Paul Hart on ...

[Managing Forest]      [Anderlecht]      [Financial Problems]      [Jenas]      [Bart-Williams]      [Summerbee]      [The Future]


The following is a short series of interviews with Paul Hart based on two longer sessions we had with him.
The first session took place in November 2001, only a few days before Forest's financial problems became apparent to the world with the suspension of their shares. The second session took place on February 28 2002.

... On Managing Nottingham Forest

On Thursday July 12 2001, after the sudden - but not unexpected - departure of David Platt to the England U21 job, Paul Hart was announced as the new manager of Nottingham Forest. The appointment was a popular choice with the fans.

At the time of his appointment he was the much respected director of Forest's highly successful youth academy and a lot of fans felt it was time he took his turn at the head of the first team.

The press speculation regarding David Platt's move to the England U21 camp had never ceased over the summer. It became so intense towards the end that, despite denials from all parties, it was obvious something was about to happen.

When it did happen, did Paul Hart expect to be offered the job?

"I don't know about expecting to be offered the job," he replies.

"But I would have been very disappointed if I hadn't been asked, because, without wishing to sound arrogant, I probably should have had a chance 2 years ago.

"From my point of view I think life would have been a lot easier then as we were in a much better financial state than we are now.

"I've taken on a difficult job at what I think is the best football club in the country at possibly the worst time."

Had Paul been offered the job two years ago he would indeed have found things very different to today. The club, despite just being relegated from the Premiership, was in a much better financial state and Paul could have found himself with a budget of between £10 -15 million to spend on the squad.

"Well there's no doubt the money would have been nice,"
he says, with a broad smile.

"A sum of £10 million is a great figure but who's to say I would have spent it anyway? The truth is, right now I would settle for getting the bank off our backs."

Indeed, Forest's financial problems have been well publicised since the start of the season, with Paul Hart taking the extraordinary step of putting the whole squad up for sale in a bid to reduce the ever-increasing overdraft.

"Well the only thing I did out of the ordinary there is to tell the truth," he continues.

"And the truth is most squads are up for sale. Any club will listen to any realistic offer for any of their players. Whether they accept it is a different matter. We are no different - I'm very happy to be the manager of Nottingham Forest and when I accepted the job I was well aware of the problems I would face."

... On Anderlecht

The second-leg of the 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final has gone down in history as probably the most controversial game Nottingham Forest have ever been involved in.

At the time of the game Brian Clough thought that the Spanish referee, Guraceta Muro, had been fixed somehow; as did several of the players involved in the game.

Some of the less than generous neutrals at the time seemed to dismiss these remarks as possible sour grapes, but in 1997 a man was arrested in Belgium on blackmail charges and the story finally broke.

Paul Hart was, of course, involved in that game. He was also directly involved in the most controversial incident of the game when he scored the late goal that would have seen Forest go through to a UEFA Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur; had the referee not controversially disallowed it.

The referee died in a car crash a couple of years later so has never been able to give his side of the story.

However, UEFA were not impressed by Anderlecht's claim that the £18,000 paid to the referee was in fact a loan, which had not been recorded. They found the club guilty and banned them from European competition for 12 months.

Nottingham Forest and the players involved in the game that night, have started court proceedings in Belgium to obtain compensation. However, since Euro 2000 things have gone very quiet, so what is the present situation?

"That's interesting, that's twice in as many days I've been asked that question," he says.

"I was doing something for BBC TV yesterday and they asked exactly the same question.

"I don't honestly know what the situation is at the moment. As far as I know it's still with the Belgian lawyers.

"Initially there was a real push to get this through the courts. As the Euro 2000 tournament approached we thought it would galvanise it a little, to avoid bad publicity. It actually had the opposite effect though and the case seemed to be all but pushed under the carpet."

It was understood at the time that Forest were financing both the club and the players actions. Bearing in mind the club's present financial situation is that still the case.

"Well again I have to be honest here and say I don't know.

"But yes they were financing it. Though as you say, bearing in mind how serious our financial problems have been and the fact that we have just sold JJ to Newcastle to help ease that situation I would be very surprised if they were.

"From the players side of things Garry Birtles was the main driving force. I haven't spoken to him about it for some time. And of course he has changed jobs and now works for the radio station so he may not have enough time to devote to it.

"Phil Soar was driving it from the club side. I think it would probably be best if you approached those two, they may be able to answer your questions better than I can."

The day after the game the local press was full of comments from players on the game. Hans Van Breukelen said in the Nottingham Evening Post that he thought the referee was a coward and took the easy way out over the penalty decision and the disallowed goal.

