Football: Clark uses legacy to create more riches: Nottingham Forest's manager is at ease with history as he builds a promising future. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
FOLLOWING a legend is never easy, but the first decision Frank Clark made was that the memories and memorabilia would have to stay. Tangible or not, Brian Clough still has a presence at Nottingham Forest.

To exorcise Don Revie's ghost from Leeds United, Howard Wilkinson had to remove all the icons from Elland Road. Faced with the no less onerous task of filling Old Big 'Ead's boots, Clark will not be doing the same. He features in most of the fading prints himself, after all.

The succession, last summer, was facilitated by familiarity on both sides. All but the youngest Forest fans remembered the new manager with affection as the steady, reliable left-back in their championship and European Cup-winning teams of 1978 and '79.

For his part, Clark knew his way around the City Ground, and was instantly at home among old friends. He would never say so, but it also helped that Cloughie had lost it. Relegation had shown even his most ardent admirers that the old magic had gone, and that it was time for the Merlin of the Midlands to go, too.

When he meandered off into the sunset, the club were at a loss. They had expected him to linger longer and, in the immortal words of you-know-who, this was a real test.

The board fancied one of their old boys, Martin O'Neill, but the eloquent Irishman preferred to stay and finish the job he had started at Wycombe Wanderers.

Clough was rumoured to favour his trusty assistant, Ron Fenton, but then came out with a fulsome endorsement which can have done Clark's candidacy no harm.

He had nominated his old protege as a potential successor 10 years earlier, and still saw him as the ideal choice. He would bring to the job 'warmth, friendship, charm and expertise'.

Lovely stuff, but the Great Dictator must have been a hard act to follow? 'Who the last manager was has never been a problem for me. I think it has helped that I know him and played for him. I know better than most what he achieved here and what he meant to the club, and I've been able to come in and be comfortable with his ghost.

'He's got to be a presence still - he's all about the place because of what he accomplished. It would be pointless trying to remove every trace of him because you'd have to take the stands down. Those two new stands out there are testimony to his 18 years in management here.

'I decided to ignore the past and manage the club the way I feel it should be managed. If some of the things are the same, so be it. If they are different, so what? Brian's memory, or legacy, has not been a problem.'

Clark's start was. Plucked from desk-bound obscurity as Leyton Orient's managing director, he must have questioned the wisdom of swapping boardroom for dressing-room when his first 12 League games yielded just three wins.

Perseverance had its reward, and Forest go into today's Nottingham derby, away to Notts County, on the back of an unbeaten run of 13 matches, standing third in the First Division.

Heady stuff, and the mild-mannered revivalist is loving every minute. At 50 he thought the glory days were long gone. 'This came right out of the blue. I was staggered when the chairman rang and asked if I'd be interested.'

Clark took over with the club at a low ebb, depressed by relegation and dismayed by allegations of misconduct and mismanagement levelled against his old mentor.

'I'd never been relegated as a player, but I had been at Orient, so I knew what to expect. The main thing I had to do was dispel the depression.'

Changes, both in practice and personnel, were his chosen tools. New faces were the order of the day - lots of them. Stan Collymore was bought from Southend United for pounds 2.1m to score goals, Colin Cooper from Millwall for pounds 1.5m to prevent them. These two were to be the cornerstones of the team. The framework was provided by two Norwegian internationals, Lars Bohinen and Alfe Inge-Haaland (if you can't beat them, have them join you) and by Des Lyttle (Swansea City), Tommy Wright (Newcastle), Gary Bull (Barnet) and David Phillips (Norwich).

A lot of money at a fraction under pounds 6m? True, but Clark is still in profit after selling Roy Keane, Nigel Clough, Gary Charles and Roy McKinnon for a shade over pounds 7m. The-shake up extended beyond the roll call. The training staff has been augmented by a fitness expert to improve the suspect stamina which was a traditional handicap in the first half of the season.

The one thing that has not changed, praise be, is Forest's purist principles. They are passing more than ever after embracing the increasingly popular five-man midfield. 'I don't think we've adjusted our style of play because of the division we're in,' Clark says. 'You can play football in any division. It's probably harder to do it in the Premiership. I think that's the most physical of the four leagues now.'

