With Nottingham Forest facing both Aston Villa and Arsenal in the coming weeks — the first competitive fixtures between the sides since 1999 — Andrew Brookes casts a glance down memory lane
Having got my tickets sorted for the trip to Villa Park and the League Cup clash with Arsenal I can’t help but feeling that September has a very 1999 feel to it. That is, after all, the last time we played either side in a competitive fixture.
It’s perhaps apt, given current fears over the distinct lack of a plan to propel us back to top flight, that these two fixtures have been thrown up.
Back in 1999, both were memorable moments in our slide to the basement and were symbolic of issues of poor planning and short termism that we’ve struggled to throw off ever since.
The Arsenal home game was the first fixture in charge for ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson. The one in which he famously sat in the wrong dugout and pondered why a team with Dennis Bergkamp in the ranks should be struggling as badly as we were.
We’d seen a new boss rouse the troops for the visit of Arsenal in his first game once before — when Pearce took temporary charge in 1996 — but it wasn’t to be for Ron. A rare Martin Keown goal ensured three points went back to North London.
Two games later came the infamous 8-1 thrashing at the hands of Manchester United. The less said about that the better.
Ron’s appointment was a desperate short-term attempt to avoid the trap door and, sadly, wasn’t the last time the City Ground hot seat would be filled temporarily for the end of a season after a mid-term sacking. In fact, it has become fairly common – with Joe Kinnear, ‘Charlie and Frank’, Steve Cotterill, Gary Brazil and Paul Williams all taking the reigns for stints of varying success to bring the curtain down on poor performing seasons.
Going back to Arsenal, though, this was at least a game in which we were in the same division as the Gunners, then double-holders. This month, they return with the same manager but are likely to be able to field a diminished 11 and still walk away victorious. We live in hope, of course, but it’s depressing to think that we’re an awful lot further behind the game’s top clubs now than we were even in 1999. Arsenal have an embarrassment of riches and a big new ground; we can’t yet clamber up to be worthy of top flight cannon fodder and have had to go through the motions to even be allowed to fill our ground.
Aston Villa away, meanwhile, was the moment that the inevitable was confirmed. A 2-0 defeat on 24 April made it mathematically certain that we’d be returning to the second tier of English football.
Steve Stone showed us what we were missing – one of a number of key assets stripped from a sorry excuse of a side that season – in a game that marked Gareth Barry’s first senior goal for Villa. Big Ron announced his retirement and bookies made Macclesfield boss Sammy McIlory the early favourite for the City Ground job.
This Villa game will, at least, be contested on an equal league footing – albeit because of their own relegation. Ours should be a cautionary tale for clubs like Villa – a case study in how not to do it. Their big money post-relegation recruitment plan has been smarter that the Platt splurge so perhaps they’ve already learned from our mistakes.
In 1999, Villa fielded one of our former star talents. That won’t happen on Sunday but we will, once again, be without one of our best talents having sold them on. Did the money from Stone, Campbell, Cooper and Gemmill get re-invested properly in the squad? Sadly, we all know the answer to that. Now we’re left with a vague and confusing promise that the sale of Oliver Burke will create a sizeable transfer kitty. We’ve been there before, not just in 1999, so forgive me if my attitude is ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’.
A gulf between us and the top teams, the need for short-term sticking plaster managers after a sacking, a team shorn of its top talent… perhaps 1999 doesn’t seem that long ago after all?
Still, don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely gloomy. Both fixtures undoubtedly add a little excitement to the coming weeks and, now the transfer window is shut and we can’t sell any more of the family silver, I am looking forward to concentrating on on-field matters. Let’s hope that we don’t party like it’s 1999 and suffer the same two results.