In the first part of our attempt at the Sir Alex Ferguson Challenge, we took control of Nottingham Forest on 6 November 2022 and just about kept them in the Premier League in an exciting final-day relegation fight. Now a big rebuild was required to strengthen an under-par and bloated squad.
As a result, we had an exceedingly busy summer, in which we released 8 players then sold 32 more for a profit of around £72m. That included selling Taiwo Awoniyi to Galatasaray for £9.75m, Gustavo Scarpa to Watford for £9.5m, Loic Mbe Soh to Gladbach for £9m, Ethan Horvath to West Brom for £5m, Jonathan Panzo to Stoke for £4.9m, Joe Worrall to Burnley for £4.1m and Serge Aurier to Watford for £3m.
We also signed 12 players for an outlay of £36m (after the ridiculous pre-agreed signing of Chris Wood for £15m). A much better signing was a massive coup by beating Bayern Munich to centre-back Anthony Rouault for £11m from Toulouse. We also signed promising goalkeeper Elia Caprile for £7.5m from Bari, midfielder Boubakary Soumaré for £6.25m from relegated Leicester, left-back Emmanuel Valeri for £6m from Cremonese and 18-year-old striker Daniil Savin for £2m from Shakhtar. They were joined by free transfer signings winger Reiss Nelson from Arsenal, goalkeeper Mihai Popa from Voluntari and right-back Dujon Sterling from Chelsea. And the squad was boosted by loaning in centre-back Benoît Badiashile from Chelsea and winger Fábio Carvalho from Liverpool. Then, just when I thought we were done, Lorenzo Lucca became available for just £3m from Ajax, so we jumped at the chance.
With those players in, I stuck with the 4-3-3 approach that I’d switched to at the end of last season. Lucca starts up top with Brendan Johnson and Carvalho starting out wide, Soumaré will compete with Cher Ndour for the centre midfield role, and Badiashile and Rouault should be a solid centre-back pairing. I also created a more defensive formation, which turned on time-wasting and slowed play down for when we play against bigger sides.
Season 2 With Forest Begins
The summer transfer business resonated with the media and pundits as we were now predicted to finish 16th with odds of 450/1 to win the league, down from 900/1 last season.
Our first full season began at home to Brentford and a Johnson double inspired a 2-0 opening day victory. And a 70th-minute Danilo strike earned a 1-0 win in our first away day at Fulham. Lucca was handed his full debut at home to Arsenal and made an immediate impression. Saka got sent off after 13 minutes, which allowed us to dominate, and Lucca bagged a hat-trick to inspire a 3-1 success – already paying off that £3m price tag.
Lucca scored again alongside Johnson and Badiashile as we strolled to a 3-0 win at Leeds to move to 4 wins out of 4, which was as many points as we had after 17 games last season! But we weren’t done there as Soumaré, Badiashile and sub Nelson earned a 3-1 win at home to Burnley. But the unbelievable start ended with a 2-1 loss at Bournemouth after Valeri got himself sent off and Badiashile got injured. We drew 1-1 with Palace and West Ham before a Lucca goal downed Norwich 1-0, despite our 23 shots to 5.
Our strong start prompted the Forest board to offer me a new 3-year contract on £40k per week. We still sat in 3rd place after 9 games and a sign of just how good we’d been was midfielder Danilo winning his first cap for Brazil!
The defensive formation got its first outing in a trip to Man UFC. And it worked nicely as Lucca put us ahead just before the break only for Rashford to finally nick an equaliser on 83 minutes. We also used it to draw 1-1 at Spurs, who were lingering in 16th. And a few games without a win, which coincided with a Lucca injury, ended with the big man returning to bag a hat-trick in a 4-1 victory over Watford.
A brutal December saw us lose to City, Liverpool and West Ham, nick a 2-0 win at Southampton, and the defensive approach saw us beat Chelsea 2-1 at home and earn a 1-1 at Newcastle. And that left us in an impressive 5th place and realistically already safe of relegation heading into 2024.
Domestic Cup Progress
Carabao Cup Run
A key objective of the SAF Challenge is to win a domestic cup within the first 4 seasons. In the Carabao Cup, we snuck past Norwich 1-0 then draw Man UFC at home in the 3rd round, but were excellent to beat them 2-0. Next up was an easier tier at home to Stoke and we won 2-0 before another home game against mid-table Championship side Sunderland and beat them 3-1 led by Nelson scoring the opener and creating the other 2.
The semi-final saw us drawn with Palace while City took on West Ham, so a place in the Final was very much possible. The home leg was up first and 2 goals in 6 minutes by Lucca and Carvalho earned a 2-0 victory. And a Badiashile double at Selhurst Park was enough for a 2-2 draw, so we were off to the Final! Elsewhere, City won their home leg 2-0 but lost at West Ham 3-0! But could we lift the cup? Find out after the league campaign review!
