Warburton’s Heroes – Where Are They Now?

Three and a half years ago in the EFL Championship, the relegation battle in the 2016/17 season stretched all the way to the very last day. With Blackburn, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest all potentially feared for the drop, depending on the other two team’s results and their own.

With an emphatic 3-0 win over Ipswich Town on the final day, Forest escaped falling in to the third tier of English football by the very skin of their teeth, with Blackburn’s 3-1 win over Brentford not enough to prevent a goal difference relegation for themselves.

Since that day, Forest have almost turned around 360 degrees and back again as a club; they’ve come so desperately close to the play-offs it hurts, and they’ve gone up and down the table so many times we’ve lost count. It all could’ve been so much different though, had it not been for those final day heroics. Only 2 players from that 22-man squad remain at the club, so where did they all go from there?

Goalkeeper – Jordan Smith – Still at Nottingham Forest

Jordan Smith has had a very interesting career with the Reds. He’s been at the club since he was just 7 years old and has risen through the ranks, all the way to becoming the first-choice keeper for the senior side in 2017, replacing an injured Stephen Henderson against Norwich in February, and replacing out-of-favour Vladimir Stojkovic soon after. He made 44 appearances as a first-choice keeper, where he spent a lot of time getting criticized for his shot-stopping but saw praise for his distribution and athleticism. He was vital in the win over Ipswich, making a stunning save to deny Ipswich from opening the scoring that is still heralded to this day as part of the “Adventures of Robin Hood” pre-match video.

The signings of Costel Pantilimon and Luke Steele all but spelled the end of Jordan Smith’s chances at ever re-gaining the number 1 spot and has since made 3 league appearances for the club since 2018. In that time, he spent a week on loan at League 1 Barnsley as an emergency, as well as half a season at League 2 Mansfield Town. He made 3 Forest appearances last season: 1 in the league, in a demolition of Forest by eventual champions Norwich City, and 2 more in the FA Cup.

He is currently Nottingham Forest’s 3rd choice goalkeeper, after the free signing of Ethan Horvath in the summer. He is a regular for the Under-23’s.

Centre back – Joe Worrall – Still at Nottingham Forest

After being thrust into the first team by his own request by Phillippe Montanier, local lad Joe Worrall was just a fresh-faced 19-year-old when he made his heavily praised debut in a 2-0 loss away to Reading in 2016. He was later trusted to start at centre-back alongside Matt Mills and Michael Mancienne in one of the most important games in Forest’s recent history.

He came close to scoring on that day as well, seeing one of 3 Forest shots on target in the first 10 minutes beaten away by Bialkowski.

Such a steep rise to prominence for the Hucknall Maldini continued far after this season. And it’s absolutely no shock to see that through everyone in that side, it’s Worrall who still features regularly to this day. Strong, good in the air and a natural leader, the now 24-year-old is vice-captain of the club behind Lewis Grabban. And rightfully so.

He spent a year away from Aitor Karanka’s Forest side with Stevie G’s Rangers in the 18/19 season, which left some fans confused, but the Spaniard ended up doing the right thing, as Joe Worrall moonwalked straight back into new manager Sabri Lamouchi’s side upon his return, and he has been a constant in it ever since. It would be no shock at all to see him get a Premier League move sooner or later.

Centre back – Matt Mills – Retired

Some will remember Mills fondly for his time in Garibaldi. Others may not. His performance on that fateful final day, as is the case with all 3 centre backs chosen on that day, should be heralded as legendary.

The former Manchester City man recorded more clearances in that game than anybody had in a Forest shirt in any other game of the season. He was ready for war on that last day. Afterwards, the end slowly began to come for Mills. He captained the club a handful of times the season after, amidst injury and suspension, but saw himself lose his place in the Forest squad in the winter of 2017. A change in managers in January saw him free to leave the club, and he left by mutual termination on deadline day under Karanka, making 15 appearances in the season.

He swiftly joined Barnsley, where more injury problems limited him to just 4 appearances, before his release led him to the Indian Super League with Pune City, where he captained the club twice in his 15 showings in India, scoring once, before finally returning to England with League 2 side Forest Green Rovers. He retired following a 19/20 season which was cut short by the pandemic, making 19 appearances in the Forest Green defence.

Centre back – Michael Mancienne – Burton Albion

Rash, unapologetic, but absolute quality on his day, Michael Mancienne was fantastic for Forest.

Following his heroic showing in the final day clash, Mancienne made another 29 Forest appearances the season after at the heart of a struggling Reds team, before leaving for America in the summer of 2018 for MLS outfit New England, becoming not only the highest paid defender in the league, but the highest paid defender in the clubs history. He also managed to score in his limited 31 appearances for the club; the first goal of his entire senior career.

After the American club opted against renewing the 33-year-old’s contract in 2020, the former Chelsea wonderkid joined League 1 side Burton Albion on an initial one-year deal, which was extended at the end of the season. He hasn’t scored any more goals, though.

