Nottingham Forest – The Class Of 98

My eyes were drawn to a video shared on Twitter last week, when after watching the goals of a comprehensive 3-0 home victory against Wolves on April 13th, 1998, just two matches prior to Nottingham Forest winning the First Division title, someone begged the question “was the Championship winning team of ‘Harry’ Bassett better than that of Frank Clark’s promotion winning Reds of 93/94?”

On first thought I saw only one winner, until the questionnaire described that ‘but’ for a certain Stanley Victor Collymore, who was unstoppable during his two-year tenure at the City Ground, the two teams were probably more even matched than you might think?

Standing out in memory of that 97/98 campaign, I remember fondly the opening home league game of the season, a sunny Friday night in August, I pranged my car, a red Rover 820, as I parked up near the ground on Pavilion Road and watched from high in the Trent End, the quality of a one-sided performance against Norwich City who themselves were no mugs.

Forest came from behind after a tidy finish by Keith O’Neill, following our debut goalkeeper, Swiss international Marco Pascolo, kicking the ball straight into the Canaries playmaker’s path.

Goals from van Hooijdonk, Kevin Campbell, and two for Geoff Thomas, magnificent on the night, his second a real screamer too, made it an impressive start to the season having already beaten Port Vale away the week before.

Norwich included a young Craig Bellamy in their side. Fellow Welshman Iwan Roberts was up front and one day England international Danny Mills came on off the bench, Darren Eadie, Darryl Sutch and Rob Newman had only a few years earlier helped Norwich to a famous win over Bayern Munich in the Olympiastadion. Like I say, no mugs, but then Forest were littered with quality and a lot of experienced internationals which back then was unthinkable in English football’s second tier.

Pascolo in goal for his errors was soon ousted, for the more suitable and sensible option of Dave Beasant who largely and impressively kept Mark Crossley out that year (all three international capped keepers).

In defence Des Lyttle and Thierry Bonalair (both with prior European competition experience) would contest proceedings down the right, whilst Alan Rogers was the young protégé brought for £2m to replace Stuart Pearce on the left.

Steve Chettle, like Lyttle and Crossley, still there from the 93/94 campaign that finished second to Crystal Palace alongside Colin Cooper, one of Frank Clark’s first and best-ever signings, who also by 1997/98 had won a couple of England caps.

A very similar back line to the one which Clark had to choose from, Frank had Haaland, Bassett had Hjelde, the Stuart Pearce thing might give the earlier side the edge, but Alan Rogers for three or four years remember was very good, before moving to Leicester for money (and mars bars) of course.

In midfield the two teams had similarities too, Stone (an England international), Woan (who should have been an England international) and Gemmill (of Scotland no less than 26 times during his career) had all won promotion with Frank Clark as well as served time under the great Brian Clough.

Whilst the Reds back then had David Phillips and more notably ‘Super’ Lars Bohinen, a Norwegian international who’s savvy signing was a huge factor in Clark’s side going on to take the second promotion spot in the division, in 98, the Reds midfield felt more bulky, Geoff Thomas as mentioned but for injury, might have had more than just nine caps for England, whilst his time at Forest was severely hampered by his ongoing injuries, the games he did play were often at a very high and impressive level. Welsh capped Andy Johnson was another player, similar in style to Thomas that could offer a fierce competitive nature in the Reds engine room, then there was Chris Bart-Williams, a talented charismatic footballer who could make things happen in the final third. Bart-Man perhaps unlucky during the era never to get to play for England at full level (he played U21’s & for England B), when certainly some inferior footballers would go on to get the chance.

That midfield of 98, flexible under Bassett, sometimes playing 3-5-2 instead of 4-4-2 or even 4-3-3, was probably at it’s best as good as the one that Frank Clark assembled, so then really to answer the question in thought, it now boils down to strike force.

Whilst Stan Collymore will rightly be considered by Forest fans old enough to remember as one of the best they have ever seen, in the promotion season, he often played up front on his own (he was that good) or would be partnered by the hard working but much limited skillset of Jason Lee, or worse still, Gary Bull or Robert Rosario (the issues of Forest that season came largely when Collymore was injured).

Bryan Roy would of course only join when the Reds had reached the promised land of the Premier League. So despite Collymore’s 25 goals that first memorable season at the City Ground, it was a feat that was almost matched (two short) much less extravagantly by Kevin Campbell in 98, and for all the heartache and frustration that came after through infamous strike action the following summer, we also remember the 1997/98 season of Pierre van Hooijdonk, an unstoppable goalscoring machine and free-kick specialist, netting 34 in total, who scored nine more goals than what our Stan had achieved in his best year, the Dutchman himself falling two short of a 150 plus year best season goalscoring record set by Wally Ardron in 1950/51.

Compared to Roy & Collymore, Woodcock & Birtles, Wignall & Baker, Clough & Chapman, Earnshaw & Blackstock, Johnson & Davis, Campbell and van Hooijdonk certainly held their own when it comes to arguing Forest’s greatest strike duos of all time, and ably backed by the experienced Dean Saunders, handy off the bench even in his mid-thirties, whilst youngsters Ian Moore and even teenager Marlon Harewood could also be called upon if needed.

Squad depth, and in attack, perhaps you’ll be siding with the team of 98, as better than that of Frank’s one-man collection up top, although those who love Collymore, might still suggest otherwise? It’s a case of Stan the man or Campbell & van Hooijdonk, a dilemma most difficult to choose when proposed as two for one.

Whether we agree on who’s best or not is divisive in opinion, both teams, both managers, both squads, both strike forces, both doing brilliant things…

But for warmly crediting the achievements of Frank Clark back in 93/94 before taking the Reds into Europe and an unthinkable third place in the Premier League. Final credit for the success of 98 however must really go to Dave Bassett, never hugely liked (nowhere near as much as Clark especially) by Reds fans, or admired the way he should perhaps be for his own rightful achievements, in getting Forest up that year, perhaps the ‘he had the best team factor’ was true to life at the time? But he still achieved the success he set out to do.

I met ‘Harry’ a few years later, and his persistence to call Nottingham Forest, ‘Notts Forest’ was perhaps one reason why many didn’t quite warm to him? But credit Bassett for not only assembling the squad, but for keeping it on the right track, to score 94 points that year and pip Middlesbrough (91) and Sunderland (90) who lost memorably in the playoff final to Charlton, all involved were bloody good sides.

Forest didn’t get their promotion and title wrapped up until a week before the end of the campaign when they beat Reading 1-0 at the City Ground. A fiercely competitive Championship (or First Division as it was known back then) as it always seems to be, but lead by a team who was littered with stars with buckets of ability, quality, and importantly, desire and attacking threat, not much has gone right at this most famous of football clubs since that marvelous winning season, but perhaps there’s a likeness in both promotion winning squads mentioned to the side now of 2022?

You never know, the team that Steve Cooper has started to build might also one day be compared to those of great successes in the past? Now wouldn’t that be something… Here’s hoping!

*Article provided by Daniel Peacock (Editor).

*Main image @NFFC the Reds celebrating their title at West Bromwich Albion in 98.

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