A relationship that seemed unlikely to be reignited for so long could spark

It is an opportunity that, only a few years ago, Martin O’Neill admitted he feared had passed him by.

There are more than a few Nottingham Forest fans who might have felt the same way, with O’Neill understood to have been close to making an emotional return to the City Ground more than once over the years, without it ever quite coming to fruition.

Brian Clough was regarded by many as being the best manager England never had. And, when O’Neill’s stock was at its highest, there were more than a few who felt the same way about him and Forest.

There was a flirtation more than once, without it ever quite blossoming into a proper relationship. He was most recently on Forest’s radar, prior to the appointment of Aitor Karanka.

But now we will get the chance to see how that union works out, after all.

Martin O’Neill

In a 2013 interview with the Post, after being presented with a lifetime achievement award, O’Neill was asked if he had any regrets about never having managed the club where he enjoyed such remarkable successes under Clough, as a player.

“Life passes on, I had great days there as a player,” said O’Neill. “I am sure the opportunities to do that kind of thing are well passed by now.

“All I can say is good luck. I, along with all the other players from that era, have great affection for the club. It will always be our club.”

 

It was this exact brand of passion and enthusiasm for Forest from O’Neill that won over the Forest hierarchy.

Evangelos Marinakis is understood to have been impressed by his desire and determination to help lead the club back not, perhaps, to former glories – but certainly back into the promised land of the Premier League, as a starting point.

As first reported in the Post a few weeks ago, O’Neill was one of two managers, along with Slavisa Jokanovic, who were initially identified as potential replacements for Karanka, as their relationship with the Spaniard began to erode beyond the point of repair.

The club were not able to reach an agreement with the man who guided Watford and Fulham to promotion.

But further talks with O’Neill were hugely positive, over the last few days, and will conclude with him being officially unveiled as the next Forest manager.

Martin O’Neill shoots for Nottingham Forest at Coventry on the day the Reds won the league in 1978

The return of the 66-year-old, born in Kilrea, Northern Ireland, will spark a sense of romance among the older generations of Forest fans, who saw him patrol the opposite side of the pitch to the legendary John Robertson, his long-time friend and assistant, in that side that secured historic glories under Clough.

Criticism of the style of play of his Republic of Ireland side, towards the end of his tenure as national manager, has seemingly prompted a sense of caution among some fans.

But it must also be remembered this was a willing group of Irish players who, while never lacking heart or character, were somewhat limited – and O’Neill still managed to lead them to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and they only failed to reach the last World Cup when beaten in a qualifying play-off by Denmark.

In this light, his time in charge of Ireland, in the circumstances, must be seen as a positive one overall. For long spells, he and Roy Keane – who could yet be part of O’Neill’s backroom staff at the City Ground – had Ireland punching above their weight.

 

And there is no doubting his achievements in club management, where he guided both Wycombe and Leicester to promotion via the play-offs – before establishing the Foxes as a side that regularly finished in the top half of the Premier League table and twice won EFL Cups.

O’Neill also managed Norwich City, Aston Villa and Sunderland and it was only in the north east – with the club he had supported as a youngster – where things did not work out for him.

And he remains a hugely popular figure among one half of football fans in Glasgow, where he won seven pieces of silverware as Celtic boss, including three league titles and three Scottish FA Cup wins, as well as a League Cup success.

 

His return to the City Ground comes at a time when the drawn out, protracted departure of Karanka had put a dent in some of the goodwill generated at the club this season.

And the club will hope the return of a former favourite will help mitigate that; will help restore the sense of unity and togetherness that had prompted record season ticket sales, amid a positive start to a new era under the new owners, spearheaded by Marinakis.

O’Neill will arrive with an acute sense of awareness, when it comes to the hopes and expectations of a Forest fanbase that have been starved of success, in comparative terms, for two decades now; he will know the importance of doing things ‘the Forest way’.

And he will inherit a squad that is very different to the one he worked with as Ireland coach.

This is a dressing room of players that has been built to play a particular brand of progressive, passing football – one that is equipped to challenge for a top six finish, even amid a climate of under-achievement in recent times – which led to Karanka’s departure.

Aitor Karanka walks out to a warm reception from the City Ground crowd before kick-off on New Year’s Day

O’Neill will be strongly backed in the transfer window; he will be allowed to bring in new signings – perhaps as many as four or five – to add to the quality Forest already possess.  But Forest believe that is more a case of relatively minor tinkering, rather than the kind of wholesale change, that has been seen during the last two windows.

The performance against Reading unquestionably and painfully highlighted a squad of players who are badly in need of some leadership and guidance, from the top, following a period of uncertainty, as Karanka’s tenure stuttered to a halt.

But O’Neill is a man with the character and experience to deliver exactly that.

And, with the team sitting four points off the play-offs places, with 19 Championship games left to play, Forest hope it is an appointment that can spark an immediate change in fortunes.

 

Clough’s appointment back in January 1975 prompted a fairytale change in fortunes for Forest, the likes of which will never be repeated anywhere, as they went from scraping promotion from the second tier, to winning the league title and going on to become the kings of Europe.

As O’Neill becomes the 23rd man to follow in Clough’s remarkable footsteps, Forest’s initial goal is to just finally follow the first few steps of that journey, by ending a two-decade absence from the top flight.

That journey will begin with a game against Bristol City, at the City Ground, on Saturday, and a chance for O’Neill and Forest to resume a relationship he believed might never be reignited, but that the club will hope can spark a fresh chapter of success.