Football: Roy central to Forest's ambitions: Foreign fields: A Dutchman inspired by new horizons clips his wings to stimulate a revival - Richard Williams meets the striker whose move to England has galvanised a club
Sunday 02 October 1994
For Bryan Roy, everything is perfect. England is wonderful, Nottingham is wonderful, the club is wonderful, the manager is wonderful, his team mates are wonderful, the fans are wonderful. And all, of course, because the goals have been going in non-stop since the day he arrived. If only it could always be like this.
Last June, when he decided to leave Foggia, his Italian club, and was starting to take Nottingham Forest's interest seriously, he called Hans van Breukelen, his fellow Dutchman, who kept goal at the City Ground in the early Eighties. Roy didn't know much about the city or the club, except that Forest had won the European Cup twice in a row when he was still at junior school in Amsterdam.
It's OK, Van Breukelen told him. You'll like it there. You'll have a great time.
'Actually,' Roy said after training one day last week, 'he was quite right.'
Well, for a lad of 24, what's not to like about the Queen of the Midlands, where the people care only for clothes, dancing and football, in that order? Where, according to the current issue of the magazine Loaded, 'the fountains are full of beer and the clubs are flooded with women', and at weekends the Old Market Square heaves like a carnival, its pubs convulsed with hedonistic energy? Where two economic recessions have been ridden out with a steely determination to let les bons temps rouler?
The good times are certainly rolling at Forest, who started the weekend unbeaten in third place, just five weeks and six games after their return to the Premiership. Once again a Forest team is being applauded for the very same footballing virtues that illuminated the sides sent out by Billy Walker, Johnny Carey and Brian Clough. A renovated stadium is rising to welcome Frank Clark's inheritance: over the noisome ghosts of the Trent End, a tall two-tier stand - named after Clough - will be ready for occupation early in the new year. And now Clark has shown his shrewdness by adding to the team that won promotion a new and exotic ingredient: Bryan Roy, of Ajax, Foggia and Holland.
When Clark announced the pounds 2.65m signing, on the day Roy flew from Holland to the USA with the Dutch World Cup squad, Forest's supporters questioned the manager's sanity. Throughout Roy's career, ever since he was discovered by Johan Cruyff, he had operated as a specialist left-winger. But Forest already had two gifted players, the expensively acquired Kingsley Black and the home-grown Ian Woan, vying to patrol the touchline where Ian Storey-Moore - 'the gold-plated hyphen' - and John Robertson - Clough's 'little fat lad' - had once paraded their skills. By the time Roy had played one game for Forest, though, the fans - and Clark - knew better.
In a pre-season friendly against Olympiakos in Athens, Roy moved into the middle alongside Stan Collymore and scored the equaliser in a 2-2 draw. 'That's where I wanted to be when I arrived,' he said last week in his fast and fluent English. 'In the centre. So I stayed there, and it's gone on getting better and better.'
Had he told Frank Clark of his intention before he pulled on a Forest shirt?
'No. But I had it in my mind that it would be better for me and for the team. I decided I could express my abilities better in the middle than at the side. I played for 12 years on the wing, I guess, and that's enough. I've developed myself into a more mature player, into a goal-scoring player, so the time was right to move into the centre. Right now, at 24 years old, at a new club, this is the time.'
Cruyff, who took Roy to Ajax at 12 and gave him his first-team debut five years later, was his first inspiration. After Cruyff had moved on, the young winger grew up alongside the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and the de Boer brothers. Then, two years ago, a disagreement with the current manager, Louis van Gaal, took him to Foggia, where he encountered a second footballing guru, the Czech coach Zdenek Zeman. It was the announcement of Zeman's move to Lazio this summer, and the exit of one or two other top players, that led to Roy's arrival in Nottingham.
'I enjoyed the football in Italy,' he said, 'because Zeman developed my game in a very positive way. He made me more alert in front of goal, he encouraged me to make the sort of runs that create danger. He taught me all that, and I was beginning to score goals in Italy. We had a good squad, and we did well. Twice we missed Europe by this much.' He held his thumb and forefinger a centimetre apart. 'I was maturing there, I got married there, I had my child there, I was surrounded by good people, and the two brothers who owned the club treated me like a king. But it wasn't stable enough any more.' Zeman's departure, and the fact that Foggia - marooned two-thirds of the way down the eastern side of Italy, on the coastal plain of Puglia, 30 miles from the Adriatic - didn't have much to offer in the way of scenery or cultural stimulus, drew his thoughts elsewhere.
