Nottingham Forest in the 21st century

10 April 2021

Founded back in 1865, Nottingham Forest have seen more than one generation of fans in their stands. However, the team’s fortunes at all times moved between victories and defeats in a chaotic fashion. Unfortunately, the negative streaks have been much more numerous. What was the reason? I decided to look into the Foresters’ phenomenon.

Play-off failures and the curse of 8 minutes

Failures of their favourite team, especially in crucial games, remain etched forever in the minds of fans, leaving deep wounds in their hearts. Certainly, a fan of any club will be able to talk about such “black” days in the history of his team, but it is likely that Nottingham Forest fans can give a significant head start in this aspect.

The winning period

Nottingham Forest are one of England’s oldest and most decorated football clubs. The golden period of Forest’s history is directly associated with the arrival of coach Brian Clough in 1975, when the club was stagnating in the Second Division. The brilliant coach managed to turn a solid mid-table side into a hegemon of English football in a very short period of time. Two years after Clough’s appointment, Nottingham Forest clawed their way into the First Division (analogue of the current Premier League) in the last round, finishing in third place.

Moreover, in the first season after promotion Forest become the champions of England! The Nottingham side’s success on the international stage has continued: the club have won the European Cup twice in a row (in 1979 and 1980) and also won the UEFA Super Cup. Clough won a total of 11 trophies for Forest and the club were considered one of the leading contenders for the FA Cup and the league title each year. Not surprisingly, a bronze statue of Clough was erected in Nottingham city centre in tribute to the great coach, and several streets in the city itself were named after him.

After 18 years in charge, the Clough era came to an end in May 1993 when Nottingham Forest left the newly formed Premier League in last place out of 22. The following season the club would go straight back to the English top division and even managed to win the bronze medal in 1995. However, in 1997 Nottingham Forest again becomes the worst team in the PL and leaves the elite for one season. After a solid win in the Championship, the club makes another attempt to secure a place in the PL.

Forest got off to a flying start to the 1998-99 season with two wins in August, but had to wait five months for another win! In October 1998 they slipped down to the relegation zone, which they would not leave again until the end of the tournament. Three wins in the last three fixtures would not remedy the situation: Nottingham are once again the worst team in the EFL.

At the time, it seemed certain that the club would repeat the scenario of previous seasons with a quick return to the top division in England. Few would have guessed at the time that May 16, 1999, the last day that Nottingham would be the last day that an PL match would be played, with a 1-0 home win against Leicester in the last round.

Failures in the Championship play-offs

Despite a solid transfer campaign, Nottingham Forest were unable to make a quick comeback in the PL. 14th, 11th and 16th places in the second strongest division were by no means the results the fans expected. It was not until the 2002-03 season that Forest managed to leapfrog into sixth place, enabling them to qualify for the play-offs to qualify for the PL. In the first round of the play-offs, Forest’s opponent was Sheffield United. A 1-1 draw in Nottingham left a good chance for both teams and therefore the return meeting turned into a real battle.

Having crushed their opponents’ initial onslaught, Forest seized the initiative and by the 60th minute had a two-goal advantage. It looked as though victory would be within reach, but some inexplicable loss of concentration led to two missed goals from Sheffield within 8 minutes! The main time ended 2-2, and as the away goal rule doesn’t apply in the Championship play-offs, the match went into extra time.

In the first overtime, neither team was able to break the game open, but in the second 15 minutes, Sheffield FC twice stunned the visitors from Nottingham in the space of 8 minutes! And although Forest managed to pull one back, there wasn’t enough time for more as the final whistle saw the score at 4-3 in favour of Sheffield.

Failure to qualify for the Premier Leage meant a lack of profit to help Forest cope with their accumulated debts. The club was forced to part with several key players, which undoubtedly affected the team’s results in the following seasons. In 2003-04 season Forest were lucky to avoid relegation thanks to an eight-game losing streak, but the 2004-05 campaign was a disaster: for the first time in their history the UEFA Champions League holders relegated to the third division of the domestic league.

The losing streak continued in Ligue One, with the team in the relegation zone after seven rounds. Only a timely change of coach helped shake up the team. After an impressing 10 game winning streak, Forest managed to clinch a playoff spot with three games to go. But they squandered their entire advantage, collecting just two points out of a possible nine against bottom-tier clubs at the most crucial moment. They were just two points short of the coveted 6th place spot, which meant another season in Ligue One.