At what point did you and the rest of the players think there was something more sinister going on than simply a referee having a poor game?

Paul gives a laugh as he says: "It's funny, but I thought we'd have trouble with the referee before the game.

"Cloughie called us in to a team meeting on the day of the match. He was not a fan of Spanish referees and had been saying a few things in the English press about them.

"I recalled in that meeting how 18 months previously I had been playing for Leeds in a pre-season tournament. We were playing Real Madrid and the Spanish referee sent off two of our players. The game was very much geared towards Real winning it.

"As we walked out of the meeting there he was, the same referee that had been in charge of the Real game. I knew then that we might have a few problems".

On the night Forest went into the game as favourites, holding a two-goal lead from the first-leg at The City Ground. I guess even though you had previous experience with this ref you couldn't have been that worried about it.

"Well no. I thought we might have problems but not the way it turned out.
"The truth is they had not played well in the first leg at The City Ground. We knew they could play better and expected a game when we got to their place.

"On the night they did play better. Don't forget they scored two legitimate goals, but the Kenny Swain incident, that was never a penalty and as for my goal, that was as clean as a whistle.

"The gaffer was very upset afterwards, very quiet, I'd never seen him like that. He really felt we'd been turned over, he just wanted to get out of there.

"We went to Stoke that Saturday, drew 0-0 and everybody was down, flat."

The goal Paul scored that night is shown on TV occasionally, but the quality of the tape is very poor. However, despite the low quality of the tape it has been dissected several times by various TV pundits and nobody has, as yet, come up with a legitimate reason for the goal being disallowed.

"Yes that's true," continues Hart.

"I've only seen it on that bad videotape. But you watch the goalkeeper, watch his reaction as the ball goes into the net.

"He's looking to blame someone, he's not looking for the ref claiming there was something wrong.

"To me it's amazing, the Anderlecht players have all accepted it's a goal, then the ref blows his whistle.

"He never explained why he'd disallowed it.

"He couldn't even look us in the face as we left the pitch."

The referee never explained his decisions, he didn't have to, and to this day referees are not obliged to explain any decisions they make during a game. Do you as a football manager, feel there's a case for referees being made to explain decisions?

"Well it wouldn't be a bad thing. There are plenty that mystify me.

"Take the tackle on David Johnson at Walsall. We didn't even get a foul, yet a tackle like that and he's the last defender. That's supposed to be a sending off offence.

"It would be nice if they did explain what they saw and why they made the decision. But I don't think they ever will."

Now that the Anderlecht story is out in the open and we know that a referee was bribed in a major European match is there the possibility that it could ever happen again.

"That's tricky. I don't think it could but you never really know.

"Certainly in Britain and Europe it would be very difficult, if not impossible," he continues.

"The number of TV cameras covering every game would make it just about impossible. It would be so easy to spot something with all the coverage and replays.

"Just to finish off the Anderlecht thing though, going back to that game, in truth I would have preferred not to know the referee was bent.

"You can accept it if you didn't play well, or they were the better team, etc. But …. to know you were cheated - that's bloody hard to take."

... On The Financial Problems

As Forest slipped out of the Premiership at the end of the 1998-99 season and Ron Atkinson hung up his famous raincoat in retirement, the board at Nottingham Forest announced their new manager, David Platt, and a two year plan to 'gain and retain' Premiership status.

Now, two-and-a-half years later, David Platt has gone to manage the England U21 squad and the two-year plan lay in ruins.

Such are the rewards of the Premiership that Forest were willing to gamble everything to get back there. It didn't work and Paul Hart now faces the unenviable task of rebuilding a club crippled by debt.

It was obvious to all that a huge sum of money had been spent during Platt's two-year reign. However, we only started to see just how bad it really was when, only a few weeks into his new job, Paul Hart took the extraordinary step of putting the whole squad up for sale in a bid to reduce the ever-increasing overdraft.

"Well the only thing I did out of the ordinary there is to tell the truth", he says.

"And the truth is most squads are up for sale. Any club will listen to a realistic offer for any of their players. Whether they accept it is a different matter. We are no different.

"There are only half-a-dozen or so clubs in this country that don't have a debt problem. What we have done is admit it."

It seems to me, as someone watching from the outside, that selling players to make money, with the exception of JJ going to Newcastle, was not your priority. It was more a case of getting rid of the high earners.

"Yes, my main task has been to reduce the wage bill, which is far too big for a First Division club.

