Nottingham Forest’s 2013-14 season was one of contrasting fortunes. It began with hopes of promotion and for the most part, it looked as if those hopes could come true, but it ultimately ended with a whimper and thoughts of what might have been.
The watershed moment in the campaign came on February 16, when Forest slumped to a disappointing, if somewhat unfortunate 3-1 defeat to Sheffield United in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Ahead of that match at Bramall Lane, optimism was high. The Reds were fifth in the Championship, six points adrift of second-placed Burnley with a game in hand and they had an eight-point cushion on seventh place.
Furthermore, they had gone their last 16 games unbeaten in all competitions, which fuelled expectation among Forest fans that the team could overcome their League One opponents to reach the last eight of the FA Cup for the first time since 1996.
Forest took the lead through Jamie Paterson, but a mistake from Dorus de Vries allowed United to equalise, before a dubious Chris Porter penalty and breakaway goal gave Nigel Clough’s side the victory.
The draw for the next round, which had taken place during the match, pitted Forest against either Charlton or Sheffield Wednesday if they had come through their fifth-round clash, which had only raised the hope further. The Reds had been given their best chance of reaching the semi-finals of the competition for the first time in 23 years.
However, the manner in which hope soon turned to disappointment on that Sunday afternoon was mirrored during the remainder of the season.
Manager Billy Davies was robbed of several first-choice players through injury, with Andy Reid, Henri Lansbury, Chris Cohen, Jack Hobbs, Kelvin Wilson, Eric Lichaj and David Vaughan all sidelined at the same time.
The Reds followed up their FA Cup exit with a credible 2-2 draw against league leaders Leicester City, in a match where Forest could feel aggrieved that they did not emerge with a victory. However, the extent of the injury crisis was exposed in the next two games, as Forest lost 2-1 at Burnley then 4-1 at home to Wigan Athletic.
A defeat and two draws followed, before Forest endured an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at rivals Derby County. Steve McClaren came back to haunt his former employers as his promotion-chasing side tore the Reds apart, which spelled the end for Davies’ second stint at The City Ground.
The Scot was sacked less than 48 hours after that defeat at Pride Park, with many Reds fans feeling that it was the right time for him to go. He was hailed as a returning hero when he was re-appointed manager in February 2013, but his ‘them against us’ attitude got the better of him and turned out to be a factor in his dismissal.
He imposed a media blackout and alienated many individuals who he felt had wronged him during his first spell in charge. On the football side he did have to cope without eight of his best players but despite this, performances were still not up to scratch, culminating in that forgettable afternoon at Pride Park. This, coupled with the off-field distractions proved to be the final straw.
Academy manager Gary Brazil was placed in temporary charge of the side until the end of the season, but he could not inspire a change in fortunes. Forest were still in contention for the playoff places when he took over, but the team failed to win their first five matches under his stewardship and slipped further down the table.
Forest looked like a side devoid of confidence and direction during Brazil’s first few matches in charge. However, back-to-back victories against Birmingham and Leeds followed, which moved them to within two points of sixth-placed Reading with two games of the season remaining.
Improved displays in those two wins restored some optimism to the Forest ranks, but their playoff dreams were ended as they succumbed to a 4-1 defeat at Bournemouth with another poor performance. Then, on the final day of the season, Forest fans watched Brighton secure their place in the playoffs thanks to a late 2-1 victory over the Reds at the City Ground, following another lacklustre performance from Brazil’s side.
Two wins from their last 15 matches of the season saw Forest drop from fifth place to their final position of 11th, and it was a relief when the campaign finally came to an end.
Brazil was exposed as being out of his depth tactically, but one positive from his short tenure is the emergence of young talent in the side. Ben Osborn was given his chance in the first-team and has not looked out of place, while Josh Rees and Jack Blake have bright futures ahead of them.
At the beginning of April, Forest announced that club legend Stuart Pearce would be returning as the new manager from July 1. The former left-back is a hero amongst the Forest faithful and his impending arrival gives us much to look forward to ahead of next season.
Despite choosing to not taking charge until the summer due to other commitments, Pearce has already begun to stamp his authority at the City Ground, with as many as 10 players expected to leave the club in the coming weeks. Guy Moussi and Marcus Tudgay have already confirmed their departures, Matt Derbyshire, Ishmael Miller, Jonathan Greening, Simon Gillett and Gonzalo Jara will reportedly not be offered new deals, while Lee Peltier, Rafik Djebbour and Kevin Gomis will return to their parent clubs following loan spells.
Forest have completed the permanent signing of left-back Danny Fox from Southampton following his loan spell, while David Vaughan will also make his loan move permanent during the summer.
This week Pearce held a meeting with every employee of the club, which was also attended by chairman and owner Fawaz Al Hasawi. In the meeting, Pearce expressed his desire to see Forest to emulate the achievements of Leicester and Burnley; this season’s promoted sides, by performing to high standards both on and off the pitch.
He may not have officially taken charge yet, but the early signs from Pearce are encouraging. He understands the football club, knows what the fans want to see and will be as determined as anyone to bring success back to Forest. There have been some reservations over his record in the management, though, following an average spell as Manchester City boss and six years as England Under-21 manager.
However, he has said all the right things since being confirmed as Forest’s new boss, speaking about playing football in the right way, building a strong team spirit and giving promising youth players a chance. Those who have questioned his credentials should look to the likes of Sean Dyche and Malky Mackay, who had never guided sides to promotion from the Championship before doing so at Burnley at Cardiff respectively. Pearce might not have a proven record at this level, but being back at Forest could inspire him to deliver success.
Pearce inherits the foundations of a very good squad, but the expected departures of 10 players will mean that he will have the opportunity to make new signings. Forest have been crying out for a clinical striker for years and the incoming manager has confirmed that a striker is at the top of his shopping list. The Reds drew 17 of their 46 league games this season, and it is clear that a lack of cutting edge played a role in their failure to finish in a playoff position or higher.
By the time the new the season starts the likes of Reid, Lansbury, Hobbs, Wilson and Cohen will be back to full fitness, which will only strengthen the team further. Forest are not far away from being a real force at this level and if Pearce can get the best out of the current crop of players they will definitely be in the promotion picture next season.
After a promising, but ultimately disappointing campaign for Forest, there is plenty to look forward to ahead of next season. The arrival of Stuart Pearce will lift the club and the mood of supporters as the Reds look to return to the top flight. 20 years ago Pearce captained Forest to promotion to the Premier League. Imagine how great it would be if he was to repeat that feat as a manager.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up’s Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis