Top Five … Forest Internationals
To date, 104 players have represented their country while on Forest’s books. In the book I cover the full top ten (actually 12), but in this exclusive extract I count down the five most capped Reds of all time…
5. JIM BRENNAN
24 caps for Canada while at Forest (1999–2003)
August 1999 won’t go down as a time of memorable transfers for Forest. Well, some of the signings made that season stick in the memory, but for all the wrong reasons. The addition of Canadian left back Jim Brennan for £1.5 million from Bristol City, however, is one of the few successes David Platt achieved on the transfer market.
Brennan was born in Ontario, but moved to England at 17 to become part of the Bristol City youth team after impressing at the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in Japan. After establishing himself in the City first team in the 1998/99 season, he made his debut for Canada in April in a friendly against Northern Ireland. He arrived at Forest full of promise and was a regular in his first campaign, an undignified struggle against relegation that could hardly have filled him with hope for his Nottingham career.
The following season he found himself second choice to Alan Rogers – Rogers had been pushed into midfield following a freak scoring run in 1999/2000, but was now recalled to the defence – until Rogers was ruled out injured in November 2000.
Platt (surprise, surprise) never got the best out of Brennan, fat lumps like Rogers being more his style than pacey, skilful players like the Canadian. When Paul Hart took control in the summer of 2001, Brennan finally had a manager who knew how to get the best out of up-and-coming footballers like himself.
Deployed behind Andy Reid in a team known for its precise passing and strong disciplinary record, Brennan impressed as a key member of the side that peaked with the play-off appearance in 2003. That summer, Brennan turned down a new contract at Forest and transferred to Norwich. It seemed an odd move at first, with Norwich having finished two places behind the Reds that year, but the Canaries had shown the ambition to sign Darren Huckerby where Forest had failed, and were crowned champions the following season while Forest struggled to stay up.
In the meantime Brennan had represented Canada in three tournaments, including the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup, which they won despite having to first come through the qualification rounds. During the finals, staged at venues across the USA in February, Canada’s group was a dead heat on both points and goal difference, and they only progressed to the knock-out stages after beating South Korea on a coin toss (and don’t ask what the Koreans were doing in a North American tournament).
Canada then beat Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago to reach the final, Brennan collecting his gold medal after a 2–0 win over Colombia. As a result of this victory, they also took part in the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan. In 2002, Brennan won a bronze medal in the Gold Cup as the defending champions surrendered their crown, although they beat South Korea (with some goals rather than a coin toss this time) in the third place play-off.
4. JOHN ROBERTSON
26 caps for Scotland while at Forest (1978–83)
Unsurprisingly, Robbo’s international career corresponds almost exactly with his heyday at Forest, give or take a couple of caps while at Derby. He made his debut at the age of 25 in a Home Championships draw with Northern Ireland, just weeks after Forest were crowned League Champions. It was a timely ascent to the top of his game, as it meant he travelled to Argentina with Ally MacLeod’s highly rated Scotland side, but he spent the majority of the finals on the bench, with only a substitute appearance in the opening defeat to Peru to show for the journey.
Under Jock Stein, he continued to be a bit-part player in the European Championships qualification campaign, but did get his first international goal in a 4–0 win over Norway on 7 June 1979, a nice way to wrap up a good year. Scotland didn’t eventually qualify in 1980, but they impressed by topping a tough group to reach the 1982 World Cup, Robertson a regular in the side. In 1981 Robbo also scored the winning goal, a penalty, against England at Wembley in a British Home Championships competition – one that Scotland could well have won were the tournament not abandoned as the Troubles in Northern Ireland escalated. Scotland had already played their three games and won two when England and Wales pulled out, fearing violence when they visited Windsor Park. Robertson was part of a team who went to Belfast and played out a trouble-free World Cup qualifier, which ended in a one-all draw, in October that year.
Robertson played all three group games of the 1982 World Cup finals, including scoring in the 5–2 win over New Zealand. But the Scots were eliminated from the tournament behind Brazil and the Soviet Union. He played four more times for his country, two while still with Forest and two after his move to Derby.
