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Snuffing out the Forest fire

Tottenham Hotspur versus Nottingham Forest is a fixture of historic significance. In 1991, it was the FA Cup final, a match remembered for Paul Gascoigne's self-destructive tackling.

But for an official of questionable probity, it could have also been the 1984 UEFA Cup final. For almost 15 years, it was a meeting of two footballing sides in the upper half of English football's top tier.

This Sunday, Forest travel to Tottenham in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Two of the most talented players seen at the City Ground for several seasons should be there, but the cup-tied duo of Andy Reid and Michael Dawson are in the employment of Tottenham now, the product of an £8 million double deal.

They have swapped a League Championship relegation battle for the quest for mid-table respectability in the Premiership.

After a reminder of past glories at White Hart Lane, Forest's focus must switch to their league position. They are perched precariously between Gillingham and Rotherham, 23rd in the Championship and six points from safety with 15 games remaining.

After 54 successive seasons in the top two divisions, relegation is more a probability than a possibility. And a decade ago, Forest were third in the Premiership. It is a slump of Sheffield Wednesday proportions, except that Wednesday have never played in the European Cup, let alone won it twice.

Tracing Forest's subsequent decline is no simple process. It incorporates the choice of the ineffectual Italian Andrea Silenzi to replace Stan Collymore in 1995, relegations in 1997 and 1999, David Platt's expensive two-year tenure and an apparent belief in the resuscitative powers of former Wimbledon managers. It also includes promotion, play-offs and the promise of a generation nurtured at the Nottingham Forest academy.

But Dawson and Reid have followed Jermaine Jenas and David Prutton to the Premiership in a quartet of transfers that have brought in over £15 million. Shaun Wright-Phillips, the one that got away, would have been a still more lucrative sale.

Paul Hart, responsible for the development of the first four, left a year ago, taking his passing principles and faith in younger players with him to Barnsley. Joe Kinnear added experience and resilience in a relegation battle then, but his methods appeared more outdated this season.

Branding a section of the club's support 'morons' was not the former Wimbledon manager's best career move. His increasingly public gripes about former players' criticism only highlighted poor results the disparity between his uninspired squad and their decorated predecessors, league champions in 1978 and European Cup winners the two following seasons.

And they showed Kinnear was no Brian Clough. Iconoclastic, idiosyncratic and outspoken, Clough has cast his considerable shadow over the City Ground since 1975. His death last year merely reinforced the idea that the current Forest side are not worthy successors to a provincial side that conquered a continent.

Current incumbent Gary Megson was not one of them. Of the four former Forest players to manage the side since Clough, his was the briefest and least distinguished playing career at the City Ground. Megson's pre-match vomiting convinced Clough to speedily sell the midfielder in 1984.

Former glory: Forest striker Trevor Francis lifts the European Cup.
Former glory: Forest striker Trevor Francis lifts the European Cup.

As a manager, the much-travelled Megson rescued West Bromwich Albion from a similar predicament in 2000. He shares a no nonsense approach and a handy habit of winning promotion with Clough, though the similarities may stop there.

Drastic change appears to be on the confrontational Yorkshireman's agenda. Forest have the division's worst disciplinary record and Megson has also criticised the training, match preparations and backroom staff of Kinnear's Forest. Andy Impey and Alan Rogers, both signed by his predecessor, have been deemed surplus to requirements.

He has already brought in three players, though the club's debts and the costs of demotion mean that Megson will not have the £8million form the sale of Dawson and Reid burning a hole in his pocket. This particular Forest fire will have to be fought on more slender resources.

And, perhaps, without reference to the club's recent history. Midfielders Darryl Powell and David Friio could exceed expectations without bearing comparison with Archie Gemmill or John McGovern; right back John Curtis may be invaluable in the relegation struggle, but will never have the class of Viv Anderson.

But there is one constant over two decades; misfiring forwards. Clough squandered millions on Ian Wallace, Justin Fashanu and Peter Ward. Megson inherited a £5 million strike force with just 15 league goals to show for their 76 appearances this season. David Johnson, given the captaincy by Kinnear and now transfer-listed, has the appearance of a one-season wonder at the City Ground; with six goals in 29 games, this is not his year.

Nor, so far, is it Forest's. They have won five league games in six months and desperately require the ruthless efficiency Megson instilled in his West Brom teams. Aware of Clough's legacy, but not from the Forest tradition, he is both insider and outsider. For a club with five league wins in six months, a saviour is required, whatever his background.

Nottingham Forest are in danger of becoming the answer to two quiz questions. They are the only club to have won the European Cup twice as many times as their domestic league. Next season, will they be the first to challenge for the League One title as well?

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