Macca takes Hart from Forest

Last updated : 12 May 2003 By Paddy Davitt

As Gary McAllister grapples with problems on and off the field at Coventry City, he need look no further than Midlands rivals Nottingham Forest for proof that there is light at the end of the Highfield Road tunnel.

The Sky Blues boss has identified Paul Hart’s side as an example of how a cash-strapped club can go from the depths of the first division to the playoffs in the space of a season.

And while not guaranteeing that the Sky Blues can do the same, McAllister knows the comparison between the two clubs is unnervingly similar.

Forest were relegated from the Premiership for the second time in three seasons in 1999.

David Platt took over from Ron Atkinson to lead the assault on promotion from the Nationwide but left in July 2001 to take up the England U21 post after presiding over two mid-table finishes.

Hart was appointed after a successful stint overseeing the youth set-up. In a real baptism of fire he was told to put the entire first-team squad up for sale to reduce crippling debts.

After moving on some of the big wage earners he blooded the youngsters for the start of his first full campaign (2001/02). It ended with 54 points - four more than the Sky Blues final tally.

Not only the points but the pattern of the two campaigns are almost identical.

Forest’s youth and vitality served them well up to Christmas 2001 but inexperience combined with the rigours of a long season on young legs produced only three wins after the turn of the year - none at home.

An unwanted statistic repeated at Highfield Road this campaign.

Rather than make wholesale changes, Hart brought Des Walker back to the club from Sheffield Wednesday as captain and his presence has added a calming influence to the side, particularly on the blossoming Michael Dawson - the latest gem off the City Ground production line.

He also recalled David Johnson from loan spells at Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday and the potent partnership formed with Marlon Harewood this season has bagged 45 league goals between them.

Experience and a goal threat. A formula that McAllister appears ready to adopt in his transfer dealings during the close season.

From flirting with relegation last season, Forest have booked their place in the play-offs playing an open passing style of football - a template McAllister would no doubt love to adopt for his own side - served up to average crowds of more than 24,000.

The gamble on playing the kids appears to be paying rich dividends. But given their exit from the Premiership and the dire financial impact of relegation they were left with no real choice.

In April 2002 the club were reportedly £20m in debt. Some prudent cost-cutting over the previous two seasons at Highfield Road has seen Coventry cut their debt to £21m.

After floating on the Stock Market in 1997 trading in the company’s shares were suspended after failing to produce accounts on time for 2000/01.

A transfer embargo imposed by the Football League after failing to pay Ipswich for Johnson prevented Hart from attempting to bring Coventry’s Jay Bothroyd in on loan.

Echoing the Sky Blues own financial woes, Stern John was sold to Birmingham one goal short of activating a goal clause in his contract triggering a £30,000 payment to his previous club for every future strike.

Morten Hyldgaard was shown the door earlier this season when his former club, Ikast, stood to pocket a £100,000 windfall once the big Danish stopper clocked up 35 appearances.

A shares issue installed major shareholder Nigel Doughty as chairman and his £5m investment, coupled with the sale of recently crowned PFA Young Player of the Year Jermaine Jenas for a similar amount, bought the club much needed breathing space.

With the collapse of the ITV Digitial contract, selling off the family silver and ploughing money into the youth set-up would appear the way ahead for clubs outside the top flight.

In December 2002 Forest opened a £2.7m youth academy with four out-door pitches and an indoor arena equipped with the latest in sports science technology staffed by fitness and conditioning coaches.

The policy seems to be working with Forest’s under-19s topping their academy league three times in the last four years.

It’s a lesson the Sky Blues have taken on board with the building of a £9m leisure complex planned for Allard Way, Ernesford Grange, which the club will lease from the charity Coventry Sports Foundation.

But such planning will take time to bear fruit. This season McAllister has fielded 16 players who have come up through the ranks. Over the summer he will be looking for the goals and experience to form that elusive winning blend.

But there are no guarantees that he will be able to replicate the Forest success story.