Football: Good thing ends

Simon Turnbull finds the tag which once haunted Forest is now redundant
The received wisdom that Nottingham Forest are too good to go down is dying a premature death this time. Four years ago, in Brian Clough's last-stand season, it survived until the penultimate Saturday, when a 2-0 home defeat against Sheffield United sealed Forest's fate. Now, as Frank Clark's team languish at the foot of the Premiership with victory a distant late-summer memory, the feeling on the Trent End is not so much that the Reds are too good but that they need to get better - quickly.

They may have been Uefa Cup quarter-finalists in March but at the City Ground tomorrow night they line up against this season's sole English representatives in the last eight, Newcastle United, with the lowest number of points in England's four professional divisions. Indeed, Forest are the only English club yet to reach double points - unless you include Berwick Rangers.

They have, moreover, a worse record thus far than the Forest team that was ultimately not quite good enough to stay up four years ago. Clough's relegation-bound class of '92-'93 collected 10 points in their first 15 games and even a new-year revival, which yielded seven victories, failed to save them. Forest's solitary Premiership win this season, 3-0 at Coventry, dates back to the opening day.

Gary Bannister, who led the Forest forward line throughout that vain relegation struggle four years ago, already fears the worst. "It's going to be very difficult for them," the former England Under-21 international said. "They're in virtually the same position we were at this stage - and we were a really good team.

"We played some excellent football, and people kept saying we were too good to go down. But we'd left ourselves with too much to do. We'd lost too much ground early on. We sold Teddy Sheringham after the first few games and didn't replace him."

The onus was on Bannister, stepping back into the top flight at 32 after a free transfer from West Bromwich, and on Nigel Clough, in an attacking support role, to come up with the goals. Eighteen between them was not enough to counter the goals leaked by a defence which missed the departed Des Walker and which lost the inspirational Stuart Pearce for four months.

Clark has been confronted with similar problems this season, although his forwards have found it difficult enough to hit the target, let alone score. Thanks to the club's limbo status, in waiting for a take-over, he has also had no money to spend.

"It wasn't lack of money four years ago," Bannister said. "Brian Clough was offered Stan Collymore for pounds 1.5m. Looking back, obviously it would have been a good deal. We needed three or four players who could score."

Critics said Clough's Forest also needed to change their naturally open style, to place the emphasis on manning the barricades at the back. "There was no way Brian was going to change his style," Bannister said. "He believed in exciting people and it was great to play under him for that one season, despite what happened. I actually took a pay cut because I wanted to play for Brian Clough. I'd had the chance eight years before that and always regretted not taking it."

It was perhaps no coincidence that Darlington reached the Third Division play-off final last season playing an open, passing game. Bannister was player-coach then and, having been forced by injury to hang up his boots in the summer, he returned last month to assist David Hodgson in his attempts to revive the Quakers again.

"Our aim is to play attractive football," Bannister said. "I wouldn't coach any other way."