Paul Hart: Hart tackles tough times with undaunted spirit

One-time Leeds target puts brave face on decline at City Ground as he bids to avoid relegation from First Division The Brian Viner Interview
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The Independent Football

There is, in the reception at Nottingham Forest's City Ground, a bronze likeness of Brian Clough with his hand cupped to his mouth, barking instructions to his players.

The great man's former protégé, Paul Hart, has to pass it countless times every day on the way to and from his office, which in these gloomy times for Forest must be something of a trial, like John Major in his dog days at 10 Downing Street looking up at a portrait to see the reproachful eyes of Margaret Thatcher following him round the room.

Still, even Clough's glorious tenure at the City Ground ended in failure, with relegation, although at least it was relegation into the First Division from the Premier League, not from the First into the Second. That is the alarming spectre which haunts Forest, currently fourth from bottom.

Hart, too, seems haunted. There is anxiety in his brown eyes and hesitation in his speech. He implores me not to present as a "sob story" his explanation of why things have gone pear-shaped at Forest, and two days later asks the club press officer to contact me, enquiring if he can see a copy of this story before it goes to press. I send an e-mail politely declining, but assure him that it will be a fair, balanced article.

Which I hope it will. So here goes.

There are two schools of thought in Nottingham. One is that Hart, the manager since July 2001, has now had long enough to establish Forest as promotion contenders, as in fairness they were for much of last season.

This school of thought acknowledges that he is a fine youth coach - as he proved beyond the slightest doubt at Leeds United, where Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson and Harry Kewell all blossomed mightily under his tutelage - but lacks the guile to be a successful manager. His teams, they say, are one-dimensional, sticking rigidly to a diamond formation. And they wish he wasn't so bloody dour, citing the interview he gave a local radio station after a rare win, the FA Cup defeat of West Bromwich Albion.

"The team played brilliantly, especially in the second half," the interviewer gushed.

"I thought we did all right in the first half too," Hart replied, flatly.

Another of his mentors is Howard Wilkinson, and it is Wilkinson's lugubriousness, rather than Clough's ebullience, that appears to have rubbed off. But Nottingham's other school of thought considers Hart unfairly done by.

These fans blame the chairman, Nigel Doughty, for the club's ills, accusing him of short-sighted parsimony in the transfer market. They say that Hart inherited a dreadful mess from David Platt, and has done well even to keep administration at bay, largely through the reluctant sale of one of his cherished youngsters, Jermaine Jenas, to Newcastle. They also point to a wretched series of injuries and even long-term illnesses, such as the glandular fever which has nobbled Michael Dawson, Forest's highly regarded young defender. Give Hart time and faith, these fans say, and he will deliver.

Either way, it is only a few short months since Hart was odds-on favourite to succeed Peter Reid as the Leeds manager. He gloomily concedes that since then, in tandem with Forest, his stock has dramatically fallen. "But people showed an interest in me because I fitted the bill, and I still do, for developing a football club," Hart says. "I'm a builder, not a buyer. I always say I don't need lots of money, just a fair crack of the whip. I can develop a football club from top to bottom, and I'm one of the few who can, I think."

Who does he think are the others? A long pause, followed by a short smile. "Alex Ferguson has done it. Not that I think I'm in the same category, don't get me wrong. And Brian Clough did it. This will be destroying him, I should think, the fact that his club's..."

His sentence peters out. I puncture the ensuing silence by asking what he thinks has gone wrong at Forest. "Expectations were raised last year," he says. "We had a pretty good season. And for the most part during my two and a half years [as manager] we've been producing the best football in the division. But two things have happened this season. We haven't invested in the team at the right time, and there have been injuries in key positions.

"Eight players last year played over 40 games, and four played 46. That was fantastic with a very small squad, and it's since got a little bit smaller ... you can't go selling your crown jewels."

This seems like a pretty unequivocal swipe at the board, yet Hart denies it. Selecting his words with extreme care, he denies even that he and Doughty are on poor terms. "It's been said that we have a deteriorating relationship, but that's not true. We don't argue. I put an argument forward or I swallow it, that's the way it is."

He sits back. We are in his office, where I notice a Cadbury's Ripple five-pack torn open on his otherwise orderly desk. Comfort eating, perhaps? I ask him whether he thinks that he has made mistakes. There is another long pause. "Er," he says finally, "it's hard to be ... I dunno. I've only bought two players in two and a half years, two strikers [Marlon King and Gareth Taylor] who haven't scored as many as we would have liked. But strikers do take time to settle."

Has the team's disastrous recent form - no wins in the last 12 League games and no goals in the last five - made him question his methods? "Yeah, of course. Our preparation is as intense, our work is as it was, not much has changed. You still question yourself, of course you do. But we have a pretty young side, and if you get through things like this as a young boy then somewhere down the line the experience is there."

In the meantime, it is his formidable task to motivate a team that keeps losing, most immediately for tomorrow's FA Cup fourth-round tie at home against Sheffield United. At least the FA Cup, if only for one more match, offers some distraction from the Nationwide League. And at least Sheffield United, who have a fairly feeble record at the City Ground, represent beatable opposition.

As for how he motivates his players, and for that matter himself, he says gnomically that "we deal in inches. In the Premiership they deal in millimetres. It's about getting those inches smaller." Pardon? "Well, when you're struggling you're just slightly short of confidence. Inches short. But I have a very supportive staff and we all draw on everything we've been through. Somewhere in the past something like this has happened to most people in football."

