Football: Found wanting for a touch of fortune

Phil Shaw looks at Frank Clark's forlorn attempt to live with the legacy of Brian Clough as Nottingham Forest's manager
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The Independent Online
Barely a month has passed since Frank Clark was telling people that Nottingham Forest needed a few wins before the takeover of the club was completed. Otherwise, he added with a wry smile, someone else would be spending the money put up by the successful consortium.

Clark's resignation, after he apparently failed to secure assurances about his future as manager, demonstrates once again that many a true word is spoken in jest. Yet although he leaves Forest propping up the Premiership and without a win since the season's opening day, any rounded assessment of his three and a half year tenture at the City Ground should not judge him too harshly.

For it was Clark who, while hardly the people's choice to succeed Brian Clough, immediately restored Forest to the top flight. More than that, he led them to third place in the Premiership the next season. Then, after other English clubs had fallen by the wayside, they reached the last eight of the Uefa Cup less than a year ago.

Strange as it may seem in the light of yesterday's developments, Clark was being seriously considered at that time by the Football Association as a successor to Terry Venables as manager of England. Stuart Pearce publicly announced that Clark ought to stay at Forest for the rest of his career. The board, ironically, reacted by pledging to keep him well into the next century.

They had surprised many people, not least Clark, by plucking him from his pin-striped desk job as managing director of Leyton Orient. The too- good-to-go-down Forest team had just been relegated, Clough had retired, and two of their prime assets, Roy Keane and Nigel Clough, were intent on leaving.

Clark used the revenue from their transfers to fund the signings of a raw young striker from Southend and an unsung centre-back from Millwall. Stan Collymore and Colin Cooper not only helped Forest back up but went on to represent England alongside Pearce, whom the new incumbent had persuaded to stick with the club.

Two other transactions, bringing David Phillips and Lars Bohinen to the East Midlands, seemed to confirm Clark as a shrewd manipulator of the market. The impression was cemented by the initial success of Bryan Roy but, like the Dutchman's impact, Clark's touch deserted him.

As the Nottingham Evening Post put it in an unsigned editorial yesterday: "If a manager lives and dies by his results and by his dealings in the transfer market, then Frank Clark's departure from the City Ground is overdue... A manager can only be allowed so many mistakes when it comes to buying and selling. His decision to resign might be viewed as the right one."

Clark's predecessor used to mock his own knack of buying strikers who could not score. As Peter Ward, Justin Fashanu and Ian Wallace were to the Clough era, so Roy, Andrea Silenzi, Kevin Campbell and Dean Saunders came to symbolise Clark's increasingly patchy record.

The Post pointed out that, in financial terms, Campbell's 11 goals had so far cost Forest pounds 227,000 each; Silenzi's two set them back pounds 900,000 apiece; and Saunders' two a mere pounds 750,000 each. The Croatian defender Nikola Jerkan has also failed to make an impact, prompting the paper to call Clark's judgment "remarkably flawed."

With hindsight, however, the key moment in Clark's reign was the sale of Collymore to Liverpool. The player felt he had outgrown the club and was not popular in the dressing-room. Yet, without his goals, Forest could not operate their counter-attacking system to the same effect. Even their limited success in Europe was achieved largely through backs-to-the-wall defence.

Clark's cause was not helped, either, by a serious injury to Steve Stone, another who progressed to international status under his wing, or by Pearce's evident staleness after the exersions of Euro 96. Like Jason Lee's ridiculed hairstyle, Forest's fortunes went pineapple shaped. From being the team who established the Premiership's longest unbeaten run (25 games), they now hold the record for matches without a win (16).

To his credit, Clark never used the impasse over the buy-out of Forest as an excuse for their failings on the pitch, though it clearly tied his hands in terms of bringing in fresh faces and had an unsettling effect on confidence. In what proved to be his final match, Tuesday's 4-2 defeat at Liverpool, Collymore twisted the knife by scoring twice. Afterwards, Clark likened his own and the club's situation to being in limbo.

Perhaps, though, they are merely fulfilling their role in the scheme of things prior to Clough's unprecedented and unrepeatable success: that of the modestly resourced provincial club destined to flit between the top two divisions. Unless the new owners are extremely judicious, or lucky in their choice of successor, Clark's sojourn at Forest may come to be seen as the last of the good times.

Frank Clark fact-file

9 Sep 1943: Born Highfield, Co Durham.

1969: Fairs Cup winner with Newcastle

May 1975: Joined Forest after 388 League appearances for Newcastle.

1978: League Championship medal.

1979: European Cup winners' medal.

July 1979: Sunderland assistant manager.

August 1981: Forest assistant manager.

October 1981: Orient assistant manager.

May 1983: Orient manager.

1989: Promotion to old Third Division.

1993: Manager of Nottingham Forest after Brian Clough retires; Forest relegated.

1994: Forest return to Premiership.

1995: Finish third and set Premier League record of 25 unbeaten matches.

19 Dec 1996: Resigns as manager.