A period of adjustment had been necessary, but the fine-tuning needed was of the mental variety. 'It took some of the players a while to get used to the First Division. Suddenly they were the favourites every time they played.

'There were great expectations from our supporters and a lot of people within the club. There was a feeling that we would just sail through the First Division without any problems. I knew it was rubbish, but the feeling was definitely there.'

Early defeats by Crystal Palace, Barnsley, Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers put paid to that notion. Not that Clark was grateful. 'I'd brought in a few new players, and it was always going to take them a while to settle in. We also lost Collymore for six weeks and then Cooper, and Stuart Pearce was still feeling his way back after injury. We were having to put in kids who weren't really ready for it.'

The tide had turned at the beginning of November, with a good win at Birmingham. 'I'd bought David Phillips, and he improved things. I bought him to play wide on the right in a 4-4-2 formation, but because of injuries he's played right-back, left-back, centre-half and now at the centre of a five-man midfield.

'We've got a lot of good, attacking midfield players - Gemmill, Webb, Bohinen, Woan, Black - but we're a bit lightweight, so I've put Phillips in there as an anchor man. David can play anywhere, he's such a terrific footballer.

'Then I brought in Bohinen, and without really planning it, he seemed to be the last component who made the team tick. Everything just seemed to fall into place, and we went to Birmingham and won 3-0. In fact, we've never lost a League game with Lars in the side. He's very skilful, a good, attacking midfield player who can hold the ball up. The crowd love him. He's a great lad who's given everyone a lift.'

Pearce had supplied another, with his decision to stay. Worried by the effect relegation might have on his international career, England's captain had thought long and hard before committing himself to a new three-year contract in the summer.

'I felt it was vitally important to keep him,' Clark says. 'We'd lost Nigel Clough and Roy Keane, and I knew how valuable Stuart was within the club. He also has this effect on the supporters. When it was announced that he was staying, we had a big upsurge in season-ticket sales.

'He has played better the longer the season has gone on and he's been back to his rampaging old self in the last few games.'

If Pearce is the fans' old favourite, Stan is the new man. Nineteen goals in his first 24 games made Collymore an instant hit with the supporters, who are left muttering 'if only'. Had Forest bought him last season, when they were crying out for a replacement for Teddy Sheringham, BC could have bowed out at the top.

Clark backed his judgement where his predecessor had wavered, and has had handsome reward. 'Stan is unique,' he says. 'Technically, he's got everything. If you want to play it up to his feet, he's got great first touch with either foot, so he can hold it and bring other people into play. Otherwise, he can turn with it and go past defenders from anywhere or, because of his pace, he can get on to it if you have to knock the ball over the top.

'He can score goals from anywhere, making them for himself. He has scored three this season when he's picked the ball up in our own half and nobody else has touched it before it has gone in the back of the net.

'He's a rare talent, and it has been a matter of experimenting and adjusting to come up with a style that gets the best out of him. For the last few weeks we've played with five in midfield and Stan up there on his own, and it's been working a treat.'

Others, Clough included, had looked at and admired the moody maverick, but had shied away from signing him. Clark knows why. 'He has a bit of a reputation for being difficult, and he is different. He does take a bit of handling. He's probably unique in that way, too. I don't think he's ever going to be one of the lads. He's a bit of a loner, but he's still only 22, still developing.

'He had a hard time at Crystal Palace, where he never got in the team on a regular basis and they had a difficult dressing-room. London dressing-rooms can be hard for lads from outside. I found that at Orient, especially when bringing notherners down. Some of them find it difficult to handle the attitudes and the banter.

'There are two ways to do it. One is to hold your own and become one of the lads. The other is to play well. If you're performing on the pitch, it doesn't matter what you're like in the dressing-room - the other players will accept you.'

'If you can't do it one way or the other, you've got problems, and I think one or two players let Stan down at Palace, on a personal level. He had a tough time there, and I think it has made him a little bit suspicious of people.'

The most encouraging aspect of Forest's thumping 4-0 victory over Leicester City last Sunday was the fact that it was accomplished without their principal goalscorer. Collymore is out for four weeks with hamstring trouble.

Going up? 'We're in third place and we've got ourselves into a position where we've got a good chance.'

Forest for promotion, then. With that lovely passing game they will be welcomed back with open arms. Ghosts and all.

(Photograph omitted)

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