Football: Shadows lengthen in Forest of broken dreams

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The Independent Online
IN MOMENTS of frustration, Michel Platini used to say that if Eric Cantona could not score a beautiful goal he would rather not score at all. Nottingham Forest have always been a bit like that. One of the ironies of this last quarter of the season is that while Forest have refused to scuffle to save themselves going over the edge to relegation, Rangers have battled and reached the verge of the European Cup final. Good luck to Rangers, but where is the justice?

Over the past few months many thousands of words have been written on the subject of Brian Clough, the bulk of them by the older generation who saw Forest themselves reach Europe's pinnacle and twice succeed. Most have been kindly words; protective, nostalgic and well-meaning, quite different to the barbs usually suffered by managers on the way down.

The advice to Brian Clough to stop ruling the strange conventicle that is the Forest club began many months ago, quietly among supporters chatting at the City Ground's tea bars. It spread and, it seems, was heard everywhere but in the manager's Majorcan hideaways and the boardroom. None of the directors had the conviction or, perhaps, the courage to spare Clough the ignominy he now faces. Nobody, least of all Clough himself, appeared able to preserve, untarnished, memories of him in the good days, the ones full of trophies, laughter and unique and once refreshing dottiness.

The crisis at Forest is not entirely of Clough's making but he has presided over a decline that in his prime no doubt he would have arrested before it was anything worse than a tea-bar murmur. There is still a faint chance that the club will remain in the Premier League but the strength of the playing staff is now such that, without considerable surgery, next season is likely to be just as much of a struggle.

In recent weeks Clough has shown increasing signs of frustration, strain and impatience with the situation. His health is fragile and concerns those who see him on a regular basis. Now has come the news that his doughty captain, Stuart Pearce, is out for the rest of the season. Pearce is also past his peak. In his form of two years ago he could possibly have persuaded Forest by example that in a crisis sometimes principles have to be sacrificed to overcome immediate problems. Certainly he would have led the resistance. Without him, too much of the grafting has been left to the youthful and in some ways still immature Roy Keane, while other injuries have brought about the playing of Nigel Clough as a sweeper when even his father's most loyal fans are prepared to accept that only a new broom at the top can rescue the club's long-term future.

Injuries have been cruel but the team has been patched up with strange purchases who have cost comparatively little and offered little in exchange. Of course, the development of young players, including Keane, is a tribute to Clough, but the conveyor belt of talent is no longer moving quickly enough to cover the weaknesses. Clough says that this season the difference between success and failure in the Premier League is so thin you can hardly see it. But at Forest what you can see is a porous defence, too many missed chances and too little of the fierce determination Rangers showed against Marseille in the European Cup on Wednesday.

Even in their worst moments this season Forest have rarely played as unattractively as Rangers did in France. Conversely, when have they shown the perseverance to come back from setbacks in the manner Rangers have shown throughout their European campaign? The Rangers captain, Richard Gough, said, 'the thing that has come through this season is the character of this side. At Ibrox, Marseille were far the better team but we hung in there and managed to get the draw.' And so they did again on Wednesday.

To defend Clough with the argument that he would not allow one of his teams to scuffle as Rangers have scrambled this season would be all very well if they were in their usual safe, mid-table position, but their predicament is such that only an appetite for a final scrap is going to help now. The fact was recognised by one member of the Clough family last month when, following heavy defeats by Everton and Norwich, Nigel said Forest needed to acquire Wimbledon's grit without copying their style. Whether the elder Clough could ever bring himself to agree is debatable, for though some performances over the past six weeks have shown a few concessions to practicality, faults in front of their own and their opponents' goals have usually cost them dear. The loss of Des Walker, Teddy Sheringham, Garry Parker, Darren Wassall and Steve Hodge has also deprived them of security and style.

Come what may, this is surely Clough's last season as manager at Forest. When asked about the manager's future, the chairman carefully avoided mentioning next season. No club should pander to loud-mouthed spectators, but most people now believe that it is in Clough's own interest to hand over.

To their considerable credit, not a single former Forest player has yet accepted substantial tabloid newspaper money to talk about what at its kindest can only be called Clough's eccentric behaviour. Such is their loyalty to the man, but Clough knows that sooner or later someone will succumb to temptation and his many kindnesses to a lot of people and his enormous contribution to football could suddenly be lost in exaggeration, innuendo and some truths best left unsaid.