In the summer before the inaugural Premier League season, in 1992, Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough only spent money on two new players. They paid £800,000 to bring Neil Webb back from Manchester United and gave Coventry City about half that for Robert Rosario, bringing their total spend to £1.2m. Thirty years on and Forest have broken the Premier League record for the number of signings in a window, bringing in 22 players for £146m this summer.
Forest fans had waited 23 years to return to the top flight and their joy was unconfined when they sealed promotion by beating Huddersfield Town in the Championship playoffs 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 triumph at Wembley. For the host of that celebration, comedian Matt Forde, the positivity has not diminished.
“There is still an overriding feeling of euphoria, even after a couple of recent defeats,” says Forde. “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 had a better start this season in the Premier League than they did in either of their last two seasons in the Championship, when they began with four straight defeats.
Inevitably, many of the players who joined Forde in those celebrations in May have since left the club. Twenty-three players left Forest this summer, either joining new clubs permanently or going out on loan. There was always going to be a high turnover of players, but how do fans feel about the team changing so drastically?
Some of the changes were out of the club’s hands. Cooper had to replace players who had joined Forest on loan last season, such as Djed Spence, Philip Zinckernagel and James Garner. “We also accepted that there had to be an upgrade on the existing squad,” says Forde. “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example, Brice Samba, who was such a big personality and performed heroics in the play-offs semi-final shootout, has been replaced by a better goalkeeper in Dean Henderson.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 already proven his worth, saving penalties from Declan Rice and Harry Kane.
“There have been almost as many departures as arrivals,” says Rich Ferraro, host of the 1865 podcast. “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 owned the club, Forest have brought in nearly 80 players. The owner was extremely bullish when he addressed the fans at the victory parade, but some supporters were a little wary when they heard the Greek media mogul’s lofty ambitions, 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. Right now I would snap your hand off if you offered me 17th place and staying up on goal difference.”
Fans are desperate for success, but Storey feels they should show more loyalty to the players who helped the club earn promotion. When Forest blew a two-goal lead in their home match against Bournemouth last month, there were rumblings of discontent aimed at some of the players who performed so impressively for Forest last season. Steve Cook, Scott McKenna and Joe Worrall are not the quickest backline but Storey thinks fans should cut them some slack. Forde agrees, saying: “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,” says Ferraro. “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 new arrivals, he says they only have to work hard to establish a connection with 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.”
Changing the squad so drastically is a bold move, with Marinakis’ son Miltiadis instrumental in the influx of new blood. It might look harsh on the outgoing players but a fan survey by the Nottingham Post in early August revealed that 86% were happy with the transfers and 88% were “on board with the owners”. The challenge may come when results do not go their way.
Forest were bottom of the Championship when Cooper took over a year ago and they have been on an upwards trajectory since but, as Ferraro points out, the test will come when the team goes on a bad run and he has to maintain their confidence and morale. “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?”
Forde is confident that the players will follow the trend they set last season and climb up the table. “As fans we have to realise that it takes time to bed in new players,” he says. “We are going in the right direction. By the end of the season, we will be a Premier League club.”
However, Storey is concerned that the owners might panic and sack Cooper if Forest are still near the bottom of the table when the Premier League takes a break for the World Cup in November. Bournemouth, who were promoted alongside Forest, have already sacked the manager who took them up. The fear is that, a year after Cooper arrived and provoked a remarkable resurrection at the club, he could follow many of the players who helped the club get promoted out the exit door. Either way, Forest fans will be hoping this season does not end the way 1992-93 did, in relegation.