If he completes the task he was hired for two years ago, Billy Davies will have emulated Brian Clough by taking both Derby County and Nottingham Forest into the highest stratum of English football. What the two men already have in common is making a noise along the way. The little Glaswegian was in typically feisty form ahead of today's FA Cup game at West Ham, a tie that brings back memories of the 1991 semi-final, which Clough's Forest won 4-0 before losing the final to Spurs.
This afternoon Davies is happy to regard his squad of "young, naive players" as underdogs, even with seven wins in their last eight Championship games, up against a team bottom of the table and inevitably dispirited by a midweek defeat in the Carling Cup semi-final. "They are a Premier League team with a great squad of players," Davies said – an assertion that many patrons of the Boleyn Ground would question. He insists that the game cannot be regarded as a yardstick for his side's promotion potential, let alone a test of how they might fare among the big boys next season. Forest will even rest one or two regulars to allow some playing time for understudies deprived of it recently.
A year ago, 12 months after Davies succeeded Colin Calderwood as manager, Forest were hot favourites to go up, sitting five points ahead of third-placed West Bromwich Albion. At the risk of annoying the club's unusual "transfer acquisitions committee", he is adamant that the reason they did not make it – eventually losing a play-off semi-final 6-4 on aggregate to Blackpool – was because he was not given the reinforcements he had asked for in the January window. "It was extremely disappointing not to see anybody come in, when Newcastle signed six and West Bromwich signed five," he says. "We were on a decline. I knew we were running out of legs, the tiredness was kicking in. We lost Nicky Shorey and never signed new faces."
He also claims to have been disappointed with the summer's transfer dealings and sounds less than thrilled with the current window despite acquiring Marcus Tudgay from Sheffield Wednesday for £500,000 and the USA striker Robbie Findlay, who played against England at the World Cup. But he does admit: "When I came into this job, I knew all about the transfer acquisitions committee. We have a clear three-and-a-half-year plan and the chairman said 'Get us out of this division'. That was the clear instruction. My job is to make recommendations. I'm not falling out with anybody, but don't shoot the messenger."
If the last sentence sounds pure Clough, comparisons should not be encouraged. Never again is any manager likely to take a team out of the second tier and make them champions of England at the first attempt as Clough did with Forest in 1978; let alone follow that by winning two successive European Cups. The best Davies can do is use those achievements as a demonstration of the club's potential. "It's a great set-up here, without a doubt a sleeping giant," he said. "A great fanbase and as you know a wonderful history."
In retrospect, when Clough's successor Frank Clark led them to third place and a Uefa Cup place in 1995 immediately after winning promotion, it was an even better accomplishment than was realised at the time. When they went down again, then returned under Dave Bassett, there was a lack of investment, prompting the leading goalscorer Pierre van Hooijdonk to go on strike. Forest were relegated once more and have never been back, even dropping down another division at one point.
Understandably, Davies is reluctant to contemplate how much would need doing were they to go one better than last season and return for the first time in more than a decade: "We want to get out of this division and go to the Premier League. But massive restructuring [is] required."
In the meantime, litmus test or not, to Upton Park. "It will be a very good test, great experience for young players. We want to keep our good run going and the FA Cup is all about what happens on the day. [West Ham are] a Premier League club but this is a one-off game, not a marking card." Asked about why things are going so well in the Championship, he admits with a laugh: "I don't know. You try to stick to your beliefs. We've got a great bunch of young players, full of enthusiasm, and a staff very good at their jobs. Every day we come in we try to do the best we can. That's it."
It will hardly be sufficient to win the FA Cup for the first time since 1959. But if the desired Championship objective is achieved, that transfer committee, you feel, will be hearing a great deal from William McIntosh Davies.
West Ham United v Nottingham Forest is a 2pm kick-off today