"We had a lot of players at the club who had been up in the Premiership and, two years after leaving it, they were still being paid Premiership wages. The club just can't afford it anymore".

Things started to look really bad for Forest just before Christmas when trading in the club's shares was suspended because the audited accounts had not been released. There was intense media speculation that the club could fold at any moment. How bad did it look from the inside?

"Well it was bad, we knew it was. But the board were working on things to solve the problems.

"The stumbling block was the court case. Nobody would be willing to invest money in the club with that threat hanging over them.

"Once Scholar and Wray dropped the case it meant the board were free to look for further investment."

We are still waiting for information from the board on the Nigel Doughty bid so for the moment the club must wait for his money. However, the JJ transfer money is going to make a difference and you have reduced the wage bill significantly. Are you seeing signs within the club that the financial pressures are easing yet?

"Well its going to be a very tight regime for the next couple of years, there's no doubt about that," explains Hart.

"There has been a more secure feeling about the place but look at the continual addressing of the situation and how it is progressing and that will show you just what sort of mess we were in.

"It hasn't finished, not by a long way, we have to be very careful, we are going to try and improve the squad but it will be within a budget.

"The club still has players on huge Premiership salaries and I still need to get the wage bill down more.

"My brief from the board is simple - reduce the wage bill."

Okay, you've reduced the wage bill, though you still have more work to do and Jermaine went to Newcastle, which covered a large chunk of the debt. There is still a significant debt to be sorted out though, so are any other departures imminent?

"What I can tell you is, I have only received one realistic offer for a player so far and that piece of business has been concluded.

"We do get other clubs, Premiership and First Division, ringing up but there have been no other realistic approaches.

"At this moment I don't have to sell. So any transfer would be my choice and it would be tactical.

"I'm not planning to sell anyone at the moment. Even if I do choose to sell the player would have to want to go.

"I agree the JJ situation was different due to the financial problems. But it was never cast iron that he was going.

"If at any point JJ had said he wasn't happy or he didn't feel he could benefit from the move then that would have been that, and he would have stayed here".

... On the JJ Transfer

After months of speculation it finally happened - Jermaine Jenas left for Newcastle and Forest are £5 million pounds better off.

The speculation regarding JJ's future started early in the season. The first reports appeared in the tabloid press on September 9 2001, less than a month after the season had started.

The main contenders for the youngster's signature appeared to be Leeds United and Newcastle.

At the time Forest were anxious to discourage unwanted advances for their rising young stars and promptly slapped a £5 million price tag on JJ's head.

The price tag may or may not have discouraged the clubs, but it definitely didn't discourage the tabloid press, who seemed determined to sell JJ at any cost.

Over the following months the rumours gained pace to the point where one tabloid (The Sun) had JJ sold to Newcastle for £4.5 Million and making his debut for the magpies that Saturday. This, of course, was many weeks before it actually happened,

The turning point in the JJ saga came at the EGM in January. Forest were in serious financial straits and the club needed to raise capital.

That week rumours linking JJ with Leeds and Newcastle had started again. At the EGM Eric Barnes confirmed that the club were in negotiations over the sale of a player.

Though he refused to confirm it at the meeting, it didn't take a genius to work out that the player involved was Jermaine Jenas.

Paul Hart, to give him credit, had fought very hard to keep his young star, but the odds were stacked against him.

When the day came the fans, though upset, took it as well as can be expected under the circumstances, accepting the inevitable. But how did Paul Hart take losing one of his stars?

"Well it really hit home that Friday morning," he says.

"I did a few interviews, television, radio, etc. and I think it's plain to see that it hit home then.

"We fought very hard to keep him but the club is broke.

"You know, the problem is we have been a victim of our own success. If we hadn't played the kids we wouldn't have lost JJ.

"The fact that we played him, and there are more to come is a testament to the courage that we have shown.

"In truth it could have been any one of three or four players going and I would have been just as disappointed.

"It was inevitable, but it means the club is still trading."

Shortly after the transfer things took a strange twist when Harry Harris of the Daily Express printed an article saying that Forest were to receive no payment for JJ now, £1.5 million in six months time and a further £1 Million in staged payments in the future.

Despite strenuous denials from both Forest and Newcastle, Harry Harris and the Express surprised everybody by repeating the allegations.

Where did that come from?

"Not from this club, that's for sure.

"Newcastle certainly didn't have anything to do with it either; they were furious and talking about taking legal action over the whole thing.

"I assume that some third party must have put him up to it. But it was complete nonsense not a scrap of truth in it."

How did JJ take it all, did it have an effect on him?

