-inspired 2-0 win in 2000. And it is one of very few grounds that is actually in pleasant surroundings.

But I think the main reason for my respect for them would have to be Cloughie, probably the only manager that I would consider rating above Graham Taylor. And herein lies a similarity between our clubs, and a stark warning. Asking future Watford managers to take their place in the dugout beneath the Graham Taylor Stand could be a big mistake. It's hard for some people to accept that Ray Lewington is actually doing an excellent job, but that's because we've been spoiled, as Forest were under Brian Clough. Joe Kinnear is their seventh manager since Clough retired in 1993, the eighth might not be long in coming. He was a great manager, and a great man. But he should not be the benchmark against which future managers are judged. Likewise Graham Taylor.

Good luck to Forest, then - I really hope they turn it around. Starting on Sunday. Then, perhaps, I will get to see my ideal league table - Watford as champions, Crewe runners-up and Forest winning the play offs. If you want to know who would be relegated, you don't need to look very far from Nottingham.

Hmm, I wonder what odds I could get....