In total, he received a mere 28 caps and scored three goals in a five-and-a-half-year period – had Brian Clough and Peter Taylor arrived in his life earlier, he may well have won many more.
3. MARTIN O’NEILL
36 caps for Northern Ireland while at Forest (1971–81)
Martin O’Neill arrived at the City Ground in 1971 as a teenager, having made his name at Belfast-based Distillery FC in an Irish Cup-winning side. He made his debut for Northern Ireland against the USSR shortly before joining Forest and was a regular international throughout the decade that followed, even when he was on the transfer list at Forest before Brian Clough recognised his talents. His collection of caps while on the books at the City Ground was only limited by his nation not competing in any major tournaments in this time.
This changed in 1982 when, for the first time since 1958, Northern Ireland qualified for the World Cup. Thirty-year-old O’Neill, now playing for Norwich, was named captain for the tournament in Spain. They drew their first two group games with Yugoslavia and Honduras, 0–0 and 1–1 respectively, leaving them needing a draw at least against Spain to make the next round. Remarkably, they beat the hosts thanks to a Gerry Armstrong goal on 47 minutes.
The 1982 World Cup featured a second group stage in place of the quarter-finals, so Northern Ireland faced Austria, getting another credible draw, and France. The French were too strong, winning the game 4–1, but O’Neill’s side had done themselves proud, arguably matching the achievement of the 1958 side who had reached the World Cup quarter final. O’Neill had become accustomed to winning major trophies at club level, but 1982 was certainly among the highlights of his playing days.
O’Neill also represented his country in two victorious British Home Championships, taking the 1980 competition with wins away at Scotland and Wales and a credible draw at Wembley, and topping the 1984 table on goal difference with all nations level on three points. It was the last time the competition was staged, so the Northern Irish FA still holds the trophy and the country can claim to be ruling champions of Britain.
Martin O’Neill, a champion of England, Britain and Europe, won a total of 64 caps for Northern Ireland and scored eight goals. In November 2011, he turned down the chance to succeed Nigel Worthington as Northern Ireland manager to become Sunderland boss instead.
2. DES WALKER
40 caps for England while at Forest (1988–92)
Having broken into the Forest first team in the mid-1980s, Walker made his England debut in a World Cup qualifier against Poland in September 1988, replacing Tony Adams as a substitute. He was one of four Forest players named in the team that day, one of whom, Neil Webb, scored the only goal of the game.
England had flopped at the 1988 European Championship, losing each of their group games, so Bobby Robson was keen to try out new blood. Nevertheless, Walker faced competition for his place at the back from the veteran Terry Butcher as well as his contemporaries Tony Adams and Mark Wright. But by Italia ’90, he had firmly staked his claim for his place in a three-man central defence with Butcher and Wright. He had faced injury problems before the tournament but started all seven games England played, including the third place play-off against Italy, for which Stuart Pearce was dropped.
Walker was ever present during the qualification campaign for the 1992 European Championship and likewise during the ill-fated tournament itself. When he left Forest for Sampdoria in 1992 he had already won 40 caps, well on the way to the 50 mark, which he reached in record time. But in Italy his form for both club and country suffered. He retained his place in the team for the majority of World Cup qualification games, but in April 1993 he was guilty of giving away a fatal penalty against Holland by fouling Marc Overmars in the dying minutes. Peter Van Vossen converted the spot kick to earn the Dutch a valuable draw at Wembley, setting the tone for a campaign England would spend chasing qualification in vain.
More mistakes against Poland and Norway further damaged both England’s hopes of going to the USA and Walker’s claim for a place. In November 1993, Walker, by now back in England with Sheffield Wednesday, made his 59th and final appearance for England in an infamous game at San Marino. Any hope of a World Cup place was reliant on other results and England winning by seven goals. A poor Stuart Pearce back pass gave the international minnows a shock lead in record-breaking time (eight seconds, no less), and though England came out 7-1 winners, they couldn’t have qualified anyway, so the circumstances made what might have been a memorable game for Des a sour note on which to end his international career.
