There's a whiff of the great old days down by the Trent at Nottingham Forest's City Ground: a winning team, a packed stadium and, glory be, a return to the time when managing the club was a two-man business. The original duo, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, would, without dispute, approve of the job being done by Frank Barlow and Ian McParland, the joint caretaker managers who in nine weeks have transformed Forest from despair to promotion candidates.
Though yesterday's 3-2 defeat at Hartlepool terminated a 10-game unbeaten run, Forest remain strong contenders for a League One play-off place with two matches to go. When Gary Megson's 13-month tenure was ended "by mutual consent" on 16 February, with the departing manager admitting he had become the problem rather than the solution, the Forest board came up with a desperate throw of the dice which has turned into an inspired touch.
McParland, a Scot in his sixth season as a coach at Forest, recalled the moment. "On the day Gary Megson left I got a phone call from the chief executive, Mark Arthur, saying he wanted to see me in the morning. Frank [Megson's assistant] was called in too, and Mark Arthur just told us we were taking over the team 'until further notice' and that was that."
There was 24 hours to go until the visit to Port Vale for a club only four points clear of a second straight disastrous relegation. "That first game was critical," said McParland. "We won 2-0 in the end, but could so easily have drawn or even lost." The following week Swindon were trounced 7-1, Forest's biggest win for a decade. "Everything just fell into place. Those first two games were the key."
So the stage was lit and script assembled for a partnership which fits the tagof "odd couple" only in the nicest way because of the contrasts. Barlow is 59, McParland 44. Barlow is a quietly spoken man of principle content to spend a career as assistant to others after two spells in managership (Chesterfield and Scunthorpe) left him determined never to seek the top job again. McParland is, by his own descrip-tion, "a bit fiery", a former striker who played for eight years across the river with Notts County.
Any comparison with Clough and Taylor is laughed at by the caretaking duo. "You can't even mention us in the same breath as those two," insisted McParland, and Barlow agreed: "If we could achieve one-tenth of what they achieved we would retire with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. They won things, we still haven't done anything.
"We set out to try and finish the season as well as we could, so we still have that to do. Though it is easy to say and difficult to do, we must maintain the same mental approach in the promotion race as when we were chasing the pack."
So why have the odd couple done so spectacularly well? McParland, known as Charlie since his playing days, says the answer, like the origin of his nickname, is "a secret". Both are at pains to avoid any criticism of the Megson days, and when named managers of the month for March they immediately dedicated the award to "Forest's players, staff and supporters". A settled side and few injuries have helped, but it is the blend of reserved Northerner and intense Scot which has sparked that success. "Frank is good for me," said McParland. "He has been in the game a long time, knows it inside out. We are in agreement about how to play, and though we don't always agree, we don't fall out."
In Barlow's view, "Charlie brings his youthful enthusiasm into it, but the underlying link is our respect for each other. Plus the fact we both enjoy coaching. That leads to a general bonding, how you play games, how you want to do things. Also, it is easier with two than on your own."
He confessed surprise at the unbeaten sequence, calling it "quite extraordinary" as he expressed his pleasure at the lift given to the city of Nottingham. "You dream about how it was as European champions. So to achieve that dream you have to focus on one step at a time. The first step is to get out of this League, then regroup and have another go at getting out of the next League, too. Somebody once said, 'If you want to make your dreams come true, wake up', so you have to have a realistic target. We have already done 11 more matches together than we ever thought we were going to get, and in football you are always sensitive to a swift kick in the nuts, so you need to be humble."
With Frank and Charlie, success has walked alongside humility to such an extent that the players are pressing for the caretakers to become permanent. "Give Them The Job!" thundered the headline in Thursday's local evening paper, quoting Gary Holt on behalf of the dressing-room.
From earlier implacable opposition, Barlow has veered towards accepting the possibility of another stint in managership. "If you could say to the pair of us that next season we will have the same results as we have had over our last 11 games together we would probably take it." Clough and Taylor would have approved of that.