Forest finished the 2006-07 campaign fairly evenly, finishing the season in fourth place (just three points short of qualifying for direct promotion to the Championship). In the first round of the play-offs, they were to face humble Yeovil Town. On the road, Nottingham were convincingly defeated 0-2. To lose such a lead in the return home game was quite a task, but Forest once again showed their inability to keep their concentration throughout the match.

Nottingham responded to a quick goal from the visitors with a goal of their own and kept the game comfortably tied until the 80th minute. However, within the unfortunate 8 minutes, Forest conceded two goals and the game went into overtime. The teams traded goals early in the first overtime period before Yeovil Town scored the winning goal in the 109th minute of the match, shocking the fans at City Ground.

At the third attempt, Forest did manage to qualify for the Championship. Ironically, Nottingham needed only a win against old acquaintances Yeovil Town to gain direct promotion in the last round. From the outset, Forest unleashed a flurry of attacks on Yeovil, scoring three goals by the 30th minute, but conceding one to the visitors. It’s hard to imagine the flashbacks of Forest fans when Yovil scored another goal 15 minutes before the end of the game. But it wasn’t enough for the visitors and so Nottingham start the 2008-09 season in the Championship.

Return to the Championship was not very successful, as the team spent almost the whole tournament dangerously close to the relegation zone, taking the final 19th place out of 24 participants. But already in the season 2009-10 Forest represented a more cohesive team – in the course of the tournament gave 19-match winning streak and made the fans talk about the imminent return to the PL. Three rounds before the end of the championship, when it becomes clear that Forest will not be able to win a direct ticket to the top division, but will not drop below the third place, Billy Davies, the Nottingham head coach, decides to make a “horse move”.

Mindful that Nottingham Forest had never even made the first round of the play-offs (whether in the Championship or League One), Davies fielded a double against Blackpool, who were struggling desperately to get into the top six. Blackpool, of course, took advantage of such a gift (3-1). According to Blackpool’s players, they were greeted with a pleased look by Davies after the match: “You’re the weakest team we can get in the play-offs. I put the understudies out there today so you get three points and can get into the play-off zone. With an opponent like that, we are guaranteed to qualify for the final.”

Be that as it may, it was that win that ultimately helped Blackpool beat Swansea by just one point to take sixth place and qualify for the play-offs with Nottingham Forest (the regulations say third team play the sixth-placed team and fourth team play fifth).

No doubt Billy Davies was pleased with his plan. Despite a minimal away defeat (2-1) in the first match, Davies continued his “mind games”, again trying to jab the Blackpool players: “It’s done, in a home match you will not unlock our goals”. In fact, Davies had good reason to think so, because at the time Nottingham Forest’s home winning streak was twenty games long, including 737 minutes without conceding a goal.

Still, Davies’ words had the opposite effect: the players of his own team greeted the head coach’s behaviour after the loss with incomprehension, but the Blackpool players came out even more energised at the City Ground. As Blackpool’s players recalled, their dressing room was plastered with portraits of Billy Davies and his offensive quotes, so they didn’t need any extra motivation. Forest took the lead as early as the 7th minute but were unable to extend their lead in the first half.

In the second half, the Blackpool players managed to equalize, but after ten minutes, Forest restored the status quo on aggregate. And then came another eight cursed minutes, which again shocked the crowd at City Ground. From the 72nd to the 80th minute, the Blackpool players netted three times(!) against the Nottingham Forest keeper. The home side would manage to get one goal back in added time before the second half, but of course, it wouldn’t be enough. The Blackpool players (who would later create another sensation by beating Cardiff and qualifying to the AFL) will not use a few insulting words against Billy Davies, and Nottingham Forest fans will have nightmares about this match for a long time to come.

The following season, Forest jumped into the play-off zone, but, in the old tradition, once again failed to qualify for the first round of the tie – after a goalless home draw, Swansea would leave Nottingham no chance (3-1) in an away game. A final sixth place finish that season, which allowed Forest to qualify for the play-offs, will remain Nottingham’s highest achievement for a good decade to come, even despite new owners from Kuwait who have been feeding fans with promises of greater investment.

After the 2016-17 season, when the team only managed to avoid relegation on goal difference, the Kuwaiti owners sold the club to Greek media tycoon Evangelos Marinakis, who is also president of Olympiacos. With Marinakis’s arrival, the coaching scandal will finally end and the team will gradually begin to improve their results in the Champions League.

The nightmare of the 2019-20 season and the way forward

If Nottingham Forest’s previous failures were mainly associated with an inability to maintain concentration during important play-off games, the 2019-20 season was a new milestone in the club’s history of failure.