1. STUART PEARCE
76 caps for England while at Forest (1989–97)
When Stuart Pearce was called up to play for England for the first time in 1987, Brian Clough summoned the 25-year-old to his office. ‘I was expecting a pat on the back,’ Pearce revealed to journalist Daniel Taylor in 2005. Instead, Clough told him, ‘You aren’t good enough in my opinion – now get out!’ Such summary dismissal of his abilities was, of course, an example of Cloughie’s famous reverse psychology, designed to keep Pearce in his place while making sure he would do his damnedest to prove the manager wrong. But if ever there was a man who could be relied on to be both humble and committed to the cause, be it club or country, it was Pearce.
He made his debut in a Wembley friendly against Brazil, joining Bobby Robson’s side as back-up for Arsenal’s Kenny Samson. Injury kept him out of the squad for the 1988 European Championship, but after that tournament’s disastrous performance, the coach rang the changes and made Pearce his permanent number three. By the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Pearce had 21 caps to his name and presumably even Brian Clough would have admitted he deserved the place.
Having led Forest to several Wembley finals in the preceding years, he was in fine form and among the tournament’s best players, as England, falteringly at first, but then with swagger, made their way to the semi-final.
His penalty shoot-out miss – sorry, as someone reminded me in the pub the other day when I accidentally mentioned seeing Pearce miss a penalty in a pre-season friendly, ‘Stuart Pearce didn’t miss penalties; occasionally the keeper just got in the way!’ – his penalty that was saved by German goalie Bodo Illgner earned him a season of abuse at the hands of opposition fans. ‘Pearce is a German’ they chanted, a remark that might have hurt someone with Pearce’s patriotism but lacking his strength of mind. He spent the 1990/91 season silencing the taunts with 16 goals, and his redemption seemed complete when he captained the national side for the first time in a June 1991 friendly with New Zealand, the first of ten occasions on which he would wear the coveted armband. He led by example, as always, and scored after 12 minutes.
But further disappointment followed, with England drawing a group stage blank in Euro ’92 and falling short in the qualification campaign for the 1994 World Cup. Then Terry Venables dropped him for Graeme Le Saux. Le Saux was a perfectly good left back in his own right, but as players and personalities they couldn’t be more different. Pearce, for instance, liked punk music, while Le Saux’s tastes were a little more classical. But Venables’ side was a more cultured outfit all round, based on the intelligence and composure of players like like Sheringham, McManaman and Anderton, rather than the blood (quite often literally) and sweat Pearce embodied.
Pearce wasn’t stupid, though, no matter how much he played up to his cockney hardman image. He saw the sport was changing and that he needed to change along with it. ‘By the end of my playing career, giving away a foul was considered as bad a mistake as a misplaced pass,’ he told Daniel Taylor. In the end, it may have been a broken leg that kept Le Saux out of Euro ’96, but it turned out that Pearce’s solid nerves and unbridled passion for the game were exactly what England needed, his outburst of emotion (from a man who rarely celebrated goals) on converting his spot kick against Spain was enough to convert even the most cynical English observer into a believer that football really was coming home.
Under Glenn Hoddle, England were to become even more cultured, but he persuaded Pearce to postpone his international retirement, even if Le Saux was to return as first choice left back. And Pearce’s international career even had a swansong in 1999 when Kevin Keegan, impressed by his form at West Ham, called him up for a qualifier against Poland. He was 37 years and 137 days old, making him the oldest outfield player to wear the Three Lions since Sir Stanley Matthews in 1957 (who did so at the age of 42 years and over 100 days).
Of course Stuart Pearce’s international story doesn’t end there. In February 2007 he replaced Peter Taylor as England under-21 manager, reaching the final of the 2009 UEFA Under-21 Championships where they lost, inevitably, to Germany. Since then, he has also coached the England first team under Fabio Capello and, following Capello’s resignation in the midst of the John Terry racism row, was given the role of caretaker manager for a friendly against Holland on 29 February 2012.
That summer his hand was on the tiller of the Team GB men’s Olympic side. He caused controversy by leaving out David Beckham and ultimately couldn’t guide the young team past the quarter-finals. There were five Welsh players in that squad so presumably Pearce didn’t reprise his famous patriotic changing room rallying cry of ‘Because we’re English! Because we’re English!’
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