With the new season fast approaching, the question on the lips of most Nottingham Forest supporters is can the club finally end its 14-year exile from the Premier League?
Several managers have attempted to bring top flight football back to the City Ground in that time but one has come closest to doing so – Billy Davies.
The Scot was brought back to the club as manager by chairman Fawaz Al-Hasawi in February, 20 months after he was given the boot by the previous owners. Davies led the Reds to two consecutive play-off semi-finals in 2010 and 2011, and there is hope that he can do even better second time around by guiding the club to promotion.
When Davies returned to Forest last season, the club was floundering after the 40-day, seven game tenure of Alex McLeish. He had been Forest’s second manager of the campaign following the sacking of Sean O’Driscoll and Davies felt like the right man to come in at that time.
The Reds went 10 games unbeaten after his re-appointment, hauling themselves into the play-off places in the process. That run showed just how good the side could be but one win, a draw and three defeats from the final five games saw them slip down to 8th place, and also prove that the team were not quite ready to win promotion.
Now that Davies has had a full pre-season to work with the squad and make a few additions, there is genuine optimism from Forest fans that the club will be serious challengers at the top of the table.
However, as anyone who follows the division regularly will testify, the Championship is a notoriously tight league and there will be supporters of at least ten clubs thinking exactly the same as Forest fans about their respective sides.
Billy Davies’ sides are also known to start seasons slowly, which he will be hoping to rectify when the new campaign begins. In the 2009-10 season, his first full campaign in charge, Forest won just one of their opening eight fixtures, while the season after they won two of their first 11 matches.
In both seasons, the club went on long unbeaten runs during the middle part of the campaign to rise rapidly up the table, but if Davies wants to deliver automatic promotion he will need to get his side firing on all cylinders from the off.
Forest have been busy in this summer’s transfer market, bringing in six new players, eight if you include Gonzalo Jara Reyes and Darius Henderson signing for the club following their spells at the City Ground last season.
Former Swansea City goalkeeper Dorus de Vries has joined on a free transfer from Wolverhampton Wanderers and provides experienced competition for Karl Darlow, who impressed after breaking into the first team last season.
In defence, Davies has strengthened with the captures of Jara, Eric Lichaj and Jack Hobbs. Full-backs Jara and Lichaj are no strangers to Championship football, while Hobbs is a very astute signing. The 24-year-old has joined on a season-long loan deal from Hull City, which will be made permanent in the summer for an undisclosed fee after the player pre-agreed a two year contract.
The former Leicester City man has experience of this division and helped Hull to win promotion from it last season, playing 22 times.
Forest were in need of width and the club addressed this, bringing in Walsall youngster Jamie Paterson, Djamel Abdoun from Olympiakos and Jamie Mackie from Queens Park Rangers.
Paterson’s pace and skill have stood out in pre-season and he has also showed an eye for goal, scoring a well-taken goal against Royal Antwerp two weeks ago. At the age of 21, he is an emerging talent who is hungry to develop as a player and just the kind of player that Forest should be looking to sign.
Abdoun is a more experienced acquisition, having played in the Champions League for Olympiakos last season and represented Algeria 11 times. He is also a tricky customer who can trouble defences and Forest have done well to sign a player who had attracted interest from Premier League clubs and other European sides. He stated upon his arrival: “I had many clubs that wanted me but I give my word to the owner and I can’t go back and when I say something I do it.”
The signing of Jamie Mackie has gone down well amongst the Forest faithful. The 27-year-old, who can play on the wing or up front, had performed admirably for QPR during their forgettable time in the Premier League and it was thought that Harry Redknapp would be keen to have him at his disposal in the Championship. However, Mackie was deemed surplus to requirements at Loftus Road and, after the player had handed in a transfer request, Forest moved quickly to sign the Scotland international for a fee reportedly in the region of £1m. If the price reported is true then it is a great piece of business by the club and is a statement of intent to the rest of the division.
Forest’s spending is seemingly not over yet either. The club have made bids for former defenders Wes Morgan and Kelvin Wilson, who were key figures in Davies’ team during his last spell as manager. Leicester City have rejected several offers for Morgan, with the latest reportedly in the region of £2m, while Celtic have turned down a reported £1.5m bid for Wilson.
Forest have gone back in with another bid for Wilson according to several sources and it would be pleasing to see either one of them back at the City Ground, although Morgan has one year remaining on his Leicester contract, so it seems that Forest are unwilling to offer any more for the player.
After leaving Forest in 2011, Nottingham-born Wilson has become a regular fixture in Celtic’s defence, performing well as the Scottish club reached last year’s Champions League last-16, famously beating Barcelona 2-1 along the way. Wilson has improved as a player since leaving Forest and if the club can bring him back in particular it would be an excellent signing.
There has been much-clamour from certain sections of Forest’s support for the club to sign a ’20-goal-a-season’ striker. The club were linked with moves for Gary Hooper and Charlie Austin, but both have moved to Norwich City and QPR respectively.
If the Reds do fail to add a so called out-and-out goalscorer, there may be enough options in the squad to make up for this. Henri Lansbury, Adlene Guedioura and Andy Reid are capable of getting goals from midfield, while new signings Paterson, Abdoun and Mackie have proven in the past that they can chip in with 8-10 goals a season.
Davies has options up front with Simon Cox, Dexter Blackstock, Henderson, Marcus Tudgay, Matt Derbyshire and Ishmael Miller on the books. Cox and Blackstock can get into double figures with the correct service, while Henderson netted 15 in the Championship for Millwall two seasons ago.
The futures of Miller and Derbyshire continue to cause much speculation. Both were signed by Steve McClaren in the summer of 2011 during his short reign and neither have done much in a Forest shirt. Miller, who cost £1.6m from West Bromwich Albion, has struggled with injury and was loaned out to Middlesbrough last season to be re-united with former WBA boss Tony Mowbray.
Miller has shown in the past that he can be a handful at this level and, if Davies’ unique man-management style can get him firing again, Forest will have a great player on their hands.
Derbyshire was farmed out on loan to Blackpool and Oldham last season, with his Reds career looking to be over. However, Davies has given the former Blackburn Rovers frontman a chance during pre-season and he has taken it, scoring four times. He is the striker in form and is likely to keep his place in the starting XI when Forest open their Championship season at home to Huddersfield Town on Saturday.
If Derbyshire can continue his goalscoring form into the new season, it will be a very welcome bonus.
Ahead of the Huddersfield match Davies will face several selection dilemmas, most notably up front and in midfield, but also in goal where Darlow and De Vries are vying for a starting place. Darlow has made an impression since coming into the team in January after Lee Camp was told that he was free to leave the club. The 22-year-old was thrown into the first team for a match away at Derby County and performed well for the remainder of the season, pulling off some excellent saves and providing a calming presence behind the back four.
At the age of 32, De Vries is an experienced stopper and has been successful at this level before, helping Swansea to promotion in 2011. However his move to Wolves did not work out as he found himself on the bench as the club slid from the Premier League to League One in the space of two seasons. He will be seeking regular first-team football, but Darlow currently has the jersey and it will be a little harsh on him if De Vries does start against Huddersfield.
The new season promises much for Forest, with a strong squad in place and an experienced Championship manager at the helm in Billy Davies. The division will be tight with a host of sides also hopeful that they will be celebrating success come the end of the campaign, but Forest have got the tools to be right in the mix.
Since his return to the club, Davies has often spoken about having “unfinished business” at the City Ground. This could be the season in which he finally finishes it.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up’s Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis