Under the tutelage of Gary Brazil, Nottingham Forest’s Nigel Doughty Academy remains the beating heart of the club. A place where many of its graduates go on to become ‘one of our own’. A place that should be as important as ever, says Peter Blackburn
Sitting on a primary school-style red plastic chair, the young footballer answers questions timidly but with a hint of savvy assuredness.
“It’s a good club to be at, they treat you well,” he says, looking to the ground between words.
The young man in the undersized, uncomfortable chair is Danny Meadows, then captain of Nottingham Forest’s Under-18 side: a hard-working and energetic box-to-box midfielder trying to add goals to his game.
It is 2011 at the leafy campus of the Nigel Doughty Academy, just off Wilford Lane in West Bridgford, and the hustle and bustle of another day in the life of a squadron of young footballers is noisily playing out all around.
When I pressed him, 18-year-old Danny addresses how it feels to have seen his friends leave after several promising youngsters were released by the club – just days before the question is posed.
His answer is delivered with the sort of conviction that belies all of the modern-day stereotypes about pampered, uncaring footballers.
“It’s depressing first-hand but makes me realise I’ve got to keep working hard to progress,” he says. “It was shocking at the time but I’ve got to keep my head down and just keep going.”
Each word is delivered with the steely grit which serves as a reminder that Nottingham Forest’s academy is a special place – recent history has been made here. This is where Forest leaves its mark on football. This is somewhere where young men refuse to give up without a fight.
Danny’s managers at the time were former Forest men Eoin Jess and Steve Chettle – with the whole academy overseen by Nick Marshall, now at Liverpool, and current academy director Gary Brazil.
And the Newark-born youngster did not hide his pleasure at learning the trade from two recent Forest performers in Chettle and Jess.
He says: “They’ve got the experience. They all know better than you because they have been there and done it. The lads all look up to them.”
It would be hard to argue that these were the most glorious days for the often lauded Nottingham Forest academy – that honour goes to the home-grown stars of Paul Hart’s so nearly history-making team of 2002/03.
That team was largely made up of the Under-18 championship-winning side which included Prutton, Jenas, Foy, Doig, Freeman, Dawson, Cooper and Edds.
And the list of graduates taking to the famous City Ground turf under Hart also featured Reid, Dawson, Thompson, Roche, Bopp, Cash and Morgan.
But the academy was still a success in the hands of Marshall, Jess and Chettle.
In 2011 a young Ben Osborn was learning his trade – playing at left-back, left midfield and in his now most favoured position of central midfield. And Jamaal Lascelles and Patrick Bamford were also arriving on the scene. There’s certainly something special about this academy, this talent factory.
Fast forward five years and things at Nottingham Forest have changed markedly.
Kuwaiti fridge and air-conditioning businessman Fawaz Al Hasawi has been – and seemingly all but gone – and another wealthy owner is on his way.
Jess, Chettle and Marshall have all left the club – and their replacements, as well as many other coaching and recruitment professionals and administrative and backroom staff have also exited.
Players have come and gone, with only a handful remaining from that time, but one thing (with the odd hiccup along the way) has remained constant through the mediocrity and the mismanagement: the proud Nottingham Forest tradition of home-grown talent – nurtured and given a chance.
In those years Lascelles, Bamford, Osborn and Karl Darlow have made their mark and earned major money for the club, and Jorge Grant, Tyler Walker and Oliver Burke have also broken into the first team squad more recently.
New manager Phillipe Montanier – arriving in Nottingham with impressive former clubs on his CV but arguably the toughest task of his career ahead – speaks a good game. In his first press conference he said: “I have always been proud of bringing young players into the team from the academy.
“And I hope to open the door to the first team for young players. We will do that. In the first training session we will ask six players from the academy to join in with our training session.
“I try to get young players from the academy involved with the first team, to get them the chance to observe and see.”
He added: “Last season we had a very good talent in Rennes, in Ousmane Dembele. He was 18-year-old and had not played in the first team. One season later he was transferred to Dortmund for €15m.
“In the past we had young players like Griezmann (at Real Sociedad) as well. I don’t know if I can do the same at Forest, but I like to bring young players through.”
Forest fans must hope these are not empty words – there are, by the accounts of those who know better, a host of talented youngsters inside Nottingham’s young footballer factory who could make the step up with the right treatment.
Since the arrival of Montanier – and the very welcome director of football Pedro Pereira – the focus has been on scouring Europe for potential bargains. Well-researched, sensible signings are always welcome but the story of Nottingham Forest has so often been defined by those players who can be deemed ‘one of our own’. It’s imperative that this is not forgotten – both for the future business success of this club, and most importantly to keep hold of the small threads of identity we still have after so much disappointment and mismanagement.
Back in 2011 – despite the looming spectre of the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan – then Under-18 manager Jess was in no doubt that the club’s academy and trust in young players was the future.
“We’ll continue to do things right and treat the players well,” he said. “Here you get good coaching and if you are good enough you get an opportunity.”
And Marshall added meat to the argument from a business viewpoint. He told me: “Over my 14 years at the academy, we have sold over £20m worth of players. We’ve cut costs to less than £1m annually and we strive to continue such successes. Forest would be nuts to scrap the only football part of the club that makes a profit, and a significant one at that.”
The men in charge five years on may be different, but the philosophy simply must remain; the spirit that drove Jess, the business sense that guided Marshall and the ambition that burned within young Danny Meadows are what makes this club special. It’s something for supporters to hang onto, and something to believe in.
Regardless of how the winds of change blow at Nottingham Forest the academy must remain king.