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Troubled Nottingham football clubs show what could have happened to West Ham

Without the two playoff wins, West Ham could be in serious financial trouble and playing in League Two

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West Ham United v Preston North End
Bobby Zamora & West Ham celebrate promotion.
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

When or if West Ham United start putting up statues of West Ham legends, besides Trevor Brooking, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, or Geoff Hurst, statues of Bobby Zamora and Ricardo Vaz Te should also be put up right next to them, given the importance of them to the club. Don’t laugh, this is serious. The two goals that those players scored in the playoff finals are absolutely some of the most important goals in the history of the club. Who knows what would have happened to the club if they had failed to win the playoff finals in the second attempt in 2005 or in 2012 after being relegated to the Championship the season before. It is important to note that the team that West Ham beat in the playoff final in 2012, Blackpool, is playing in League 2 right now, and the 2005 playoff loser, Preston North End, spent years in the division below the Premier League, missing out multiple times on promotion. PNE was relegated to League 1 in 2011 only to bounce back in the 2014-15 season, ten years after barely missing out on a chance to be in the Premiership.

The money gap between the Premiership and the lower divisions of England is a vast ocean, and once that ocean is crossed, teams may never recover and make it back. This gap, however, is not a bug, it is absolutely a feature of the Premiership. It is why the Premiership was founded in the first place, in order to monopolize the television money and get it into the “big” clubs at the expense of the “little” ones.

In the early 90s, secret talks were held between members of the English First Division to break away from the Football League and form a new league under the Football Association and collect the increasing amount of television money that was going to be pumped into the game. The three teams that were relegated in 1992, missing out on the first year of the Premier League? West Ham, Luton Town, and Notts County. Nottingham Forest, still managed by the legendary Brian Clough was one of the founding members of the brand new Premier League.

The initial Premier League in 1992. A tad different than today’s Premier League.

What a difference 25 years make. Football in Nottingham is in trouble. Nottingham Forest, two-time European Cup winners and founding member of the Premier League look to be heading towards the hinterlands of League One, again, while Notts County, one of the oldest football clubs in England and inspiration for Juventus’ iconic shirt, looks like it got a miracle to stay in the Football League and in business. So what went wrong in one of England’s biggest cities, with two of the most historic clubs in all of English football?

Notts County has been a yo-yo club before they were called yo-yo clubs. Notts has spent a majority of its history bouncing up and down the Football League ladder, never really stabilizing in any division for more than a few years at a time. They spent most of the 1970s and 1980s in the top two divisions, and spent a one season in the old First Division in the 1990s, being relegated the last year before the beginning of the Premier League. Notts County was one of the founders of the Football League in 1888, along with Preston North End, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Accrington, Everton, Burnley, Derby County, and Stoke City. The Football League has grown from the original twelve clubs to 72 clubs, with a peak of 92 clubs until the Premier League broke away in 1992.

Notts County v Hartlepool - EFL Checkatrade Trophy Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Notts County itself was founded in 1862, making it the oldest professional football club in the world. Sheffield FC, as football fans from Sheffield will tell you at great volume and at great length, are the oldest existing football club in the world, having been founded in 1857. Notts County has plenty of history, but it has never enjoyed the kind of success that many of the other Football League founders have had over the years. With the lack of success on the pitch, the team has also struggled in the past few years with the risk of liquidation and relegation out of the league. While the team has suffered a number of relegations to lower divisions over the years, they have never dropped out of the league. While it might not be realistic to expect them to make the Premier League, a comfortable position in the league is not too much for fans of Notts County to expect, however, this has often proven to be elusive.

Notts County was heavily affected in the early 2000s by the collapse of ITV digital, and while their spending was not outrageous, they nonetheless fell into administration in June of 2002. The club finally emerged from administration, after taking over a year to reorganize their debts, with a team of local businessmen and a Supporters Trust taking control over the club in December of 2003. Unfortunately this would not be the last time the club was at risk of going out of business.

