Five players who should never have left Forest

by , July 29, 2013

Often in football you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, with a forgettable squad player suddenly surprising everyone when he excels at a new club. But sometimes it works the other way round, with the player wishing he’d stayed where he was.

With the likes of Lee Camp, Chris Gunter and Wes Morgan leaving the club in the last 12 months only to be linked to quick returns, here is a list of the five players who must most wish they had never left the City Ground…

5. Gareth Williams

Signed for: Leicester City, July 2004

Williams was, for a while, regarded as the most talented player to emerge from Paul Hart’s youth team, which also included the likes of Jermaine Jenas, Andy Reid, Michael Dawson and David Prutton. Under Hart’s first-team stewardship in 2001/02 he was named ‘Player of the Year’ and attracted interest from big names, such as his boyhood club Rangers. Transfer fees of £6 million were talked about, particularly when he broke into the Scottish national side aged 20.

As financial pressure began to tell on Forest, Hart seemed determined to hold onto his ‘Golden Boy’ while first Jenas and then Dawson and Reid were sacrificed to balance the books. But it all ended in anti-climax and bitterness. Perhaps feeling the pressure of the scouts’ eyes, Williams began playing within himself, no longer chancing the pin-point, defence splitting passes that had made so him exciting when he first emerged. And when Forest couldn’t meet his wage demands in the summer of 2004, he moved to Leicester City, his transfer fee being settled at £1 million by tribunal.

There he continued to show glimpses of his promise but disappointed fans by ‘going missing’ in a lot games. In February 2007, Leicester sold him to then-Premier League side Watford. It was there, after only three games, that he suffered the anterior cruciate ligament damage that would end his career. After six operations and 18 months out of the game, Williams still hadn’t recovered and was released by Watford. He attempted a comeback in America but was unable to get fit and eventually retired in 2010 at the age of just 28. It’s a shame he left the City Ground in the circumstances he did, but an even bigger shame that such a promising footballer should finish his career at such an age due to injury.

4. Ian Storey-Moore

Signed for: Manchester United, March 1972

That Ian Storey-Moore left Forest in 1972 was inevitable, despite Forest secretary Ken Smales’ best efforts. Five years previously Storey-Moore had been instrumental in the club finishing second in the league, but now they were on the brink of relegation and a five-year absence from the top flight. At 27 he deserved the chance to exhibit his talents on a bigger stage.

Brian Clough of Derby County wanted to give him that stage and looked to him as the kind of left-sided play-maker he would later find, by chance, in John Robertson. But the Forest board were divided on whether to sell to Derby, especially as Manchester United had already bid £200,000 for him. Clough swooped in with his famous combination of charm and bluntness, persuaded Storey-Moore that Derby had a better future than declining United and thought he had the deal done. He introduced Storey-Moore to the Baseball Ground crowd the following evening, but ended up with egg on his face when Smales refused to agree to the deal. United’s manager Frank O’Farrell and Sir Matt Busby, now a director at Old Trafford, launched a counter charm offensive, a large bouquet of flowers for Mrs Storey-Moore included. Clough was beaten at his own game and vented his fury on Forest, United and the Football League.

The move to Manchester United should have made Storey-Moore the next George Best (whose career in Manchester was effectively over by this point) – he had the good looks, the fashionable haircut and most importantly the skill. Indeed, he made a great start to his Old Trafford career, scoring in his first three games, but in January 1973 his injury problems began and he only managed a handful of matches in the next year before being allowed to leave. He turned out for the decidedly unglamorous Burton Albion and had a spell with American side Chicago Sting before retiring and going into scouting. A sad and drastic decline in fortunes like that makes you wonder if, after suffering such embarrassment in trying to sign him, Clough had put a curse on Storey-Moore’s career.

3. Garry Birtles

Signed for: Manchester United, October 1980

Manchester is a long way from Long Eaton and Manchester United is even further from Long Eaton United in footballing terms. Then again so were the double European Cup and League Cup triumphs with Forest that came between, but perhaps Manchester was a step too far for Garry Birtles.

By the time he was 24, Birtles had already achieved more in football than most players even dare to dream of doing in their entire careers. But in moving to Old Trafford he went from being the local-lad-come-good of Nottingham to the epitome of Dave Sexton’s unpopular, unattractive and ultimately unsuccessful reign. Brought in due to an injury crisis in the early stages of the 1980/81 season, Birtles had already scored six goals in nine games for Forest, but the minute he arrived in Manchester he seemed to forget how to score. In fact it would be nearly a year before he did, eventually breaking his duck on September 19, 1981, after an incredible 30 goalless games. He would score another eleven goals that season, but new United manager Ron Atkinson was happy to get rid of him for a mere £300,000 in September 1982.

