London: It is 12 years since Brian Clough died and his philosophy of giving youth a chance is being maintained at the City Ground by Philippe Montanier
It is probably a reflection of Nottingham Forest’s difficulties in the modern era that when they renewed acquaintances with Arsenal on Tuesday it was the first time in the 21st century they have encountered the club who wear the same colours because it was Forest, 130 years ago, who donated a red strip to help set them up.
The last occasion the two sides met was in January 1999 when Ron Atkinson had just been appointed as Forest’s manager and infamously began his short, undistinguished spell more like Rowan Atkinson by climbing into the wrong dugout.
Forest, with the fingers of relegation closing round their necks, lost 1-0 and it was their next home game when they played in a nine-goal thriller against Manchester United that is still talked about on the banks of the Trent.
Unfortunately for Forest, they scored only one of the goals.
Today, the club are 13th in English football’s second tier, exactly the position where Brian Clough inherited them in 1975. It is the 12th anniversary of Clough’s death and in the 12th minute of their EFL Cup tie against Arsenal a tribute is planned for the man who led Forest — “the most unprogressive club in the country” as one of their own committee members described them — to promotion, a league title, two European Cups, four League Cups and a place in football where they could beat Barcelona in the European Super Cup yet be clapped out of Camp Nou by the Catalan supporters.
For the modern-day Forest, it is a very different set of ambitions. There is, however, one area of the club that has quietly been excelling and it helps that the latest manager, Philippe Montanier, is a firm believer in giving young players a chance.
Montanier helped bring through Antoine Griezmann at Real Sociedad. He also gave Ousmane Dembele his debut at Rennes and he has joined a club that is building a reputation for the quality and quantity of its academy players.
Perhaps the best way to gauge it is to walk through the entrance of the Nigel Doughty Academy, named after Forest’s late chairman, and look at the 11 framed photographs that have been positioned neatly on the left-hand wall.
The first 10 are the academy graduates who have risen through the system to play for Forest’s first team in the past two and a bit years. Ben Osborn, first on the list, joined the club at the age of nine and is now a first-team regular. Oliver Burke, another who started at Forest at primary-school age, has just been sold to RB Leipzig for £13 million (Dh62.25 million), a fee that many people feel will one day be regarded as a steal.
Tyler Walker, son of Des, is among the other photographs — alongside Matty Cash, Jorge Grant, Gerry McDonagh, Dimitar Evtimov, Alex Iacovitti, James Thorne and Deimantas Petravicius — and the montage is certainly a striking way of demonstrating why Forest are building a reputation within the sport for their academy’s success.
The 11th frame is for all the other boys who might be passing through. There is no picture in this one. It says simply: “Will you be next?”
There cannot be many other clubs in England’s top two divisions, if any, with a better production line from youth level to first team — the pathway as it is known — over the same period and the conveyor belt of young talent is testament to the work of Gary Brazil, the head of academy, and his staff, among them the former Forest striker Jack Lester.
Brazil, another ex-striker whose playing career incorporated spells at Fulham, Newcastle United, Preston North End and Sheffield United, takes his ethos from the sign behind his desk — “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary” — and another of the academy’s finds could soon be on the wall.
Anel Ahmedhodzic, a 17-year-old Swedish centre-half, was put on the bench by Montanier for last week’s game at Rotherham. Three others — Joe Worrall, Jordan Gabriel and Ryan Yates — went with the first team on their preseason tour.
Virgil Gomis, from the Under-18s, is also one to keep an eye on and others are coming through. Dan Micciche, manager of England’s Under-16s, regards Forest’s team of that age level as one of the finest around. Kevin Betsy, manager of England’s Under-15s, is another admirer.
“We’re got some really driven people here and it’s starting to give us a real return,” Brazil says. “The ideal situation would be that in two or three years we have four or five kids playing regularly in the first team. The fans love seeing their own players coming through and we believe there are others who the fans might not know about yet. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work.”
It also makes a difference that Montanier goes by the same ethos that once led Clough to make an 18yearold Gary Mills the youngest ever player in a European Cup final. Montanier’s first game in charge featured five academy graduates, including two debutants, in his starting line-up.
Burke, a winger with the build of an Olympic sprinter, was given carte blanche to menace opposition defences and just about every club in the Premier League was eyeing the teenager in the last transfer window before he signed for Leipzig on his 19th birthday.
Burke — ‘Twisty’ to use his nickname — started 10 games in the Championship and quickly made an impression on his Bundesliga debut, setting up the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over Borussia Dortmund.
“Oliver’s a young man with a great future,” Brazil says. “We’ve lost a wonderful young man and precocious talent but three years ago it wasn’t a given that he would reach this stage. Oliver still has a lot of work to do to fulfil his potential but we’ve created a programme for the boys, we stay consistent to it and the fact we’ve had some real joy lately has made the staff even hungrier.
“When Oliver made his [Leipzig] debut, all the staff who have worked with him here were watching it. Everyone was so proud.”