'I made my mind up to decide where I was going before the World Cup,' he said. There was interest from other Italian clubs: Internazionale, Napoli and Parma in particular. 'But the possibilities weren't concrete enough. If I'd waited until after the World Cup, maybe there was a chance. But I didn't want to risk that, because it might also have meant staying at Foggia instead, which I really didn't want to do. Forest came to see me before the World Cup, and they were very serious. I thought about it for a long time, I came over to have a look, and my instinct said I had to do it.'
In America, he started Holland's first four matches, scoring against Morocco, before being benched for the quarter-final against Brazil when the coach, Dick Advocaat, decided to change his forward line. Roy came on for the last half-hour, but they lost 3-2. 'I enjoyed being there, the whole thing,' he said, 'but I don't mean I was pleased with my own game. I was a bit disappointed with myself, in fact.' The spirit in the camp had been good, he said, although he refuses to elaborate on the sudden departure of Ruud Gullit on the eve of the tournament: 'I have my own opinion, but I don't want to talk about it until I've had a chance to discuss it with him.'
Back in Europe, the goal on his Forest debut in Athens was followed by another in a friendly against Orient, in his first appearance for Forest on English soil; then by the winner - a blazing 25- yard drive - in their Premiership opener against Ipswich at Portman Road; by the fourth in the 4-1 hammering of Sheffield Wednesday; and by the second and third in the defeat of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane last weekend, a pair of predator's goals notable for the courage of one, a stooping header, and the opportunism of the other, a close-range flick. Now the local evening paper's billboards cover the city with his portrait, and people swap news of sightings of Roy in his dove-grey 3- series BMW, the people's wagon of the training ground car park.
As for Roy, his first impressions are definitely those of a honeymooner. 'Nottingham is very, very nice, the club is terrific, and the people are very kind,' he said. 'I like the city. The centre is very busy, very lively, but only five minutes away you're in the country. That's what I was looking for. I was born in Amsterdam, and I'm used to living in the city, but it was in my mind that now I wanted to live in the country, if that was possible. And it's possible here. I wanted to have a quiet area around me. It's important to me to go home to somewhere where my wife and my kid (a daughter, seven months old) are comfortable. And I found it.'
Refreshingly, Roy is not one of those imports who claim to have been fans of English football since birth. 'No, no,' he said. 'I didn't like it at all. But in the last few years I've started watching again, and I saw some development, and I started liking it. There's much more playing now, much more skill, not only big strong guys like it used to be. So that's good.'
The first difference he noticed between football in England and that in Holland or Italy, he said, was 'that the pace on the ball here is very high. In Italy they give you more space in midfield, and then close you down very quickly on the edge of the penalty area. They don't want to let you get behind the defence, so there's that big gap in midfield. That's the Italian way. It's difficult to score goals in Italy. But last season I scored 15 goals, which is a lot for me.'
At Ajax the emphasis had been on staying wide and crossing the ball for the strikers. They trained for an hour a day, working in small groups, concentrating on one- touch passing at speed. At Foggia, Zeman's regime was far more rigorous: two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, every day, with physical work on Tuesdays, sprinting on Wednesday mornings, and intense work on tactical patterns for the rest of the week, with Roy learning how to cut in from the wing, either shooting himself or linking with the other winger. 'Over here,' Roy said, 'we train less, and we have more freedom. Not so much tactics. You make a solid defence and a solid midfield, and you have two front players to score the goals. How they do it, they don't care. This is another approach to playing football. I like it the most.'
According to Roy, Forest don't spend much time thinking about the opposition. 'It depends. If the other team leaves a lot of space behind the defence, I'll play alongside Stan. If they leave a gap, I'll drop back, so that I can pick up the ball and play him in, or maybe look for one of the others. But we always play our own game, to our strengths. When you have that approach, you can never go wrong.'
He's impressed, he said, by the technical standard of English players. 'English football looks very healthy to me. You've got great forward players now. You've got Andy Cole, you've got Stan Collymore, you've got Chris Sutton, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand . . . that's five great forwards right there. And you've got great midfield players. Le Tissier, David Batty, Paul Ince . . . The defenders are good - Tony Adams, the two at Manchester United . . . Here at Forest we've got two very good young defenders. England will have a good team, no doubt about it.'
Come to think of it, perhaps this honeymoon rapture will last a while. Almost two years ago I happened to be at the Ajax ground on the morning when Roy stopped by to clear out his locker before leaving for Foggia. That night Ajax played Feyenoord, their chief rivals. Supporters usually resent the departure of a favourite, but among the banners that night was one addressed to the absentee: 'Bryan bedankt,' it read. Thanks, Bryan. So an auspicious beginning doesn't have to end in tears.
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