One Phone Call

    By Chris Urbanowicz

    I used to love going on Soccer AM during my band days. It was a welcome relief from the mundanity of regular press days, spouting the same old stock answers to the same old stock questions. It was an opportunity to talk about football for a bit. For someone whose job would usually end at about 11pm, it took something pretty special to get me out of bed at 7am with a smile on my face.

    I'm not planning on talking about the time Warren Barton introduced himself to five people standing side by side by saying, “Warren Barton, Warren Barton, Warren Barton, Warren Barton, Warren Barton,” accompanied with a handshake. I'm also not here to talk about the time that our interview was cut because nobody was brave enough to tell Ray Winston to shut the fuck up about his blinkered views of West Ham football club. “You can jump into the conversation if you want,” said a television hand. Yeah, good fucking luck trying to get a word in.

    They never mentioned who the guest usually was so when I arrived at the studio, I could hardly hold my excitement when I was introduced to “Super” Kevin Campbell. As a Nottingham Forest fan, I had so many questions. I still have so many questions. Why did you leave Forest? What happened with Pierre? Why Turkey of all places? Why why why? The fact of the matter is that Nottingham Forest's decline can be pinpointed to one moment: the sale of Kevin Campbell to Trabzonspor. It started a snowball effect that the club would never recover from and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

    Nottingham Forest got relegated from the Premier League in the 1996/1997 season, just two years after they finished third in the top flight, and one year after reaching the quarter finals of the Uefa Cup. During that season they paid Celtic £4.5m for Dutch striker Pierre Van Hooijdonk in a last gasp attempt at avoiding relegation. Although Forest were “too good to go down,” it wasn't enough and Forest were gearing up for life in England's second tier with a very strong team and a Premier League level strike-force: Campbell and Van Hooijdonk.

    The 1997/1998 season in the Championship was a breeze. Campbell and Van Hooijdonk scored 52 goals between them in a league that they were clearly beyond. Manager, Dave “Harry” Bassett had the easiest job in football leading a team of internationals back into the Premier League. Hopes were high for the new season and everyone was excited at the prospect of adding new talent to an already impressive roster.

    One phone call from Turkey changed everything.

    Fast forward ten years and I'm sitting on a couch next to Kevin Campbell. We've gone to commercial, and I have two or three minutes so I go for it: “Kev, I'm a Forest fan. I have to ask, what happened when you left for Turkey?” He turns to me almost solemnly, exhales and shrugs as if to suggest that he's still trying to work out what happened that day. “I got a call from Forest and they said they had accepted an offer from a Turkish club and they want me to leave.” As simple as that, apparently. If a club wants a fee more than it wants you then you have little choice but to move on. “Did you speak to Pierre?” I ask. “Yeah, he contacted me to ask if it was true. I told him that the club accepted an offer and I was going.” Pierre was not pleased.

    “Not pleased” is probably a little understated; royally fucked off might be more accurate. Van Hooijdonk left Celtic to join Forest knowing full well that they were in a relegation battle and the Dutch international striker would have to drop down a level before playing in the Premier League again. He was promised by top brass that the team would be strengthened, and nobody of any note would be sold. This wasn't anyone being let go; this was his strike partner. These two had a relationship on and off the pitch, a relationship that made both players better.

    Every action has a reaction. Pierre felt slighted by the Forest board. He was promised riches. Now, one of his most prized possessions was taken away from him and nobody could offer an explanation. Nottingham Forest's hierarchy had broken a promise; instead of strengthening the team for a step-up in competition, they had weakened it and Pierre was not happy. His response? Pierre Van Hooijdonk went on strike.

    Now, I can see both sides of the coin, Pierre was made promises that weren't upheld but is going on strike when under contract the answer? Regardless, Forest had lost their two top strikers and were up slack alley. Strikers Dougie Freedman and Jean-Claude Darcheville joined to try and stop the bleeding but the wound was too deep. Regardless of how difficult it is to lose your strike force, the club was embarrassed and the whole team was affected.

    The situation with Pierre finally ended in November, only three months into a season that despite a predictably poor start was still salvageable. Forest, desperate for goals, would decline any offers for Pierre who was training in Holland at his old club NAC Breda. He eventually agreed to return to Forest. The feeling at the time was more of him putting himself in the shop window instead of trying to help the team avoid relegation.

    Forest had gone nine games on the bounce without a win and Pierre seemed like a reluctant savior. His third game back was against Derby. He scored, earning Forest a point. Scot Gemmill swung a corner in and Pierre rose majestically at the front post to head the ball into the back of the net. Pierre spun away in celebration and then turned back to see the entire team embracing Gemmill instead of him. A big fat public fuck you from his teammates!

    Later in the season, the plight of Nottingham Forest football club saw them turn to perennial Costa Del Sol enthusiast and inaugural member of the Marcel Desailly fan-club: Ron Atkinson, who cancelled his latest holiday, adorned a plethora of jewels and smothered himself in aloe vera prior to his flight to East Midlands airport. He debuted as manager of the club at the City Ground by walking directly into the away dugout and sitting with the Arsenal substitutes. Big Ron didn't seem to be one for irony and I'm pretty sure he didn't know what “metaphor” actually meant but if there was ever a sign that destruction was imminent then this was it.

    Predictably, Forest were relegated that year and would never recover from that season and actually haven't been back to the Premier League since. Pierre finally got his move back to Holland and David Platt took over the managerial position, which put the nail in the coffin for the reds. A story for another day. Kevin Campbell had a miserable season at Trabzonspor marred by a racial incident with the club president before securing a move back to England with Everton.

    It's crazy to think that one phone call from Turkey can have such a huge impact on a club. It impacted players and it impacted fans but perhaps most importantly, it's an impact that Nottingham Forest are still suffering from to this day.