Kinnear at the centre of Forest's fight for parity

Five years after Joe Kinnear was struck by a heart attack, <i><b>Jon Culley </b></i>finds him fighting fit and up for the challenge of reviving an ailing club
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Joe Kinnear is used to talking in millions. In his seven years at Wimbledon, he says, tripping off the figures effortlessly, his transfer turnover realised a £48m profit. And heaven knows how many millions he might have had to spend had Sam Hamman's dream of moving the club to Dublin become a reality.

Joe Kinnear is used to talking in millions. In his seven years at Wimbledon, he says, tripping off the figures effortlessly, his transfer turnover realised a £48m profit. And heaven knows how many millions he might have had to spend had Sam Hamman's dream of moving the club to Dublin become a reality.

It is a sobering moment, therefore, when the financial director at Nottingham Forest steps into Kinnear's office at the City Ground, drops the Sky Sports Football Yearbook into his in-tray and warns him to take care of it because it is the only copy they have.

Five years after Ron Atkinson presided over their relegation from the Premiership, Forest are £35m in debt. This summer, Nottingham City Council, from whom the City Ground is leased, threatened possible repossession after Forest defaulted on a loan payment on the Trent End stand.

Kinnear, however, walked into the job last February with his eyes open. Had he been appointed when he applied for it in 1999, only months after the heart attack that ended his tenure at Wimbledon, he might have had £25m in his transfer kitty as Forest sought an instant return to the top flight.

Now if he wants to acquire a new player, he has an empty cap, with which he must go to Nigel Doughty, the chairman.

"I was aware of the situation," he said. "We are never going to get back to the position David Platt was in, when he had £25m to invest in the team. The debts are a millstone for sure but there is a budget and if I felt I had identified a player that was going to make the difference between sitting in mid-table and getting to the play-offs, I would be very disappointed if I was not allowed to go out and get him.

"The chairman here is a one-man band, financially speaking. He services the loans, which probably cost him a couple of million a year just in interest payments, if not more, and it is not like he has people helping him out. But I have an understanding with him and I think he would back my judgement."

Not that Doughty is short of funds. The 47-year-old venture capitalist, born in Newark, placed 384th in the latest Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £100m. But, having had his fingers burned once, when Platt's expensive buys failed to bring success, he insists on working within sensible parameters.

"There are clubs that we cannot compete with in terms of wages," Kinnear said. "Including Leeds, where we go this weekend. We talked to Jermaine Wright, who has gone there from Ipswich, but we were light years behind on what they were offering him. We couldn't go head to head with Leicester or Wolves because they have the parachute money from the Premiership. We might struggle against West Ham, too, in that regard. But with other clubs we are not too bad."

In a sense, though, that makes Forest the perfect club for. Kinnear and the natural wheeler-dealer, is in his element. "Every afternoon, like I always have done, I ring up every manager I know," he said. "I have a hit list of players and I'm prepared to be patient waiting for the right one at the right time."

And it is not only the managers at the bargain end of the market. Seldom does a week pass, he says, without him phoning Sir Alex Ferguson, while most Monday evenings he chums up with Arsène Wenger at Arsenal reserve matches.

"Arsenal play at Barnet and we both live no more than five minutes from the ground, so I often have a chat with him along with Pat Rice and Liam Brady." The theory, Kinnear reassures, should you begin to doubt his sanity, is not that he might persuade Doughty to find £50m for an Henry or Van Nistelrooy, but that he might land a fringe player on loan.

"The big clubs are still looking abroad to strengthen their squads, which means there are decent homegrown lads being pushed down the batting order. I know who these players are and there comes a point when they need to get some experience of first-team football. That is really where I am looking at the moment. Rather than pay a fee, I believe an investment in wages to get a couple of good-quality lads on season-long loans is what could give us that extra ingredient." There is a glint in his eye, an indication of how much he relishes the chase.

Football is clearly an addiction. Why else, after his clogged arteries made their presence felt in March 1999, punishing him for neglecting his own health for the sake of his job, would he have allowed himself to fall back into its clutches? The heart attack was a life-changing event. But it was not the only one.

Had Hammam, Wimbledon's owner and Kinnear's greatest fan, not ran out of patience as the Irish FA dug in their heels over his proposed relocation by the Liffey, Kinnear might today, metaphorically speaking, be sitting in a plush office in Dublin "puffing on a fat cigar".

"It was the biggest mistake Sam ever made," he said. "If it had happened, the club would have been as big as Manchester United now. We had phenomenal backing. Sam had sorted out every multi-millionaire in Ireland. The big-hitters who are now putting their money into Manchester United and Celtic.

"It saddens me what has happened to Wimbledon now. It is a shadow of itself and it is a thankless job for Stuart Murdoch. And the name has gone, with all that tradition, for a place that has never had a football club."

Instead, Kinnear sits in an office in Nottingham that is at best functional, at worst rather drab, within a modest front of house which the bust of Brian Clough, in the foyer, has little trouble dominating. He is the seventh occupant of that office since Clough retired in 1993 and though Frank Clark and Dave Bassett both gained promotion, no manager has come close to donning the legend's mantle.

Kinnear is not so daft as to suggest that he might, but believes Forest, beaten only twice in 20 games under his charge, are on an upward curve. "We changed the system, brought in a few experienced heads and enabled the players to get back their confidence last season," he said. "We finished up beating Ipswich, Wigan and West Brom.

"With Michael Dawson injured and Wes Morgan suspended, taking away my two best defenders, we have thrown away some points in our opening games this year, even though we have not lost. But I don't think we are far away. It is a tough division and I don't see us yet as getting automatic promotion. But I'd be disappointed if we are not contenders for the play-offs."