Neil Warnock, whose Sheffield United team face Forest at Notting-ham this afternoon in the fourth round of the FA Cup, says he is shocked by his hosts' recent slump. Warnock is not alone. There are thousands of fans reeling around the city mystified and aghast at the speed of Forest's plunge from Premiership candidates to contenders for relegation to the Second Division.
At the end of last season these two clubs fought out a tremendous play-off semi-final. Now, after Forest beat Warnock's side 3-1 in September to go fourth in the First Division, 21 points and 18 places separate them. Since that victory Forest have won only three of their 21 League matches. They have not won any of their last 12, and have not scored a goal in seven-and-a-half hours' League play.
The club programme lists 33 professionals, with not a proven scorer among them since David Johnson broke a leg in that September clash with Sheffield United and Marlon Harewood was sold to West Ham in November. Last season, Johnson clocked 29 goals and Harewood 21. The coveted midfielder Andy Reid is current best with 10. Marlon King, a £1m buy from Gillingham - twice what Forest got for Harewood - has managed one in nine games, and that from a penalty in the last round of the Cup. The other up-front buy, Gareth Taylor from Burnley for £500,000, totals two in 19 starts.
The decline has had an inevitable effect on the Forest manager, Paul Hart, though he remains quiet-spoken and calm in the face of calamity. From the managerial flavour of last autumn, his name linked with vacancies at West Ham and Leeds, Hart must now be careful not to be photographed beneath a door marked "exit". A limited squad and no money for new buys means he has to make do with what he has, and it is looking as if what he has may not be enough. The present gulf between two clubs who were so close eight months ago is, Hart explains gently, "because Sheffield United have retained their players and we haven't". Of last season's regulars, Ricardo Scimeca, Jim Brennan, Jack Lester and Harewood have left the City Ground, while Johnson and the bright young central defender Michael Dawson have been out hurt for much of the season. "That's it in a nutshell," Hart adds.
Dawson, who has suffered a series of hamstring problems, and Johnson returned last Thursday from a week at a rehab centre in Lanzarote. "We are determined that Michael does not come back too early," said Hart. "He had glandular fever last summer and it had a major effect on his body. His lack of conditioning because of that has probably played a greater part than even we, who were determined to be cautious, expected. I think Johnson won't be back before March, but we are not putting a timescale on it because it is a question of day-to-day progression. Dawson will be sooner, but only if the necessary criteria are met."
Meanwhile, the team who can't score and can't win labour on, deflecting firm bids for Reid but knowing that having to sell players is a fact of their First Division existence. "What is happening is disappointing, you can't get away from that," says Hart. "But each week you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with it. There is no point me moaning to you about it."
But who picks the manager up? "That's what Howard Wilkinson used to say: 'Who motivates the motivator?' F*** knows. Have I spoken to Brian Clough? I don't want to get into that. You know how that ends up in the headlines: 'Hart Seeks Clough's Advice'.
"You just to have keep faith with the players and let them know that if they do the right things, results will come. I can't fault their application, but application doesn't guarantee results. We have got to be hard to beat, which we are. We are losing by the odd goal. It will probably take more than a couple of goals to get us moving again, but that would be a good place to start.
"People have said we just need one lucky break, but I prefer to say you create your own luck. If you hit the right areas, more often than not you will score goals. If you defend the right areas, more often than not you'll save goals. It's down to basics."
The presumption that he is going through the worst spell of his career, as player or manager, makes Hart smile. "Facing re-election two years on the trot at Stockport County had its moments. I was only 17 at the time and didn't think I would ever lose my job. I could have ended in non-League football but never gave it a thought. I was playing in a team full of 30-year-olds on one-year contracts desperate to get another contract to feed their children.
"Me, I just wanted to play football, and it was a very physical League then. They said to me: 'Why don't you kick people?' I told them I didn't kick, but I did eventually. I learned it through getting married and having children myself. So my upbringing has taught me there is always somebody worse off, and you don't take anything for granted."Reuse content