Right wing back – Eric Lichaj – Free Agent

USA! USA! USA! Came the cries of the City Ground when Lichaj was around. The American Forest icon was with the Reds for one more season after the Ipswich game, seeing his game-time limited by the arrival of Burnley man Tendayi Darikwa, before departing the club for fellow Championship side Hull City in 2018.

He became a constant for the Tigers, captaining them a few times across his 70 appearances in the North, before leaving them for Turkey in 2020 through Fatih Karagumruk, where he made 10 appearances in 1 solitary season before being released in 2020 as a side effect of the pandemic.

He has since trained with Forest and Sunderland but is still without a club. There are some rumours he is coaching the Forest Under 23’s.

Left wing back – Ben Osborn – Sheffield United

Ah, Super Ben. Scorer of one of the most legendary goals in recent Forest history and a mainstay in the red’s side for years. He now plies his trade just up the road at Sheffield United, where he is in his 3rd season with the Blades.

Ben stayed another 2 years with Forest after the Ipswich game, with enough time left to bag one more iconic goal in a 4-2 home win over Leeds United, before making the switch to the Premier League with Chris Wilders side. He made his top-flight debut in a 2-2 away draw at Chelsea, where he drew plenty of praise for his energy and pressing, something we saw plenty of in a Red shirt.

He made 37 Premier League appearances and scored 1 goal (against Leeds again) before the Blades tumbled out of the Premier League last season. He has been a constant in the Sheffield United side in the Championship, scoring 3 goals in 12 appearances, which means he is 2 away from besting his most prolific season in a Forest shirt. Pain.

Centre midfield – Chris Cohen – Retired (Luton Town coach)

A legend of the club and a hero of the day, Chris Cohen’s deflected 25-yard belter will forever be remembered by Forest fans as legendary.
Sadly, that game was his 4th-to-final game for the Reds. His usual injury problems saw him retire at the age of 32. His final pro appearance came as a late substitute against Bristol City, before he subsequently became manager of the Forest Under 23’s.

He has since relinquished the role to leave Nottingham Forest after nearly 14 years in September 2020 to join Luton Town as a first-team coach, where he remains at time of writing. Andy Reid now has his old role with the Reds.

Centre midfield – David Vaughan – Nantwich Town

David Vaughan started the 16/17 season in France with the Wales squad at Euro 2016, where he remained an un-used substitute as his country reached the semi-finals. Flash forward about 11 months, and he turned into prime Xavi to help his side dispatch Ipswich to keep them up, providing the assist for Britt Assombalonga’s second on the day. Glorious.

Conwy’s answer to Gennaro Gattuso was another who saw his game-time limited the season after survival with Forest, making just 14 showings in the Championship before being released at the end of the 17/18 season.

He didn’t go far though, as he crossed the Trent to spend a year in black and white with Notts County, where he made 22 appearances and was relegated for the third and final time of his career with the Magpies, where they currently remain.

In September 2020, following a year out of football after his release at the end of his solitary season with Notts County, he re-joined Crewe Alexandra as an academy coach, before getting his boots back on a year later for Tier 8 side Nantwich Town, now at 38 years old.

Right wing – Jamie Ward – Buxton

Another Red who now plies his trade in Tier 8, Jamie Ward has had a storied career.

The peak of his powers came in Derby colours, where he racked up 34 league goals across his 138 league appearances. In a Forest shirt, he wasn’t quite as prolific, scoring thrice in 54 league games, but still outed himself as a fan favourite with his pace and tenacity. On the survival day, he won 2 penalties, one of which Britt Assombalonga fired home for 1-0.

He had spent the first half of the 16/17 season on loan at Burton Albion, but this was terminated by the Brewers in January after a underwhelming spell. He made another 18 appearances upon his return to Nottingham, scoring 1 more goal and starting in the final game against Ipswich.

He was loaned out at the half-way point of the season after to Cardiff City, and then again at the start of the 18/19 season to League 1 side Charlton, where he made just 9 showings before being released by Forest at the end of the season. A brief spell in League 2 with Scunthorpe followed suit, before swiftly moving to Solihull Moors in the National League. Once again, this didn’t last long, and he soon joined Buxton in Tier 8, where he currently plays.

Left wing – Mustapha Carayol – Gillingham

Carayol was an… interesting player in Garibaldi, but he had little part to play in survival day nonetheless.

The Gambian wide-man started at left-wing against Ipswich and was taken off from injury 14 minutes in against the team that would employ him in a year. Following on from this day, he made another 15 appearances before joining Ipswich on a free transfer on the winter deadline day of 2018. He only made another 8 showings for the Tractor Boys, scoring once, before ending his injury-hit spell at Portman Road at the end of the season. He spent the next 2 seasons in Cyprus with Apollon Limassol and subsequently in Turkey with Adana Demirspor, before he took a year out as a free agent, joining League 1 side Gillingham earlier this season.

Striker – Britt Assombalonga – Adana Demirspor

The hero at the City Ground. The man who kept the Reds afloat. Who knows what would’ve become of Nottingham Forest, in the midst of financial ruin and uncertainty, if the Congolese striker hadn’t netted twice on that fateful afternoon in May.