Sven Goran Eriksson Press Conference
Sven Goran Eriksson at Notts County. Too good to be true.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In July 2009, a dream seemed to come true when it was announced that a Middle Eastern group was purchasing the club. Qadback Investments, through its subsidiary Munto Finance, purchased the club from the Supporters Trust and the other club owners. With takeovers at such clubs at Chelsea in 2003 and Manchester City in 2008 having completely transformed the clubs, the supporters at Notts County were optimistic that the new investment in the club would take them back to the higher divisions in English football. It turned out to be all a sham.

Convicted fraudster Russell King, who had also hired Sven-Goran Eriksson to be Director of Football at Notts County, had apparently scammed the supporters trust into selling the football club to him for a pound after conning the chairman with a £5 million loan guarantee from a merchant bank in London, First London PLC, which King had a controlling interest in and later went bankrupt, and a meeting with a person claiming to be from a Middle Eastern royal family. Munto Finance later sold the club for a nominal fee to Peter Trembling after racking up £7 million worth of debt, including payments to the “fake prince” and other lavish expenditures and a winding-up order from HMRC due to non-payment of tax bills. Eriksson himself was a victim of the scam, and Sol Campbell, who had signed for the club walked out after one game. It was all too good to be true. The Football League, up until the sale to Trembling, had still insisted that Munto Finance was a “fit and proper” owner, and had not raised any flags about the transfer of ownership.

While the club was floundering off the pitch, the team that was assembled had gained promotion to League One. But because football fans in Nottingham apparently can’t have nice things, the success on the pitch faded and they were relegated back to the 4th level of English football by two points at the end of the 2014-15 season. Ray Trew purchased the club in early 2010, rescuing the club from certain demise after the King shenanigans. However, Trew put the club up for sale in 2016 and sold the club last December to yet another local businessman, Alan Hardy. And as usual with Notts County owners, one of the first things Hardy had to deal with was a winding-up order from HMRC for unpaid tax bills and other debt.

Notts County Press Conference
Kevin Nolan takes charge at Notts County.
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Notts County hired ex-West Ham captain Kevin Nolan as a player-manager once the sale of the club was finalized and he has gotten the club out of the relegation zone. They currently sit in 20th place, 13 points away from the relegation zone, and 13 points from a playoff spot with seven games left in the season. Nolan seems to be guiding them away from doom, and Hardy seems up for the job as an owner in the lower leagues of English football. Things are starting to look up at Meadow Lane, but this story has been told too many times for Magpie fans to really believe that they are ever out of the woods.

The City Ground, home of Nottingham Forest is literally directly across the river from Meadow Lane, the home of Notts County. Ironically, the City Ground is located outside of the City of Nottingham in the county, while Meadow Lane is located inside the city. Football on the south bank of the River Trent has historically been more successful than the older club just across the river, but no one could have expected the highs that legendary manager Brian Clough had the team reach at the end of the 1970s.

Clough had managed Forest’s neighbors and arch-rivals Derby County to the First Division title in 1972 and the semi-finals of the European Cup the next year, losing to runner-up Juventus. After running afoul of the management of Derby County, Clough went to Brighton and then Leeds United before being named manager of Nottingham Forest in January of 1975 with the team in the 2nd Division of the Football League.

Nottingham Forest v West Ham United
Trophies won under Clough while at Forest
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Forest won promotion to the First Division in the 1976-77 season and won the First Division title the following season. While they were not able to hang on to the League title, instead finishing runner-up to Liverpool, they did win the 1979 European Cup over Malmö FF in Munich. They won back-to-back European Cups in 1980 by beating Hamburg in Madrid’s Bernabéu Stadium. The players on the team have achieved legendary status in England, as they led an underachieving team from the Midlands to the ultimate European Glory.