"No, JJ took it like he takes everything, in his stride," says Paul with some pride in his voice.

"Very little fazes JJ he handled the whole transfer thing with real maturity.

"We talked a lot about it. I talk to all the lads, I keep them informed. I've always been honest with them.

"When the enquiries started to come in for JJ I kept him informed.

"I told him straight and told him that of all the enquiries I though that the club that really wanted him, the manager that really wanted him, the warmest feeling I was getting was coming from Newcastle and Bobby Robson".

"JJ's biggest worry was that he would be transferred somewhere and then get stuck in the reserves for a couple of seasons.

"Neither he nor I saw the point in that. But Newcastle made it obvious that was not what they wanted for him and he would be playing in the first team".

Robson comes across as a nice man, someone who cares for both the club and the players. Is that a fair assessment of him?

"Yes, I have had a lot of dealings with Bobby Robson and he is a fair man. He does care about the players, especially the youngsters.

"It was never cast iron that JJ would leave unless he felt that he was going to make progress.

"If he didn't want to go there or felt his development as a player wouldn't benefit all he had to do was say no, that would have been that and he would have stayed here."

He made a great start to his new life up north with his debut, but they threw him in at the deep end sticking him the local derby.

"Yes," laughs Hart

"He did really well, excellent I thought."

It's not the same though is it? It's not nice seeing him in that black and white shirt. Especially when you consider he's a Nottingham lad and a Forest fan as well.

"Yes it makes it seem worse doesn't it. But he is enjoying himself and taking it all in his stride.

"Robson and Newcastle have a very good prospect for the future. We'll be hearing a lot more about JJ in the future."

Of that we can all be certain.

... On Chris Bart-Williams

At the end of the 2000-01 season Chris Bart-Williams asked to be put on the transfer list. His contract would run out at the end of the 2001-02 season and it looked like he wouldn't be offered a new one so he wanted out.

So what happened with Chris Bart-Williams?

"It's very simple really. Chris Bart-Williams went on the transfer list at his own request.

"He never once came in here and asked to be taken off it. That led me to think that he really wanted to leave the club.

"We put two offers to him, one from Birmingham and one to Southampton. He turned them down."

What was the deal with Southampton, we heard he wanted to go on loan?

"Yes he did," continues Hart.

"Nottingham Forest have financial problems and we need to move people on, to get some cash for them where we can and reduce the wage bill.

"We put offers to him and of course he was interested in the Southampton one because it was the Premiership.

"But Chris says he will go only if it is a loan deal. That way he keeps his options open and can move on for free at the end of the season.

"The bottom line for me at the time was that if I couldn't shift people like Chris out of the club then I would have no choice but to get rid of someone else.

"Of course the only players with any true value were the young kids.

"I'd said at the start of the season I wanted to build a team based on the youngsters.

"Then due to the precarious state of the club and Bart-Williams refusal to leave I could have found myself forced to cash in on the very youngsters I wanted to keep."

The problem for you at the time was that you were going to lose Bart-Williams no matter what as he would walk out of the club at the end of the season as a free agent under the Bosman ruling.

"Exactly," says Hart.

"We were going to lose him anyway and cashing in would have helped greatly.

"Don't forget, he asked to be put on the transfer list while David Platt was still the manager.

"Don't get me wrong, but if you ask to go on the transfer list then you want to leave the club".

It looks like he played the situation very diplomatically and it seems to have worked out for him.

Is that why you dropped him initially?

"No, definitely not," he says.

"I ask you to look back at his performances before I dropped him.

"I drop players for footballing reasons."

... On Nicky Summerbee

On Tuesday Evening Nicky Summerbee got injured during the Bradford Game.

He's been playing on a pay-as-you-play basis since he joined us and obviously being injured means he can't play. How bad is he?

"He's bad," says Hart.

"He's had a scan and I'm waiting for the results, but it's not looking good, he's likely to be out for the rest of the season."

A newspaper article I read this morning claims we offered him a contract but he turned us down. Is that right?

"Yes, in fact we offered him three".

"We offered to the end of this season, the end of next season and two-and-a-half years.

"Nicky came to me and asked for time to think. He'd heard there was another club interested in him and he wanted to think it over.

"In the end the board withdrew its offer to him and then on Tuesday he got injured."

... On What's to Come

Most people would agree that Paul Hart's first season in charge has been anything but uneventful.

Announced as the new manager less than a couple of hours after the previous incumbent left (must be some sort of record). Fighting financial ruin and forced to sell your best player just to keep the club afloat.

