Wednesday 5 February 2020 6:44 pm

Nottingham Forest eye end to 21-year Premier League exile with promotion push

This weekend sees two once-great clubs of English football go head to head as they both look to take a step closer to rising from the ashes.

Both are battling for the Championship’s automatic promotion places, with Leeds one point off the top in second place and Nottingham Forest, who they visit on Saturday, close behind in fourth.

It is no shock to see Leeds up there given the club’s transformation since owner Andrea Radrizzani bought in three years ago and their flirtation with promotion last year under Marcelo Bielsa.

Read more: Agents row in extra-time: Why Fifa is at loggerheads with football’s leading intermediaries over new rule proposals

But Forest’s presence is more surprising given the turbulence they have endured over the last decade, which has seen more lows than highs.

They have had 19 managers since 2009, including Martin O’Neill, Stuart Pearce, Steve McClaren, Alex McLeish and Aitor Karanka, none lasting more than 18 months.

It makes sense, then, that Frenchman Sabri Lamouchi – only the club’s third boss from outside the British Isles – was given a one-year contract on arriving last summer.

Lamouchi brings new hope

But in Lamouchi the two-time European champions finally look to have found a coach with a strong footballing philosophy and the vision to get the club back to its glory days – or Premier League days, at least.

Forest have been in the Championship for 12 years now, longer than any other current second-tier team, although too often looking over their shoulder rather than up the table.

Despite the hokey-cokey of managers, the club’s fortunes appeared to turn the corner following the takeover by Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis, who also owns Olympiacos, in 2017.

Stoke City v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship
Lamouchi has given Forest an identity and made them difficult to beat

It brought an end to the underwhelming era of Fawaz Al Hasawi and has seen renewed investment.

Forest splashed out a club-record £13.5m in 2018 on Portuguese midfielder Joao Carvalho, the third most expensive Championship signing of all time, although he has yet to live up to expectations.

Prolific Grabban

The club also bought Lewis Grabban from Bournemouth for £6.1m and the forward’s 16 league goals have propelled Forest up the table.

To reduce their dependence on the team’s only out-and-out striker for the run-in, Forest added Strasbourg’s Nuno de Costa, 28, for £1.8m in the January transfer window and also recalled Tyler Walker, 23, from his loan at Lincoln, where he scored 16 goals in 33 games for the League One side.

Forest bear similarities to Wolves, who won the Championship two seasons ago, in that they have a sizeable Portuguese contingent and there are questions about the influence of super-agent Jorge Mendes.

Along with Carvalho, there is Tiago Silva pulling the strings in midfield, defensive duo Tobias Figueiredo and Yuri Ribeiro, as well as Benfica loanee Alfa Semedo.

Nottingham Forest v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship
Grabban has 16 league goals this season

Forest’s English contingent

But despite those additions, there is a crop of English players at the heart of Forest’s promotion push.

Joe Worrall, 22, has been an ever-present at the back for Lamouchi’s side, who are much improved defensively this term, conceding just 28 goals so far to 54 last season.

A local lad, Worrall has attracted interest from Premier League clubs and, with his contract set to enter its final year this summer, anything but promotion could see him leave.

Former midfielder Matty Cash, 22, has slotted in at right-back admirably thanks to his work ethic and pace, keeping Carl Jenkinson out of the side when the ex-Arsenal man has been fit.

Fulham v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship
Forest’s Joe Worrall has been a great addition to the backline and has quickly become a fan favourite

Cash has contributed two goals and four assists, but it is fan favourite Joe Lolley, 27, who has often stepped up on the big occasions, including with a vital winner against promotion rivals Brentford last month.

Sammy Ameobi, 27, has been a mainstay on the left of midfield since his free transfer from Bolton, while Premier League stalwarts Michael Dawson, 36, Ben Watson, 34, and Grabban, 30, have been integral too.

The blend of experienced professionals from a higher level combined with the exuberance of youth has made Forest a side who are both organised and energetic.

Read more: Sheffield United: Europa League qualification is ridiculous yet looks achievable for Chris Wilder’s never-say-die Blades

Lamouchi has drilled his players well and made them difficult to beat – only West Brom have lost fewer matches – meaning they are often more than the sum of their parts.

When they walk out at the City Ground this weekend, there will be little doubt which side has more talent.

But it is Forest’s renewed discipline, desire and team spirit that has taken them this far. One final push and a return to the Premier League could be on the horizon.