Sadly though, as we all know, that was the last time we saw Britt in a Forest shirt, as he joined Middlesbrough for a huge £15m the summer after. Registering 47 goals in 161 Boro appearances, Britt had a mixed time up North, especially in his final year, where he scored just 5 goals in another 32 showings. He declined to sign a new deal upon the expiry of his contract last season, and subsequently moved to Turkish side Adana Demirspor (former employers of one Mustapha Carayol) to link up with the likes of Mario Balotelli, Gokhan Inler, Benjamin Stambouli, former Forest man Aro Muric, Birkir Bjarnason and Younes Belhanda in Turkey.

Substitute 1 – Zach Clough – Carlisle United

Oh Zach. It should’ve all gone so much better.

Those first few games of Zach Clough at Forest were tantalising. It was too perfect, Forest had signed a Clough, and he was going to be superb. He bagged a penalty and a great finish in a 3-0 demolition of league leaders Brighton, as well as opening the scoring and famously shushing the away end in the East Midlands derby in March.

He came on on survival day as 14th minute swap for the injured Carayol, and he was a nuisance to the Ipswich defence, linking up tremendously throughout with Assombalonga.

It never quite went Clough’s way after that, after 13 goalless games the season after, he returned to Bolton Wanderers alongside Tyler Walker on a half-year loan, scoring once in 9 appearances. The following year he spent at Rochdale across 2 loan spells, failing to hit the back of the net at all.

He then went on to spend a year and a half in the Nottingham Forest basement, featuring exclusively for the Under 23’s with seemingly no way back to the first team, Clough was finally freed from his contract by way of Wigan Athletic on a 6-month deal in January of this year. At the end of this deal, he was picked up by Carlisle United in League 2 in the summer, where he currently plies his trade.

Substitute 2 – Ben Brereton – Blackburn Rovers

Need I really speak of how Brereton is doing at the moment?

Him and the next man on this list have both been massive in the news recently due to their respective nationality changes. Brereton, or Brereton Diaz as he is now known, switched national allegiances to represent Chile at the last Copa America, where he played fantastically. Even getting named in a Team of The Week in a front 3 with Lionel Messi and Neymar. Crazy.

In terms of club level, he departed the Reds after making 35 further league appearances in 17/18, scoring 5 times and winning the EFL Apprentice of the Year. He joined Blackburn Rovers on an initial loan in the following summer, scoring no goals as a loanee, before the move was made permanent for £7m in the winter.

He scored just 9 goals in his first 80 showings for Blackburn, but has scored 12 goals in just 15 appearances in the league so far this season, being named the EFL Player of the Month for September. Something about adding a bit of Chilean flair…

Substitute 3 – Matty Cash – Aston Villa

We miss him more and more every single passing day.

Another man who needs little introduction, as has been his meteoric rise in the Premier League with Aston Villa, Matty Cash is by far the most successful of the men who kept Forest up in 2017.

Cash really broke out as one to watch following the survival year, going on to make another 101 league appearances for the Reds, scoring 11 times, including memorable strikes against Aston Villa in the 5-5 draw at Villa Park and in both games against West Brom in the 19-20 season. He was also the subject of a £12m bid from Chelsea.

His most memorable time, however, will easily be under Sabri Lamouchi in the 19/20 season.

Fashioned into a makeshift right-back and getting torn apart by West Brom (despite scoring) on opening day, everyone was baffled as to why a winger had been shoved in the defence. Oh, how wrong we were to question him.

A series of amazing performances on the flank of the defence, and one more stunner in a loss to Hull at home, led to multiple clubs keeping tabs on Cash. The likes of Milan, Everton and West Ham were taking note, as were the Polish national team.

After Forests play-off collapse to Stoke City, Cash was soon picked up for around £16m by Aston Villa, who had barely survived relegation in the Premier League. He continued where he had left off, quickly becoming first choice at Villa Park and making Forest fans upset at the thought of him.

Poland eventually got their wish as well, with Matty Cash receiving his Polish passport through his mother in October 2021, receiving his first call-up to the Poland squad the month after. Cash, we miss you. Please come back.

And to quickly round off with the unused substitutes on that fateful day…

Aaron Tshibola – Genclerbirligi – Turkish Second Division

Apostolos Vellios – Academica Clinceni – Romanian First Division

Dimitar Evtimov – CSKA Sofia – Bulgarian First Division

Thomas Lam – CSKA Sofia – Bulgarian First Division

Well, I love a good old fashioned family reunion. Those 22 blokes were our absolute heroes back in 2017. Mark Warburton was the second coming of Brian Clough, and the future was suddenly bright again. Now in 2021, some of those heroes have reached new heights, some dwindled out of the limelight for good, and some even belong to different countries. Its varied and vast, but the part they played 3 and a half years ago will never be forgotten.

*Article provided by Louis Wheeldon (Football Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC James Garner ready to deliver on a cold night at the City Ground.

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