The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. This week we’re turning our attention to Nottingham Forest and the 1998/99 season as a Dutchman downs tools. Surely not?
Having endured a dismal campaign in 96/97 that saw them win only five games all season and finish rock bottom of the Premier League, Nottingham Forest fans could be forgiven for grasping at clouds in search of silver linings. The £4.5m capture of Pierre van Hooijdonk from Celtic at the tail end of the season may have been the only one they found. Though the Dutchman was unable to save Forest from the drop, registering one goal in the final eight games of the season, the obvious quality at his disposal was clear to see. With 44 goals in 69 appearance in Glasgow a fine return, particularly back when the Scottish Premier League was more than a bald man presenting a comb to patients at an alopecia treatment clinic and challenging them to ‘come and have a go’, fans were excited at the prospect of Van Hooijdonk leading the line in Division One. Though big names like Stuart Pearce, Alf Inge Haaland and Dean Saunders took their leave from the City Ground, Forest were able to keep hold of most of their first eleven and were considered favourites to go straight back up.
So it came to pass. Crowned champions with 94 points, Nottingham Forest made a hasty return to the Premier League, and with the wily Dave Bassett in charge, hope was high that they could consolidate their position as they headed into the last full season of the millennium. The key to Forest’s success was the excellent strike partnership van Hooijdonk had struck up with Kevin Campbell, the two accounting for 52 of their side’s 82 goals in Division One, and so the decision to sell the 28 year-old Campbell to Turkish club Trabzonspor seemed a strange one. The funds from the £2.5m deal were used to bring in Dougie Freedman from Wolves, a pre-curse Nigel Quashie from QPR and Andy Gray from Leeds, but the sale didn’t go down well with supporters, and went down particularly badly with Campbell’s former strike partner.
As it turns out, Van Hooijdonk wasn’t as happy playing First Division football as his form suggested. In December 1997 his agent had received contact from PSV Eindhoven, and Van Hooijdonk had asked Bassett to leave. The manager was pragmatic. “‘Get us back to the Premier League and we’ll let you go” was his response. Van Hooijdonk duly obliged, but a sale was not forthcoming. Twinned with the sale of his partner Campbell, and the realisation that Bassett wouldn’t sanction the sale of his two best strikers, van Hooijdonk felt betrayed. Director Irvine Scholar spoke to the Dutchman, who had been called up to the Netherlands squad for France ’98, and told him to go to the World Cup and he’d see what he could do. By the end of the tournament there was no transfer in place, and so van Hooijdonk didn’t return to Nottingham.
Unsurprisingly this threw a spanner in the works at Forest. Their pre-season plans in chaos, and with neither of their top goalscorers from the previous season available, chances of survival diminished. The likelihood of van Hooijdonk appearing for Forest again seemed slim, and so it was a case of make-do and mend as they began the new season. The opening day defeat at champions Arsenal was a narrow one, with Geoff Thomas equalising for the visitors before Emmanuel Petit headed the winner. This was followed by back to back wins against Coventry and Southampton, with Steve Stone scoring twice and taking up the mantle as Forest’s talisman in the absence of their striking striker. By the end of August, Bassett’s side found themselves in the lofty position of third, a point behind Aston Villa and Liverpool. This would be as good as it got.
A defeat at home to Everton at the start of September began a 19 game winless streak for the Tricky Trees. In the first nine games of this run they scored four goals, conceded fifteen and registered just three points, but in the tenth game, the home leg of the Brian Clough derby against Derby County, the home crowd were given a shock during the team announcement. Playing up front, and wearing number 40, was one Pierre van Hooijdonk. Despite neither Bassett nor a member of the Forest board travelling to Breda to negotiate with the player, a deal had been struck whereby the club would accept any bids of £3.5m – a significant drop from the price tag of £10m that Bassett had been warding clubs off with earlier in the year. Supporters were clearly torn – their mercurial striker was back, at least for the time being, and represented the best hope of halting their inexorable slide back to Division One, but his behaviour had put the clubs position in jeopardy in the first place. Van Hooijdonk’s teammates had aired their views publicy, being asked time and time again in pre-match press conferences for their opinion on the Dutchman’s stance. Stone was particularly vociferous, labelling Van Hooijdonk a ‘disgrace’, and claiming “There’s no way now that the lads would accept him back in the dressing- room. Not after all the damaging things that he has said about us”. Well, he was back. And as if anyone had to check the script, he struck a ferocious free-kick to give Forest a 2-1 lead then celebrated on his own, before Horacio Carbonari equalised for Derby and the game ended all square.