FA Cup Run
In between the two Palace semis we began our FA Cup campaign at home to Preston. Lucca picked up a knock so I threw recent youth product Johnny O’Hanlon – who was the one youth player we promoted this season – in for his debut, becoming the youngest ever Forest player aged 16 years and 211 days. And he played fairly well as we eased to a 2-0 win. We faced Watford away in round 4 and Ryan Yates earned a 1-1 draw then a Morgan Gibbs-White double helped us win the replay 4-0. And we progressed further as Badiashile, Johnson and Jesse Lingard strikes defeated West Brom 3-2 to send us into the quarter-finals.
Spurs, still down in 15th in the league, followed in the quarters and we put them in their place with a dominant performance. Soumaré scored a 20-yarder after 11 minutes, Carvalho doubled the lead 4 minutes later and Ndour made it 3 after half an hour, and we breezed to an unexpected 3-0 victory and another semi-final! Another trip to Wembley (see the Carabao Cup final below) saw us take on Liverpool, who again proved too much for us. Lucca got a goal back after early Keita and Salah strikes, but we couldn’t get level and Nunez killed the game off late on.
How High Can Forest Finish?
We began 2024 with draws against Palace, Man UFC and Norwich. But Johnson hit a brace as we ran riot 5-1 against struggling Newcastle then Rousault and Lucca earned a 2-0 win over Fulham that took us past 40 points in early February.
We didn’t let up there, beating Brentford 3-2 and Southampton 4-1 before a tricky run of fixtures. We lost to City and Brighton, drew with Spurs, but a Lucca double, which took him past 20 goals for the season, inspired a 2-0 win at Villa. That sparked a good run of form at the end of the campaign with 1-0 wins over Watford and Leeds before Johnson and Badiashile sealed a 2-1 win at Arsenal. A last-minute Ndour strike nicked a 3-2 win over Bournemouth and we finished the season with 5 successive wins as Nelson scored the only goal at Burnley.
That secured a superb 5th-place finish, with 19 wins, 11 draws and just 8 defeats, and only finished 4 points outside the Champions League places and 5 points off 3rd, but 7 points clear of 6th-place Newcastle. We got 30 more points than last season, scored 24 more goals and conceded 14 fewer.
Domestic Trophy Opportunity
Fans of West Ham and Nottingham Forest descended on Wembley Way on 6 March 2024 with both sides chasing a rare chance of silverware. We came into the game with Danilo and Moussa Niakhaté injured, Valeri nursing an injury, and Carvalho suspended, so lined up:
Caprile; Williams, Rouault, Badiashile, Valeri; Freuler, Soumaré; Ndour; Johnson, Nelson; Lucca
Subs: O’Hanlon, Popa, Yates, Gibbs-White, Lingard, Sterling, Wood, Ojeda, Bowler
The first half was a pretty drab affair in which West Ham had the only chances but Caprile kept them at bay. They continued to be on top after the break and fgot their reward as Benrahma opened the scoring. I made a host of changes, including throwing O’Hanlon on for the exhausted Lucca, but we still struggled to create any significant chances. That was until the 84th minute when winger Josh Bowler got in down the left and crossed for O’Hanlon to tap home from close range – becoming the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer and the youngest-ever Carabao Cup goalscorer aged 16 years and 264 days in a true Roy of the Rovers moment.
That took us to extra-time, where West Ham won a penalty in the 95th minute, but Caprile saved from Benrahma. We began to get on top but missed a host of chances, mostly through Wood, and eventually got a chance of our own as Gibbs-White won a penalty. Unfortunately, Wood was given the penalty and, obviously, also missed. So we were headed to the lottery of penalties.
West Ham were up first and Brereton Diaz coolly tucked home, then O’Hanlon – thanks to my assistant – missed our first spot kick. Ings and Gibbs-White both scored but Caprile saved from Benrahma and Rouault made it 2-2. Both teams scored their next 2 to go into sudden death then both scored their 6th penalties. Caprile again saved from Kehrer, giving Bowler a chance to win it… but he hit the post! Michael Keane took West Ham’s 8th penalty and blazed it wide, which meant we again had a chance to win through… Chris Wood. I couldn’t look as he ran up and the noise of the Forest fans filled my ears as this time Wood kept his cool!
Nottingham Forest were Carabao Cup Champions!!
That meant we’d completed 2 legs of the SAF Challenge, keeping Forest up, then winning a domestic cup within 4 seasons (taking only 2 seasons!).
The star of the season was probably Johnson, who scored 14 and got 14 assists in 45 games. But Lucca pushed him close with 24 goals in 40 games, Nelson matched Johnson’s 14 assists, Badiashile was superb and scored 13 goals, and his fellow loanee Carvalho scored 9 and got 9 assists. While Danilo got 11 assists and Soumaré impressed in his first season with 6 goals and 8 assists.
Could we build on a 5th-place finish next season? And how would Forest fare in Europe? Join us next Wednesday to find out!
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