Nottingham played the first half of the season very confidently and by the end of December 2019 were firmly entrenched in the play-off zone. In January, the gap to second place, which guaranteed a direct trip to the APL, shrank to two points, allowing fans to seriously dream of a return to the elite of English football. Forest had a successful series of games in February against direct top-five rivals (victories over Brentford and Leeds, a draw against West Bromwich), but lost points against teams from the bottom of the table. By the time the tournament was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in early March 2020, Nottingham were firmly in fifth place.

In their first match since the reopening of the Champions League, Forest missed out on a 1-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday in the final added minute of the second half. This was followed by convincing home victories over Huddersfield (3-1) and Bristol (1-0) to extend their lead from seventh place to seven points with six rounds to go.

The match against Derby County was the first bellwether. Having taken the lead as early as the 12th minute, Forest, playing on the powerplay, managed to concede the win in the last (seventh!) minute added to the second half.

This was followed by a 0-1 defeat at the hands of Fulham and two draws against seventh-placed Preston (1-1) and eighth-placed Swansea (2-2), direct play-off contenders. The game with Wales was particularly disappointing, as Forest again failed to convert the power play. But a win against the Welsh would have guaranteed Forest a play-off place with two games left in the tournament!

In any case, Nottingham approached the final two games with a comfortable five-point lead over the seventh team. Moreover, Forest’s calendar was much simpler than that of their nearest pursuers: divisional worst team Barnsley, with just ten wins on the season, and already decided all questions about keeping their place in the Champions League with Stoke City.

In the penultimate leg against Barnsley, a draw guaranteed Forest a place in the play-off zone. Obviously, the Nottingham side came into the match with one goal in mind: to keep their goal intact. And, despite the sharp attacks from Barnsley (who were desperately fighting for survival), Forest successfully held off their opponents’ attacks… until the fourth (final!) minute of the second half, when another cross into their penalty area led to a scramble and a conceded goal.

Before the last round, the only team that could prevent Forest from remaining in the play-off zone was Swansea City, three points behind Nottingham. However, even the Welsh did not seem to have much faith in their own luck: Swansea needed not only to win their match against Reading and hope for Nottingham’s defeat by Stoke City, but also to significantly improve the goal difference (the first indicator of equal points), because in this parameter Forest had a solid advantage (+5).

Moreover, Nottingham were playing at home (albeit with empty stands), while Swansea were playing an away game. Few believed that Nottingham Forest would leave the play-off zone for the first time since December, as the bookmakers’ betting odds showed clearly: the odds on Forest not making the play-offs were taken at 1 to 66.

What happened on 22 July 2020 will haunt Forest fans in their nightmares for a long time to come. The last round matches were played at the same time and after an hour’s play both meetings were tied at 1-1. In the 66th minute, Swansea lead a goal attack, realising the numerical advantage after a Reading player was sent off. In the parallel game, Forest stall by any means possible but manage to concede two goals within five minutes!

The pressure is high when Swansea score a third goal in the 84th minute – their play-off place now depends on a fourth Swansea goal or another Nottingham mistake. The Welsh team are on the attack with all their might, while Forest play on the break. The denouement comes in extra time: Swansea score the cherished goal on 90 +1 minutes, and a desperate last gasp by Nottingham players does not bring dividends and ends with an autonomous goal by a Forest player. 1-4 in both meetings and Forest incomprehensibly miss out on the play-off tie, relegating to a final 7th place finish.

What’s next?

After a monstrous end to the 2019-20 season, Forest continued their losing streak into the new Championships. Four opening defeats led to the sacking of Head Coach Sabri Llamoushi. After Chris Hughton’s appointment in October, Forest were immediately victorious over Blackburn, but the team’s results left much to be desired. Nottingham finished a dreadful 2020 year in 21st place with 19 points, only missing out on the relegation zone thanks to a better goal difference.

The team have fared much better in the new year. At the time of writing, Forest are in 15th place with 48 points. There are still six rounds to go, but even with a 13-point lead over the relegation zone, fans, based on last year’s experience, cannot be completely confident that the club will not lose their considerable lead.

Will the club with the richest history be able to return to the elite of English football any time soon? Not out of the question, but the prognosis is bleak due to several factors.