This was the Golden Age of English football in European competition. Starting with the 1975 European Cup, which Leeds United lost to Bayern Munich, nine of next eleven finals featured an English team, with Liverpool winning it all in 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1984, Forest winning it in 1979 and 1980, and Aston Villa winning the European Cup in 1982. Six years in a row English teams won it all from 1977 to 1982. Liverpool lost the 1985 final to Juventus in Brussels, which is unfortunately remembered for the Heysel disaster that resulted in English clubs being thrown out of UEFA competitions for five years.

Republic of Ireland v Switzerland - International Friendly
Roy Keane in 2016. Probably could still play in League Two if he so wished.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Nottingham Forest continued their run in the First Division during the 1980s, a decade that saw Merseyside clubs Liverpool and Everton dominate the league. Forest were original members of the break-away Premier League in 1992, but they were relegated the first year of the new league, going down after a sixteen year run in the top division. The season marked the end of Brian Clough’s run as manager in at the club, as he retired at the end of the 1992-93 season. The season also saw the transfer of a young Roy Keane to Manchester United for what was then a British record transfer fee of £3.75 million.

Forest was able to pop right back up to the Premier League in the next season, and in 1994-95 they finished third in the Premier League. The Champions League was still only made up of actual league champions at this point, so Forest competed in the 1995-96 UEFA Cup, losing to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals. Forest’s fortunes turned in the 1996-97 season and they were relegated at the end of the 1997 season. Once again, the team was able to pop back up after a single season out of the Premier League, but it was only to last one season, as they were relegated in the 1998-99 season. They have never been back.

Nottingham Forest v Blackpool - Championship Playoff Semi Final 2nd Leg
Blackpool winning their playoff round against Forest in 2010 at The City Ground
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Financial difficulties followed, and along with their neighbors Notts County, they also suffered greatly at the collapse of ITV Digital. Despite reaching the Championship playoffs in the 2002-03, 2009-10, and 2010-11 seasons, success has largely been absent from the City Ground since the turn of the 21st century. The team was the first European Cup winner to be relegated to the third division of their domestic league at the end of the 2004-05 season. Losing in the playoff semi-finals in 2010 was especially bitter, as they were in the automatic promotion position for most of the season. They lost to the 6th place team, and eventual playoff champions, Blackpool in the playoff semifinals. The next season they finished 6th, but lost in the semi-finals to 3rd place Swansea, who have been in the Premier League since the 2011-12 season.

Despite the tumultuous time on the pitch, the team was at least stable off the pitch. Nigel Doughty bought Forest in 1999 for £11 million, saving the club from administration. A boyhood fan of the club, he spent an estimated £100 million of his own money on the club, keeping it afloat while so many other teams went through crisis after crisis. He announced that he was intending to step down as chairman in the fall of 2011, and tragically passed away in early 2012 at the age of 54. New owners from Kuwait, the Al-Hasawi family, purchased the club in July of 2012. The new owners have burned through managers at an alarming rate. Since Sean O’Driscoll was hired in July of 2012, the team has had nine different managers, including Gary Brazil taking control as interim manager on two different occasions. The “lowlight” of the manager revolving door was the 40 days that former Rangers FC manager Alex McLeish spent managing the club, winning once, drawing twice, and losing four times in a total of seven games in charge. The latest manager, Mark Warburton, was hired in controversial circumstances, as Warburton told Rangers, his previous club, that he was quitting to take the Forest job, which he then didn’t get, and then tried to stay on. Rangers hired a new manager, and only a few weeks later, Warburton was named manager of Nottingham Forest anyway. Chaos seems to follow the manager’s job at Nottingham Forest, and it appears that this time will be no different.

Birmingham City v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship
Forest fans aren’t happy with the current owners.

