With Spanish left-back Daniel Pinillos looking likely to join Nottingham Forest, Andrew Brookes takes a look at the 30 — yes, THIRTY — players who have tried to fill the boots of City Ground legend Stuart Pearce. And asks the question, ‘can he play left-back?’
It’s become a running joke hasn’t it? Whenever a player is linked with signing for Forest, one of us (and I’m as guilty as the next person) makes a quip about whether they can play at left-back. The dark humour exists for a reason: if we didn’t have that we’d probably cry.
You could be forgiven for thinking we were cursed post-Stuart Pearce, that we’d used up all of our good left-back performances with him and hadn’t so much retired the shirt as retired the whole position in his honour.
Tempting as it is to go along with that theory, it’s clearly nonsense. As legendary of a figure as Pearce may be, it’s a long while since he hung up his sizeable boots. There’s no reason why his position should be cursed any more than Des Walker’s, John Robertson’s or Peter Shilton’s.
Instead, the left-back berth has actually been symbolic of our troubles since relegated from the Premier League in 1999.
By my reckoning, 30 people have played in that position since we fell through the top-flight trap door. It’s a silly number, especially when you consider that the start of that period was relatively settled with Jim Brennan holding down the spot for almost 150 games.
To my mind the sheer number of players to have turned out at left-back shows two things. Firstly, it reflects the chopping and changing we’ve done in the managerial dugout – with each incumbent of the City Ground hotseat spinning the revolving player door and making personnel changes.
Secondly, it points at the poor long-term planning we’ve had. Any money to be spent has been thrown at strikers and midfielders (£30k a week on Jamie Mackie anyone?), symbolic of the fact that we’ve desperately chased glory before getting our house properly in order.
Every decent side has a settled defence and — although it is perhaps a cliché — it is true that you must build from the back. If you’re forever patching up your back four, looking for a loan and making people play out of position — as we are — you’re doomed to fail. We’ve recruited the wrong players, planned poorly and neglected this position. We’ve paid the price as a result.
The bad news is that we’re still at it. At the start of the summer it looked like Danny Fox had been given the nod as first choice left-back. It was a fairly big call given that he had flattered to deceive but it seemed to have been born out of financial constraints as well as a hunch that Fox could do better. Yet Spaniard Daniel Pinillos has been on trial and played a friendly against Doncaster. He is back for another trial period and will, it seems, probably be snapped up if Djamel Abdoun and/or Radi Majewski can finally be shifted off the books.
You wouldn’t even be too surprised to see Eric Lichaj begin the campaign in the position, with Roger Riera at right-back.
The frustrating thing is that this shouldn’t be so hard to sort out. If we had a settled, sensible plan we’d have either developed an Academy player over time or snapped up someone from the lower leagues who could fulfill the role to a decent Championship standard.
Until we get this nailed you feel it’ll carry on being a symbol of frustratingly haphazard management at all levels of the club.
Here, in alphabetical order, are the men to have been tried in the troublesome position since relegation from the Premier League 16 years ago…
Ryan Bertrand: Initially a little shaky, the Chelsea loanee got tougher over the course of a 19-game loan spell. The experience presumably helped him as he later went on to a Champions League final appearance and has so far won four England caps.
Julian Bennett: Although primarily a centre-half at Walsall, the Nottingham-born defender made the left-back spot his own, earning the Player of the Year title in 2007/08. His wholehearted displays were among the best left-back showings in this era and it’s a shame that injury robbed him of the chance of more starts.
Jim Brennan: The Canadian was a solid performer and an important part of Paul Hart’s play-off side in 2002/03 before heading off to Norwich City.
Chris Cohen: Necessity forced Cohen to be one of many players to be tried at left-back, a square peg in a round hole. With him it worked however, with his lung-bursting forward runs making him a good attacking outlet and his work rate and aerial ability helping him to make the transition.
John Curtis: If you hung around long enough at right-back over the past 16 years, you’d undoubtedly be chucked in on the opposite side at some point. Curtis, whose pedigree suggested he should’ve been a lot better than he was at Forest, was one of many to have to awkwardly try to adapt.
Greg Cunningham: The Man City loanee helped Steve Cotterill to steady the rapidly sinking ship and avoid the drop after the failed Steve McClaren experiment.
Chris Doig: Defender? Check. Left-footed? Check. Decent at full-back? Erm, well two out of three ain’t bad right? Dumfries-born Doig never quite had the talent to make it at centre-back, let alone on the left side of the defence.
George Elokobi: He’ll eat you alive, or so the song goes. The super-strong full-back made a big impression on loan from Wolves and it was a shame that the change of manager meant he wasn’t considered for a full-time move.
Danny Fox: The current holder of the left-back spot… or is he? Barely used towards the end of the season, it’s fair to say Fox didn’t impress in the course of the last campaign. His record for other clubs suggests he could be the player we need — his record for Forest suggests otherwise. As a result of FFP and the embargo he’ll more than likely get another chance this season, let’s hope he can finally come good and make the position his own.
Chris Gunter: Another out of position right-back, the ex-Spurs man lost all of his effectiveness with forward runs when stuck on the left.