Somewhere in the past, Hart was regarded as one of football's brightest young coaches, a major factor in Leeds' brief but dazzling blaze of glory. It was therefore no surprise that, when Reid was shown the door, Hart was touted as his most likely replacement. Moreover, I heard it said at the time that had the job been offered, Hart would have crawled up the M1 to take it.

But that suggestion, he says, certainly didn't come from him.

"I never said I wanted the Leeds United job," he says. "Never. It's all speculation. And this club is as big a part of me as Leeds ever was. I've spent over six years here [initially as the youth coach] developing the academy from scratch to the fantastic facility it is now, and I have always thought I would take this club into the Premiership. I didn't imagine how hard it would be, and standing on the touchline taking a load of flak is not very pleasant, but I hate the thought of letting this club down."

His supporters would maintain that the club, or at any rate the chairman, has let him down. Whatever, he is going through a rough time, and although I too am doing my job, I feel a twinge of guilt for compounding his discomfort by asking awkward questions. I'd hate to think of him stuffing another couple of Ripples down as soon as I've gone.

So I change the subject and invite him to tell me about his early years in football. His dad was the Manchester City player, coach and finally short-term manager, Johnny Hart, who naturally raised his lad to be City-mad. Not that it was hard. "Bell, Lee, Summerbee ... I would defy anyone who wasn't much of a football fan but went to Maine Road in the late 1960s and watched that lot play, not to become a football fan."

Hart played in the Manchester Boys team with Les Ormerod, who was also the captain of England Schoolboys and was signed, with high hopes, by Everton. Two years later, when Hart joined Stockport County, Ormerod was there. It was an early lesson in one of football's brutal truths, a truth that Hart has since had to dispense many times to heartbroken boys and their parents, that monumental early promise does not necessarily lead to a glittering career.

His own playing career did have its glittering moments, but not many were at Stockport "where I kept getting my face smashed in, playing against people like Jim Fryatt and Eric Redrobe. Giants. Being a raw recruit in those days was like having a big target painted on your shirt".

There wasn't much glitter at Blackpool, either, where he spent the next five years. But he did play in the game in which Mickey Walsh scored the BBC's Goal of the Season. "I made that goal," he says, with the flicker of a smile. "I picked up a header on the edge of our box and drilled it into Walshy's chest. He then dribbled past five players and smacked it in. On Match of the Day, Barry Davies said 'a long punt upfield by Hart'. I was really put on my back by that."

In 1978, he became Leeds United's record signing, for a quaint-sounding £330,000. He spent another five years there, as a commanding centre-half, before being summoned by the manager, then as now, Eddie Gray. Brian Clough had arrived to sign him for Forest. "He said, 'I'm not paying the wages you're getting here, but I'm not leaving this room until you sign'. So I signed. Leeds had been relegated the season before and it was a chance to play First Division football again."

Hart talks fondly of Clough's man-management skills. "Nobody was exempt from his bollockings, which brought the dressing-room closer in case it was your turn the week after. His bollockings were fearsome, but they weren't in abundance. And when he gave you a pat on the back, you felt six foot taller." Does he have the same effect on his players? "You'll have to ask them that."

After playing spells at Sheffield Wednesday, Birmingham and Notts County, he entered management with Chesterfield. It ended with the sack, a prospect which, he admits, looms over him again now. I ask whether he fears it? He sighs. "When it happened before it was a terrible time, for your pride, your well-being. I don't ever want to be sacked again, but at the back of your mind you know it happens in management. But I'd be dead and buried if I worried about it. We just have to focus on what we're doing. I analyse my day's work every day, and try to be honest with myself about it, even if I might not be totally honest with you.

"In fact, when I came in this morning I thought there might be a phone call to you to cancel this. When it was set up three weeks ago we were in a less pressurised situation, and I'm not sure anyone will want to read what will end up looking like a sob story. It's the last interview I'll do, I think. I would rather give people results."

The right one tomorrow will do for a start, but it's League wins he wants, not Cup runs. He's a good man. I hope he gets them.

Paul Hart the life and times

1953: Born 4 May, Manchester.

1969: Joins Stockport County as a 16-year-old.

1970: Makes Hatters debut.

1973: Moves to Blackpool for £30,000.

1978: £300,000 move to Leeds United. Makes 229 appearances.

1983: Brian Clough signs Hart for Nottingham Forest for £80,000.

1985: Transferred to Sheffield Wednesday.

1986: Moves to Birmingham City where he suffers a broken leg on his debut. It is his only appearance for the Blues.

1987: Sold for £15,000 to Notts County, where he becomes the player-coach. Retires 23 games later at end of the 1987-88 season.

1988: First job as a manager, at Chesterfield.

1991: Leaves Spireites and starts sandwich business before Clough rescues him from obscurity and appoints him youth squad coach at Forest.

1992: Hart returns to Leeds as the youth coach under the manager Howard Wilkinson. Hart develops Harry Kewell and Jonathan Woodgate among others as his sides win the FA Youth Cup in 1993 and 1997.

1997: Hart returns to Forest to oversee launch of Forest's academy and develops players such as Jermaine Jenas and David Prutton.

2001: Appointed Forest manager.

2002-03: Forest finish sixth in First Division but go out of the play-offs in the semi-final defeat to Sheffield United.