Football: Time for Stone to shed his troubles

Premiership struggle: Injury-plagued midfielder admits he was running short on patience as Forest continued to slide
STEVE STONE was unsure whether he should laugh or cry the other week as he returned home on a Saturday night following yet another in a long line of Premiership defeats. Seven days earlier he had endured the humiliation of playing for a Nottingham Forest side that conceded eight to Manchester United. This time, Forest had gone down 2-1 to West Ham at the City Ground.

His wife was there to greet him. Stone takes up the story. "The first thing she said was: `Oh, not too bad this week, then. You only got beat by two.' I put my head in my hands and said: `You just don't know the right things to say to me, do you pet?' Later I had a chuckle about it. She was trying to be nice and upbeat, but it's pretty sad when even the wife's thinking losing 2-1 is a good result for us."

In such circumstances it was hardly surprising when Stone agreed yesterday to swap Forest's seemingly doomed battle against relegation for a new career at the other end of the Premiership with Aston Villa.

Twelve years at one club is a long time for any player and, to use Stone's own phrase, life at Forest this season has been "pretty average". Despite his usually bubbly persona, and that he was recently presented with the Wilkinson Sword Premiership player of the week award, Forest's plight had been getting to the former England midfielder.

In his time at Forest Stone had a rollercoaster ride of Blackpool Pleasure Beach proportions. Three broken legs and three relegations vied for his emotions with two promotions and a nine-cap international spell interrupted by a career-threatening knee injury that saw him out of action for 10 months, during which time Forest went down to the First Division.

"You could say it's never quiet at Forest," he admitted, with a rueful smile. "I think once, just once, I've played for a Forest side that finished around 10th in the League. The rest of the time it's been either gunning for promotion or trying to fight off relegation. It should never have happened to a club like Forest, but we became a yo-yo outfit."

The writing was on the wall from the start of this season, at least as far as Stone was concerned. "For a while we could compete with the big clubs, but not any more. We became a selling club and everyone there, if they're honest, recognised the inevitable once we'd sold some of our best players.

"There have been a number of times this season when, mentally, it's been pretty tough, especially towards the end of Dave Bassett's management. I could recognise a lot of the players losing their self-belief. We'd be one down at half-time and the manager would tell us we still had a chance and that we should get stuck in. I'd look around the dressing-room, see the expressions on the faces, and I'd think to myself `absolutely no chance'."

Predictably, the arrival of Ron Atkinson was seen by some to be the answer. Stone begs to differ. "Don't get me wrong about Ron. He's all right. He likes people to be bright and upbeat around the place, and he works hard on the basics. I knew he'd come in, change the team around a little and get a few results.

"But he's not a miracle-worker, especially with a group of players who go 21 games without a win and are then asked to win something like nine out of their remaining 18. We should have kept some of our better players, and bought a few more in as well, but it's no use talking about that now. It's over. If Forest don't start winning right now they're down, and could end up with the lowest points ever in the history of the Premiership. Now that would be massively embarrassing."

The previous lows experienced had at least taught him a lesson or two which, in Forest's current plight, had been put to good use. Back in 1996 Stone became a key member of England's Euro 96 squad, scoring a number of important goals in the run-up to the finals. Then injury struck, and Stone could only watch from afar as his club plummeted along with his own plans.

"It's fair to say I grew pretty desperate at the time," he recalls. "I knew we were going to be relegated and that I'd be returning as a Division One player. It got to the stage where I'd come to a Forest home game, sit in the bar with the players' wives, and not move all afternoon. I'd rather get steamed than watch the match. I began to wallow in my self- pity. It was awful at home because it just wasn't me."

Once again it took his wife to provide her own brand of reality. "She just blew up one day and gave me a right good clip round the ear," Stone admits. "She told me to buck up. After that I did. It helps having three kids as well. I've got a 10-year-old, a five-year-old and a 22- month- old baby now, and you can't be too depressed at home, can you?

"For a while it was touch and go whether I'd ever play football again. Only 50 per cent of players recover from the injury I had. So while losing this season and facing relegation has been bad, it's not as bad as it was when I was injured. At least I am paid very well for playing football. I get over losing a match much quicker than I used to."

Stone has also grown wiser. When he renewed his contract with Forest he insisted on a clause that allowed him to leave the club if they were to be relegated.

His ambitions, to play for a successful Premiership club and to reclaim his England place, remain intact. Yesterday's move should guarantee the former and will do no harm to his chances of realising the latter.

"You've got to be realistic," he says. "I still have massive belief in my own ability, but it's a great deal easier to play in a good team than a bad one, especially when you're on the right wing. I seem to have been chasing most of the time recently rather than actually being on the ball.

"There's a lot left for me to do in this game. I've never played in a cup final, and I really want to get back into the England team, but you don't stand much chance if you play for a club staring relegation in the face. There are a lot of players who believe they should be playing for a better team than they do."

After his 12 years of dedicated service to Forest, Stone can hardly be accused of being disloyal. Even without his departure, Forest were looking odds-on to be playing in the First Division next season. Stone, on the other hand, can look forward to realising the potential which once made him one of the Premiership's most exciting players.