Marcus Hall: One game was enough for the former Coventry man, who had been drafted in by Paul Hart. After an opening day defeat to Portsmouth he left for Southampton.
Dan Harding: Another player with a Southampton link, Dan Harding was perhaps unlucky to become the ‘boo boy’ at times. Yes, he showed himself capable of errors, but often he carried the can during some pretty poor all-round team displays. He certainly out-performed Fox last season but was destined never to be seen again after a loan to Millwall.
Joe Heath: Sadly we’ve been unable to produce many of our own left-backs to ease the issues we’ve had there. The Birkenhead-born graduate made 12 appearances in 2008-09 but his inexperience told.
Clint Hill: A cool, calm leader at QPR looked a lot less, well, cool and calm when drafted into the chaos of the Forest back four.
Gonzalo Jara: Another out of position right-back, another square peg that didn’t quite fit the round hole…
Todd Kane: …and another! The Chelsea loanee is certainly better suited to right-back duties.
Paul Konchesky: He began the 2010/11 season being snapped up by Liverpool…and ended it on loan to us. He wasn’t quite as good as he perhaps should’ve been, possibly as a result of being held up as an example of the perceived failure of Roy Hodgson’s brief tenure at Anfield.
Eric Lichaj: Eric was one of the better performers last season and as a ‘reward’ was regularly switched from right- to left-back. One of the few players able to make the move quite naturally, the American is, nevertheless, better on the right-hand side.
Matt Lockwood: After a long and successful spell at Leyton Orient, Lockwood disappointed in Forest colours and only made a dozen appearances as Julian Bennett overtook him to be first choice.
Joel Lynch: Like Bennett, Lynch was a left-footed centre-half forced to make do at left back. His initial loan spell from Brighton was made permanent but he struggled to make the left-back spot his own – often seemingly just filling in between loanees.
Stephen McLaughlin: After a successful loan spell many thought winger McLaughlin deserved a shot at first team football. Stuart Pearce weighed up putting the Irishman at left-back to make use of his sweet left foot but, alas, he was involved in a costly error in Psycho’s final game in charge.
Davy Oyen: The lesser-spotted Belgian was brought in as back up during Paul Hart’s time in charge.
Gino Padula: The former QPR full-back made just three starts for Forest. A disappointing spell in a grim era packed full of disappointment.
James Perch: It’s not always good to be known as being versatile as you can get lumbered with the jobs others hate. The embodiment of this at Forest was James Perch. Perhaps the least suited of the positions he played while at the City Ground was left-back.
Gregor Robertson: Gregor hinted at having real talent and potential – but also often hinted that he wasn’t far away from a disastrous mistake. Made 44 appearances before dropping down a level.
Alan Rogers: Had two spells on Trentside – with a gap at Leicester in between during which he was infamously pelted with free giveaway Boost bars by the A-Block. Probably the best post-Pearce left-back, but was never as good second time round.
Nicky Shorey: Billy Davies remained convinced that had Nick Shorey’s 2009/10 loan spell been extended beyond its mere nine matches, then he could have taken us to the Premier League that year. Whether that’s true or not we’ll never know, but Shorey was certainly a class act.
Tony Vaughan: ‘Class act’ probably isn’t the term you’d use to describe poor old Tony Vaughan, a Platt-era player who never looked likely to last the match before picking up a card.
Kelvin Wilson: Perhaps the squarest of pegs for this round hole, Casual Kelv is not one that looks at home out of position, something he was forced to do when Julian Bennett first picked up an injury.
Alan Wright: A popular loanee, he might have been pint-sized and right at the end of his career but his class told and helped see us into the League One play-off capitulation to Yeovil Town.
So there we have it. I’m sure I’ve missed some off too which is a worrying thought. What price that we’ll be adding to that number again before the season is out?
Until we learn our lessons and fix issues like this we won’t go forward. Let’s hope that, if nothing else, FFP forces us to start to think sensibly and for the long-term. Only then will the ‘can he play left-back?’ jokes be laid to rest.
Thanks to everyone for their kind words and feedback since this article first went live.
The eagle-eyed among you have helped to fill in a couple of blanks.
It’s perhaps even more indicative of our malaise at left-back that us fans are able to look at a list of 30 names to have filled the position and come up with yet more!
The news today is that Daniel Pinillos is now expected to sign a contract in the coming hours. The Spaniard has something of a troubled legacy to overcome but if his name is still on our lips ahead of this lot in years to come then he’ll have earned a special place in the affections on Trentside.
Here’s the three list additions:
Francis Benali: The then 32-year-old Southampton veteran checked in at the City Ground for a 15-game loan spell as David Platt looked to bolster the squad with some experience.
Keith Foy: The ‘other’ talented young left-footed Irish prodigy, Foy’s achievements in Forest red were overshadowed by the later emergence of a certain Andy Reid. He showed real talent but sadly never went on to fulfil the promise of the likes of Reid, Prutton and Dawson.
Wes Morgan: I had vague memories of Wes being shunted to left-back and, indeed, it emerges that he too was shifted over from centre-back to plug the perennial gap. We all know Wes’ strengths and talents and surely we all also know that these weren’t suited to full back…
Thanks to Phil Wood, ‘The Jock’ and others for their help.