The fall and rise of Nottingham Forest

The fall and rise of Nottingham Forest

After a 23-year exile from the Premier League, the two-time European champions are back.

Nottingham Forest fans will never forget Sunday, May 29 2022.

Almost a quarter-of-a-century after relegation from the Premier League under Ron Atkinson in 1999, an own goal from Huddersfield’s teenage defender Levi Colwill – on loan from Chelsea – sealed a 1-0 win for the Tricky Trees’ in the Championship play-off final at Wembley and the long-awaited return to the top flight.

The seasons that followed were turbulent, with manager after manager unable to take them up. But just eight months after his appointment, Steve Cooper has done just that.

Here, we take a look at the years of agony and disappointment that made victory in Sunday’s final all the sweeter.

Founding Premier League members drop out for good

A Division One powerhouse throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Nottingham Forest were one of the founding members of the Premier League when it was established in 1992.

Stan Collymore scored 50 league goals over the course of the next two seasons as they were promoted from the second tier and then, remarkably, carried on their momentum to finish third under Frank Clark in 1994/95.

Despite a ninth-placed finish the following year, Forest finished 20th in 1996/97, won the second tier in 1997/98 and then finished 20th once again in 1998/99. It is not too far from the truth to say they were one of the Premier League’s first yo-yo clubs.

The final time they dropped away from the top table, Forest won just seven games. It was just the 10th time since the Football League was established in 1888 that they had failed to reach double figures and they were punished accordingly.

Division One struggles

As had been the case when Forest had been relegated in recent years, they were almost immediately considered favourites for an immediate return to the Premier League. It had seldom panned out that way, however – and it was a similar story under player-manager David Platt in 1999/2000.

They drew 10 games at the City Ground and lost 14 on the road, with the plethora of dropped points leaving them 20 points outside even the play-off places. Forest did come closer under Platt the following year, this time only six points outside the top six, yet that was still way below the expectations set of them.

Platt left under a cloud in 2001 to take up the role as England U21 manager, with Paul Hart unable to inspire Forest to anything more than a 16th-place finish in his first season in charge, largely owing to the significant debt racked up by high profile signings made during Platt’s time at the helm.

Financial difficulties continued into the 2002/03 season, but Forest still made it into the play-offs under Hart, where they faced Sheffield United. Brennan Johnson’s dad David scored in both legs, but Neil Warnock’s Blades won an epic semi-final battle 5-4 on aggregate.

In 2004, the second tier was rebranded as the Championship and – as they were when the Premier League was created – Forest were founding members. But as they were when the Premier League was created, they lasted just one season before relegation.

The League One years

Relegation from the Championship in 2005 meant Nottingham Forest would play in the third tier of English football for the first time since they were won the Third Division South in 1950/51.

For several generations of fans, this was new territory – but territory they did not want to have to explore for very long.

But the momentum from the previous season – or lack thereof – continued into the next. They did not storm to the top of the division, nor did they really trouble the play-off places until the final weeks of 2005/06.

In fact, their season only really kicked into gear when caretaker manager Ian McParland replaced Megson on 16 February 2006. He won eight of his 13 games in charge, losing just once, which saw Forest miss out on a top six spot by a mere two points.

With Grant Holt leading the line, under Colin Calderwood in 2006/07, the club led the way throughout September and all the way until the turn of the year, eventually missing out on automatic promotion by three points.

There was further disappointment to come, too, as Yeovil produced a stunning play-off semi-final second leg comeback to win 5-4 on aggregate after extra-time and dump Forest out.

Third time’s a charm, though, so the old saying goes.

The 2007/08 campaign was, by no means perfect, or without its bumps in the road along the way, but though it looked as though Forest were going to have to settle for the play-offs once more, a 3-2 revenge win over Yeovil on the final day lifted them to second for the first time since February and meant they finished as runners-up.

Championship mediocrity & managerial changes galore

As expected, after a three-year exile, Forest were going to be a little shaky on their return to the Championship, but they were second-bottom on Boxing Day 2008, with Calderwood departing after a 4-2 home defeat to Doncaster.

Billy Davies replaced him at the turn of the year and helped to stave off the lingering threat of relegation by inspiring a six-game unbeaten run to finish off the season.

It was with the Scot in charge that Forest mounted their best challenge for a Premier League return, too. They bounced back to finish third in 2009/10, but missed out to Blackpool in the play-off semi-finals, before finishing sixth and the losing to Swansea in the following year’s semis.

Davies had felt that, with the backing of the board in the transfer market, he could have made Forest true contenders at the top of the division, but after two futile play-off attempts, his contract was terminated in the summer of 2011.

The managerial hotseat was just that in the years that followed. Steve McClaren lasted just 10 games as his replacement, before Steve Cotterill suffered the same fate after the Al-Hasawi family’s takeover in the summer of 2012.

Sean O’Driscoll was allowed to spend millions to mould the squad, yet lasted until Boxing Day and Alex McLeish was gone after just six games, citing “a difference in the understanding of the development strategy of the football club.”

So they turned to Davies once again, who came within a whisker of securing a third straight top six finish, only for Forest to miss out by a point. An eight-game winless streak towards the end of 2013/14, culminating in a 5-0 humbling at the hands of fierce East Midlands rivals Derby, sealed his fate, however.

Next came Stuart Pearce for a second spell, Dougie Freedman, Philippe Montanier and Mark Warburton, none of whom succeeded in achieving anything but bottom half finishes.

They were even almost relegated again in 2017, before Warburton’s late salvage operation saw them survive at Blackburn’s expense on goal difference alone.

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