So after all that what is to come for Forest and Paul Hart now?

"Well it's in a transitional state at the moment," he says.

"At the moment I've had enough of this season. It's been unbelievably frustrating.

"Yet look at what we have achieved with the kids, we have made unbelievable progress and we are viewed as the best passing side in the division."

You said at the beginning of the season that we needed to be patient and let the side develop.

The youngsters have settled in nicely and we are on target for a mid-table finish, a nice safe position, I don't think anyone is expecting more this season.

"Hmmm. I think you're wrong," continues Hart.

"I think you're just saying that. I think there were times before Christmas when you thought we could get into the play-offs and there are times when you thought we were good enough to get promotion."

Well that's true. When the side is making significant progress and results are good you are filled with confidence watching the team.

You see the play-off places getting nearer and you hope.

"Exactly," says Hart.

"We are only 9 points off a play-off spot now, it's a very tight league.

"To be honest I'll be glad when this season is over, it's been very wearing.

"Admittedly it was made worse by the problems off the field. Hopefully that is behind us now though and we can look to the future."

Talking of which, the products of the youth academy are the future for this football club and you, probably more than anyone else, are well aware of this.

You must be very proud of the ones that have come through and made the transition.

"Yes, of course I am".

"But before we talk about the youngsters don't forget the older players as well. The ones you've seen nothing of for the past two seasons.

"I'm talking about Riccy Scimeca, Jim Brennan, Matthieu Louis-Jean and big Jon Hjelde.

"They are having terrific season, you've hardly seen anything from them for the past couple of seasons but they are playing some of their best football ever and they are enjoying it as well.

"But returning to the youngsters, I'm very proud of them they have all handled the situation well."

Yes, I've noticed that. I thought as the youngsters were introduced each one would take time to bed in and adjust to the first team game. But to a man they've come in and settled in straightaway, hardly a sign of nerves or anything.

"Yes, it's part of their training. We introduce them slowly".

Of course some of the youngsters, Prutton, Jenas, Williams and Doig had their introductions before you took over as manager and they are now regular first team players.

Probably the revelation of the season though is John Thompson. He's done superbly well.

"Yes, he's settled in nicely.

"He came in when we had a problem. Played well and earned himself the right to another game.

"Now he has settled in it is up to the other players to dislodge him and get their place back.

"I think we've used 15 or 16 players this season that have come through our Academy."

Yes, it's been great to see especially the ones that have become first-team regulars and squad players like Bopp and Cash.

Will we see people like Westcarr making the breakthrough soon?

"Well he made his debut earlier in the season," he says.

"But he is still only 16. Players need time to develop".

"I like to give them a taste but I don't think a 16 year-old is ready for full-time First Division football".

Moving on to the summer, what about Chris Greenacre? He has been linked with Forest for a while now, but the papers are also saying a lot of other clubs are interested as well.

"Well I'm not saying we are interested in him and I'm not saying we aren't. That is for the summer".

And still talking of summer, you have got rid of several players now who were highly paid and leaving for free in the summer. Are there any more players whose contract expires in the summer?

"There are a few yes, Andy Gray, Damien Lynch, Gareth Edds and Kevin Dawson, but none of what we would, at this time, consider to be first team regulars, the so called big players.

"The contracts for Jim Brennan, Riccy Scimeca, Jon Hjelde and Jack Lester all run out at the end of next season."

You've just named what most people would consider the most senior and experienced players in the squad and by default probably the highest paid as well.

It would be nice to know that come the middle of next season you have more money available and are in a better position to negotiate with these players.

"Well yes," he continues.

"Except that we have always had the option to negotiate. The trouble is people seem to think that negotiation means an automatic increase in wages.

"Consider the people that have left and the enormous salaries they were on - all negotiated before I became manager.

"There was no way that players like Stern John and Bart-Williams could be given increases, the club is still broke".

With that we ended the interview with Paul and thanked him for his time.

Since the interviews have taken place and been written up several events have happened, including David Johnson returning from his loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday and immediately going out on loan again to Burnley; the arrival of striker, Adam Proudlock, on loan from Wolves, and his subsequent recall by Wolves to cover for injury problems; the youngsters going off to America to take part in the prestigious Dallas Cup Competition - and winning it; and possibly the most significant for the future of Nottingham Forest is the announcement, this week, of the EGM where shareholders will vote on the proposed injection of cash from Nigel Doughty.

It's certainly been an interesting and eventful season for Forest, lets hope next season is just as eventful and interesting but on the pitch rather than off it.


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