Forest’s struggles continued, though at least they were scoring more regularly, with van Hooijdonk finding the net twice in their next nine winless games. By the time they headed to Everton at the end of January, Bassett had been sacked, and Ron Atkinson brought in as his replacement. A narrow defeat in his first game at home to Arsenal left The Reds marooned at the bottom of the table, seven points from safety. In a delightful piece of symmetry, their long wait for a win ended against the team in which it had started. A 1-0 victory at Goodison Park against an Everton side that were rapidly being dragged into a relegation scrap themselves, courtesy of Van Hooijdonk’s goal, ended a four month wait for maximum points. It began to look as if Forest had turned a corner, but the visit of title-chasing Manchester United to the City Ground the following week would provide a sterner test.
By the time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was brought on for Dwight Yorke, the game was over. Two goals each for Yorke and strike partner Andy Cole had given Alex Ferguson’s team an unassailable 4-1 lead, and it was back to the drawing board for Atkinson. But not until Solksjaer had hit an unprecedented four goals in ten minutes to condemn Forest to their heaviest defeat in the Premier League, and break the record for the fastest hat-trick scored by a substitute. The crushing 8-1 defeat knocked the stuffing out of Forest, and they would win only once more before the end of April, a 3-1 victory away at Wimbledon. Despite a valiant draw at home to Liverpool, in which van Hooijdonk scored a last-minute equaliser, Nottingham Forest were relegated on the 24th April after a 2-0 defeat at Aston Villa. That winless run earlier in the season, pinned on van Hooijdonk by Dave Bassett, was ultimately their undoing. Bizarrely, they collected maximum points from their final three fixtures, bringing their final points tally to an almost respectable 30, but still finishing bottom of the league.
Van Hooijdonk finally got his move in the close season, a £3.5m transfer to Vitesse Arnhem – a slightly less glamorous move than he may have hoped for due to his newfound reputation of being a disruptive influence. A prolific season with Vitesse saw him earn a move to Benfica, where his fine form continued. He returned to Holland with Feyenoord and won the UEFA Cup, scoring twice in the final against Borussia Dortmund in 2002. Two league titles in Turkey followed at Fenerbahce, and his career wound down with low-key spells at NAC Breda and Feyenoord again. The Dutchman hit the headlines in England in 2003 when filing a law-suit against Nottingham Forest for a loss of earnings, claiming that their refusal to accept offers of £7m for him in 1998 led to him receiving a lower signing-on fee, as well refusing to pay him a loyalty bonus. The club settled out of court for around £350,000.
Ron Atkinson left his post as manager at the end of the 98/99 season, and went into full time television punditry at ITV. His incredible ‘off-air’ comments about Marcel Desailly in a Champions League semi-final broadcast left his reputation in tatters, though he was later seen in the Sky One reality series ‘Big Ron Manager’.
Nottingham Forest are yet to return to the Premier League, having suffered a seemingly endless series of bizarre decisions from a host of chairmen, owners and managers. A three year spell in League One during the mid-00s saw the club reach their nadir, but having established themselves back in the Championship, their inconsistent nature has meant they are yet to seriously push for promotion. Their fellow relegated sides from 98/99 have also fallen on hard times due to bad ownership – the Venky’s interminable destruction of Blackburn Rovers seeing the club languishing in League One this season, alongside Charlton Athletic.
Manchester United eventually won the league on the way to a historic treble. A final day victory over Tottenham Hotspur edging Arsenal into second place, while Chelsea and Leeds emerged as serious title challengers for the first time. Alex Ferguson’s history-makers were rightly the headline story from 98/99, but the bizarre behavior of a Dutchman had tongues wagging across the country. How long would it be before we’d be saying that again?