Fawaz Al-Hasawi, lead shareholder in Nottingham Forest, had a deal earlier this year in place to sell the club to a group of Americans, but that deal fell apart at the last minute in January. Al-Hasawi claims to have also spent upwards of £122 million of his own money on the team, but with recent sales of popular players such as captain Henri Lansbury to Championship team Aston Villa in the January transfer window, along with sales such as Michail Antonio to West Ham United, leaves fans disillusioned. The owner of Greek footballing titans Olympiakos, Evangelos Marinakis, is back in talks to buy the club after a potential sale last summer was called off. Forest fans will wait until a deal is finally complete before celebrating the end of Al-Hasawi’s ownership in Nottingham. In the meantime, the team currently sits in 20th place, a single point above the relegation zone. A trip back to League One is looking every more likely by the day, and Forest fans are protesting the state of their club.

Stevenage v West Ham United - Pre Season Friendly
Ricardo Vaz Te in 2014
Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

While it all seems so far away now, West Ham fans should thank both Bobby Zamora and Ricardo Vaz Te, along with the other members of those teams, for getting the team back to the Premier League and staying up. Lower league clubs, locked out of the riches of the Premier League, are in a constant state of flux. No matter how “big” the club has been in the past, bankruptcy, dodgy ownership, and football oblivion seem just around the corner at all times.

To be fair, similar stories about what is currently happening in Nottingham can be told about the “big” teams in Sheffield, where Wednesday has been unable to get back to the Premier League, and United seem on the brink of getting back to the Championship after a spell in League One. Leeds United has history that outshines almost anyone else in England outside of Manchester, Merseyside, or London, and they are hoping to win the footballing lottery of the Championship playoffs this season, along with neighbors Bradford City who are hoping to win their own lottery of the League One playoffs. Even in the West Midlands, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton, and Birmingham City each appear to be stuck in the Championship, with Wolves even staring another return to League One in the face. The money and wealth in the upper reaches of English football are not making their way down, leading to an almost universal state of financial peril in the English game.

Leeds United V Sheffield Wednesday  - Sky Bet Championship
Leeds United v Sheffield Wednesday. This would have been a Premier League match 20 years ago.

The other problem is that young English talent, who the national team very much wish to become great footballers, are training at teams that often cannot afford good coaching or good facilities. Even the youth set-ups at the Premier League clubs are not producing good English players at a decent rate, and when those professionals come up through the youth ranks, they are loaned to lower league clubs where the standards are poor, the pitches are muddy, and the level of coaching is often lacking. Instead, Premier League teams are searching the globe for talent more and more, leaving the players who grow up watching the clubs in the stands even further away from playing for those teams one day.

People in North America are concerned with jobs being “outsourced” and increasingly, the talent that will one day be playing on the pitches of the English Premier League will be outsourced as well, with players no longer coming from places like Canning Town, Tyneside, or Essex, but instead from Krakow, Rio de Janeiro, or Le Mans. With the vast majority of money in football pooling in the top teams from the “big five” leagues of the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and Ligue 1 in France, the rest of the world is simply just a big showcase for clubs to get ever increasing big money transfers to keep their local teams in business. While many solutions, such as UEFA’s Financial Fair Play, have made an attempt to reduce these issues, nothing so far has been successful. The pressure to keep the teams in the upper levels of the game and the amount of money involved means that teams are always in a “win now” mode, and cannot afford to allow players and teams to develop over time.

West Ham seems very far away from these global issues, and maybe it is. After all, even the move to the London Stadium was still a move within the same basic area of East London, and the team’s captain, Mark Noble, is a local boy who is literally living his boyhood dream. And while loyal West Ham fans still filled Upton Park in the lower divisions, it is not unimaginable that West Ham could be in the same shoes as Nottingham Forest or Notts County, Charlton Athletic or QPR, or even Aston Villa or Wolverhampton. West Ham fans should be grateful for those goals in those playoffs, because without them, instead of travels to Old Trafford and competing against some of the best footballers in the world, the team could very easily be getting ready for an away trip to Oldham or Port Vale with a crowd of a few thousand loyal fans sitting in a half-empty stadium.