His epic failure at United is one of football’s great mysteries, but it did bring about some classic newspaper headlines. When Birtles crashed his car into a street lamp after falling asleep at the wheel (suffering from ‘jet lag’ after a European tie, he claims) the resulting wreckage was snapped by a passing photographer. The picture appeared in The Sun, the paper wryly observing, ‘Birtles hits the post – again’. In 2001, selecting the ten biggest wastes of money in football history for The Observer, Oliver Irish estimated Birtles’ value in modern terms at an incredible £23.8m.

Of course Birtles soon re-found his scoring boots in Nottingham. United had reportedly hired a Catholic priest to exercise the daemons preventing him from scoring; all they really needed was Brian Clough. However, the fact that he never strayed further than Grimsby for the remainder of his career suggests that it might have been a case of homesickness that turned the local legend into a national laughing stock for two seasons.

2. Stan Collymore

Signed for: Liverpool, July 1995

Universally heralded by supporters as one of the most prodigiously talented players ever to wear the Garibaldi Red, it’s sobering to remember that he was only with us for two seasons – the fact that he scored 50 goals and fired Forest, not only to promotion, but to third place in the nascent Premier League, makes it hard to believe he accomplished all he did in such a short space of time.

Sadly those two whirlwind seasons with Forest represent the only real quantifiable successes of Collymore’s career. It all ended with his record-breaking £8.5 million transfer to Liverpool. Few defenders could handle him, but it was his own personal daemons that prevented him from fulfilling his potential. His mood swings and public outbursts overshadowed his performances at Liverpool as they had begun to do towards the end of his Forest career.

He moved again to Aston Villa in 1997 for £7 million, where his form went out of the window. Spells at Fulham, Leicester, Bradford and Real Oviedo followed with a decreasing goal return and an increasing reputation for off-the-pitch mischief (and, it must be admitted, a few grim incidents that go way beyond the term ‘mischief’). He retired at the age of 30, since which time he has written a critically acclaimed autobiography, filmed sex scenes with Sharon Stone, made the term ‘dogging’ widely known among the British public and launched a successful media punditry career. He has also been praised for his campaigns against racism and efforts to raise awareness of mental illnesses like the depression that has blighted him throughout his life.

Perhaps he should not be included in this list – the decline of his career, the squandering of his gifts, these things may have been inevitable and he could have gone downhill just as quickly if he stayed at the City Ground. The signs that trouble was always going to surround Stan Collymore were evident in his final months with us when he expressed the view that he was too big for Forest. Weeks into his Liverpool career he was complaining that Roy Evans was playing him the ‘wrong way’ and so the cycle of self-destruction continued until there was very little left of the player who thrilled and enthralled those lucky enough to watch him during his two years with Forest.

1. John Robertson

Signed for: Derby County, May 1983

That his spell at Derby was blighted by injuries and relegation would be enough for the Forest legend to regret the move, but the reason Robertson tops this list goes beyond football. It was a transfer that destroyed a friendship.

Things had been going sour at the City Ground since the 1980 European Cup Final and before even that, some argue. That summer Robertson was in dispute with the club over payments from his testimonial game and he made several transfer requests, which Clough turned down. In fact, Robertson was one of the few European Cup-winners who stayed at the club, but over the next few years his relationship with the manager strained to breaking point.

By 1983, with Robertson sidelined with a cartilage problem, the winger was offered a new contract with reduced pay, Clough blaming the club’s poor finances. Peter Taylor, who had come out of retirement to take over at Derby the previous November, stepped in with a better offer. Robertson, with his wife expecting a baby, went for the more secure future being offered by Taylor. Clough’s vengeance was to fine Robertson the remaining wages of his existing contract and take the case to a tribunal who set the fee at £135,000 – it was a sum much higher than Derby had been expecting and scuppered their plans to strengthen in other areas, ultimately leading to their relegation to the Third Division in 1984.

The Clough-Taylor relationship had suffered dramas before, not least when Taylor published With Clough by Taylor without consulting the book’s star first. But Taylor’s retirement at the end of the 1981/82 season was supposedly on good terms, Clough claiming to have negotiated a better settlement for him, ‘as if he were my own brother.’

The terms the pair used to describe each other following the Robertson transfer were less tender, to say the least. It was a bitter and public war of words that did neither party credit. Clough refused to use Taylor’s first name and they didn’t speak when they met at the tribunal in London. This stand-off lasted seven years and Taylor wasn’t ‘Pete’ again until after his death. Only then did Clough stop referring to the money Taylor had ‘wasted’ and began remembering the gems he had uncovered instead.

In his autobiography Clough called the Robertson transfer a ‘trivial, inconsequential thing’. It certainly was that, and something I’m sure all three great men involved regretted for their part.

The Glory of Forest

  • This was an extract from Alex Walker’s book The Glory of Forest. Copies signed by the author are available to buy here and the book is available from most online retailers and major local book shops. Also available for Kindle from Amazon.