Monday 15 July 2019

O'Neill's slow start brings Forest back down to earth

Nott a good start: Martin O’Neill reacts on his return to the dugout during Nottingham Forest’s defeat to Bristol City on Saturday. Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Nott a good start: Martin O’Neill reacts on his return to the dugout during Nottingham Forest’s defeat to Bristol City on Saturday. Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It was close to half past six on Saturday evening when John Thompson made his way out of the City Ground, his work as a matchday host done.

He was approached by an autograph hunter that was still hanging around waiting to see who would emerge from front reception.

A dozen years have passed since Thompson last played for Forest, but the 37-year-old remains a recognisable face in the area. He completed a unique hat-trick by playing for Forest, Notts County and neighbouring Mansfield before the delayed after effects of a disgraceful challenge from an opposing player forced the Dubliner into an early retirement.

More than half of his life has been spent in the city where he has now settled and works as a personal trainer in tandem with his Forest work and media commitments. His wife is from Nottingham. In other words, it's home now.

He is well placed to shine a light on the expectation levels that surround a club craving a restoration of its old status, a club which is now relying on Martin O'Neill to deliver it.

"That wasn't the result we wanted" says Thompson, matter-of-factly summing up the feeling of anti-climax that hung over a day which had began with optimism.

O'Neill did not attempt to sugarcoat the reality. Forest started nervously, and the mild improvement after half-time was not enough to really trouble a Bristol City team that secured a deserved victory to move within two points of the playoff places.

Before the game, the former Ireland manager was acclaimed around the ground, with a nostalgic programme cover featuring old images from his playing days and the playing of the 'Robin Hood' music as the teams exited the tunnel an attempt to generate momentum from nostalgia.

At full-time, O'Neill thought twice about going onto the pitch to speak with the match officials after a fraught conclusion, but turned on his heel and made a low key departure.


These are early days, of course, and Thompson - who backs O'Neill's appointment - was never going to read too much into one game. He appreciates fan frustrations; the 20th anniversary of the club's exit from the Premier League is in May. Thompson had just signed up.

One treat for the recruits - which included fellow Irishmen Andy Reid, Barry Roche and Brian Cash - was to act as ballboy for a match with Manchester United that ended in a humbling 8-1 defeat with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knocking in four.

The assumption was that Forest would soon bounce back, yet they have never managed it. Thompson was part of some teams that came close. Others were miles away. There were three seasons spent in League One, a gut-punch to morale considering older fans can remember Forest winning successive European Cups.

Local disappointment is not confined to their supporters. County are bottom of League Two, battling to stay in the football league even though a ticket promotion helped them attract 15,000 to their last match.

As a football city, Nottingham is now punching below its weight.

In the centre, a newsagent sells Forest programmes from the past 30 years. Precious memories of Brian Clough's best days, chronicling great exploits on foreign fields, sit incongruously next to characterless offerings from lost Championship years.

"Even when we were in the Championship, you always felt like the fans had watched better generations of players and it can weigh down on you," admits Thompson, who does note that a lot of ex-players still end up living here. Reid is a local now too.

"I was always proud to say I played for Forest as many times as I did but I know a lot of managers and players found it just too difficult because of the past glory.

"You can't live off that. This is a Premier League club in my opinion, even when you take away all of the history behind it. It's a city that has been starved of success.

"Notts County should be in the Championship. Forest should be in the Premier League. Let's hope that can happen. I think Forest fans now would just be happy to get the club back in the top division. There's been some poor choices of manager over the years but, for me, Martin is the one that can do it."

As he digested defeat O'Neill confessed there was nervous excitement on the eve of the match. "A little bit extra because it was Forest," he said.

There were jitters in his side's performance too, especially in the opening minutes. O'Neill did make the decision to switch to two strikers, with Daryl Murphy partnering Lewis Grabban, feeling this would get his side on the front foot. But they lacked midfield control against a Bristol City side that countered well.

"Today gives me a better understanding of the character of the team," said O'Neill, who was animated throughout and given a talking to by officials.

He does have a small window between now and Saturday's visit of Wigan to assess his options, and batted away a question on rumoured interest in James McClean by discussing a defensive crisis.

The 66-year-old insisted he is not bound to any one style of play, yet references to getting more bodies in the box suggest that an improved version of Saturday's strategy will be sought and quickly.

"This isn't like pre-season where I can take my time," he stressed, noting that a win for old foes Derby left Forest seven points off the playoff spots.

Every honeymoon period has a shelf-life. "Come on Martin, sort it out," shouted an elderly voice from the Peter Taylor stand at a quiet moment early in the second half.

It's hard to preach about patience in a place engaged in an interminable wait for glory.

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