Monday, February 9, 2004
Forest's broken Hart
From the best young English manager to the dole queue in a few months, Paul Hart's fortunes have declined as dramatically as Nottingham Forest's.
After 14 games without a win, the double winners of the European Cup are now in the relegation places, the prospect of Second Division football prompting owner Nigel Doughty to end a reportedly fractious relationship with Hart.
For months, it appeared that if Hart left Forest, it would be for greener pastures. Twice linked with Leeds and a contender for the West Ham job, his achievements at the City Ground marked him out as a manager with the attributes to succeed at a higher level.
On a minimal budget, Hart developed as fluent a passing side as there was in the First Division, turned misfiring strikers into regular scorers and brought through a succession of hugely talented young players whose sales helped save an impoverished club.
But the First Division table shows only doomed Wimbledon and sorry Bradford beneath Forest. Even David Platt couldn't take them into Division 2, but Hart's team were two points from safety. So, where did it all go wrong for a rare Forest manager singled out for praise by Brian Clough?
The acclaim of Forest's greatest manager is a mixed blessing, however. Keepers of Cloughie's flame can change quickly. Frank Clark, once his anointed one, now comments on other sackings from his position with the League Managers' Association.
And Hart's recent problems follow in a Forest tradition. Million-pound strikers and Forest managers have an unhappy past.
Clough signed a series of them in the early eighties, none capable of scoring. Clark squandered some of the revenue from Stan Collymore's sale on Andrea Silenzi. Platt failed to get goals in return for a £3 million outlay on David Johnson.
Marlon King, at £950,000, almost qualifies for membership of that elite club. Gareth Taylor (£500,000) was cheaper, but the £1.45 million strike partnership has proved as unprolific as their derided predecessors in the Forest forward line.
In 10 league games, King is yet to get off the mark. Taylor, with two goals in 21 games, is faring little better. Forest have not scored in over 10 hours in the First Division.
Those statistics stand in stark contrast to the 50-goal alliance of Johnson and Marlon Harewood last year. But Johnson's broken leg means he has only played six games this season and Harewood, nearing the end of his contract, was sold to West Ham for a cut-price £500,000.
Hart, who previously spent little, must be faulted in his choice of their replacements.
Taylor, a success in a Burnley team where two wingers provided him with a plentiful supply of crosses, now plays ahead of a midfield diamond where the best crosser, Andy Reid, is often in a central role. King has come from a very different style of play at Gillingham. Neither look Forest players yet.
Had David Connolly, a proven First Division scorer, not opted to join West Ham instead last summer, Hart may still be in a job. His buys can be questioned, but the former centre back has an outstanding record of alchemy with the forwards he inherited.
Stern John, who scored twice in Platt's final season, grabbed 13 in six months under Hart before being sold. Johnson, loaned out to Burnley, returned to become the division's top scorer last season with 27.
And, most startling of all, Harewood, who had scored 19 goals in his first 118 league games, netted 32 in his next 63 as a quick and powerful and erratic forward was transformed into as a fine finisher and Johnson's supplier-in-chief.
Harewood was one of several homegrown talents to flourish under Hart. At 51, Hart is actually older than Sam Allardyce, Steve Coppell and Peter Reid, but the youth in his team earned him the 'young' tag.
But Jermaine Jenas, given the captaincy at 18, perhaps safeguarded Forest's future with his £5 million move to Newcastle. David Prutton was the next to go, earning an impoverished club another £2.5 million.
But the loss of three competitive players - Prutton and free-transfer departures Riccardo Scimeca and Jack Lester - help explain why a team who have only conceded four more goals than they have scored have lost twice as many games as they have won.
So, too, does the absence of Michael Dawson. The 20-year-old central defender has only played two games in three months, helping them to third in the division in September, but absent as they slumped to third from bottom.
Whichever league Forest are playing in next year, his future could lie elsewhere. Ireland international winger Reid has already been the subject of a bid from Tottenham while Scotland midfielder Gareth Williams and the versatile Ireland Under-21 international John Thompson are other graduates of Hart's Forest academy.
So Hart's successor will inherit a talented team, albeit one with a desperate need for a goal and a fit-again David Johnson. Joe Kinnear, more of a motivator and with a better record in the transfer market, appears likely to be given the task of guiding Forest to safety.
And Hart, whose CV should not be tainted by relegation, has a £7 million transfer profit and the development of a second outstanding crop of youngsters (after his time in charge of Leeds' academy) to attract other clubs.
He, like the Forest team he leaves behind, should be able to look forward to better days.
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