Under Kuwaiti ownership, the club did not make any high-profile transfers and constantly sold off its leaders, which had a negative impact on the team’s performance. In the first year of the Marinakis presidency, the club limited itself to a few pinpoint acquisitions, but in the 2018-19 season Nottingham had a record transfer campaign spending an impressive £25m, including £13.5m for Joao Carvalho (a record transfer in Forest history) from Benfica and £6m for Bournemouth striker Lewis Grabban.

Prior to the 2019-20 season, the club retained all key players and significantly strengthened each of the lines, leading to their best final result in the Champions League in 10 years, albeit again without a trip to the APL. But there is another side to the coin: costly purchases have irreversibly increased the club’s wage bill and expenses.

It is no secret that many Championship clubs are in huge debt and are a loss-making business. For most clubs in England’s second strongest division, a coveted trip to the PL, even if only for one season, can significantly improve the income balance, and therefore very often the management of such clubs does not hesitate to invite the famous players, prescribing them a very solid wages in their contracts.

Deloitte calculates that, last year, Championship clubs spent an average of 105% of their income on player fees (although a ‘healthy’ figure should not exceed 60%). In other words, for every £100 of their income, clubs spent £105 on payments to their players.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as many teams have a much higher ratio of income to player payments than the division average. Some teams have avoided financial collapse through good sporting results (relegated Aston Villa and Sheffield United, for example, had ratios of 181% and 190% respectively in their final season in the Champions League), but for many such shortsighted financial models can lead to long-term problems. Nottingham Forest are no exception: last season 143% of revenues went towards paying players’ salaries. Moreover, Forest already for 11 years in a row has been in a situation where more than 100% of the club’s revenues are spent on wages.

All of the above has resulted in more than £32 million of operating losses for the 2019-20 season. The overall financial situation also looks dire, as Nottingham have not turned a profit in any season in the last 10 years, which has translated into a £187 million total loss. Marinakis has already managed to assure the club’s worried fans that he will not stop funding the team.

At the same time, even Forest’s senior management are clearly aware that the situation is not the most favourable, as the club decided to part with several key players last summer. For example, the team’s main star, right-back Matty Cash, was sold to Aston Villa for £14 million. Costly and unfulfilled, Carvalho was loaned out on a buyout to Almeria, while key attacking midfielder Tiago Silva was sold to Olympiacos. No wonder Forest’s results have deteriorated so much in the new season.

In addition, we should not forget the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, with clubs losing such an important source of revenue as ticket and season ticket sales. The accounts for the “coronavirus” year 2020 have not yet been published, but it is safe to say that for Nottingham Forest a year without fans will not go unnoticed.

Forest’s home stadium, City Ground, with a capacity of just over 30,000 spectators, was the seventh highest capacity arena in the Championships for the 2019-20 season. That said, the stadium filled to capacity and was second only to Leeds United’s home ground in terms of average attendance and even surpassed that of five PL clubs. Needless to say, the club sold over 20,000 season tickets in 2019. Undoubtedly, the lack of guaranteed revenue from ticket sales will significantly reduce the club’s financial returns.

In fact, Nottingham Forest’s fate currently rests entirely on the will of the club’s owner, Evangelos Marinakis, and his financial situation. This fact, of course, cannot fail to alarm the club’s English fans. After all, if anything happens to the Greek president or his business, Nottingham Forest risks to repeat the fate of such famous English teams as Portsmouth, Bolton or Wigan, when the owners due to the excessive loss-making clubs simply refused to continue their financial support, which led to the launch of bankruptcy proceedings and the subsequent loss of points.

That is why Forest fans continue to keep a close eye on news that could affect the fate of their beloved club. For example, there are occasional reports in the press about Marinakis’ interest in acquiring a football club in one of the top championships, which would clearly reduce the Greek businessman’s desire to invest in Forest. In addition, criminal cases of drug smuggling and corruption in football were brought against Marinakis a couple of years ago, but in both cases the court acquitted the Greek billionaire. And in 2020, Marinakis contracted the coronavirus, but was able to overcome the ailment without negative health consequences.

At the same time, Marinakis and his team keep talking about their long-term plans in Nottingham, backing up their words with real deeds. Last year, for example, part of the club’s loan debts from Marinakis’ company were converted into Forest shares. In addition, there was a plan to increase the capacity of the home ground to 38,000 spectators, but construction work has yet to begin because of the pandemic.

Forest fans can only hope that Marinakis will not lose his passion for the development of football in Nottingham, and indeed will achieve the goal set upon acquisition of the club – to enter the elite of English football. After all, it would be unseemly for a club that is one of the ten most decorated in England and has a huge fan base not to have a single match in the PL in the twenty-first century.