Nottingham Forest’s 1998/99 season – their last in the Premier League until now – is remembered for many things. Pierre van Hooijdonk went on strike, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put four past them from the bench in an 8-1 win at the City Ground, and Ron Atkinson marked his mid-season arrival by going to the wrong dugout.
However, it’s a different aspect of Big Ron’s tenure that’s always stuck in my mind. Forest’s transfer activity this season has been compared to someone playing a computer game, but the kind of splurge they’ve made is rarely an option to a Championship/Football Manager player, without some sort of cheat mode.
Atkinson’s signings in January 1999, though, are so recognisable to the experienced CM player. Inheriting a weak squad, he was in the familiar situation of needing to get some players in – maybe not even major upgrades on what you already have, but plausible enough to be worth a throw of the dice. While the five players that came to the City Ground each have their merits, I can’t think of of a set of signings with more of a sense of Player Search > Transfer/Loan Listed > Interested.
Southampton, £1.1 million
The only permanent signing among four loans – although he wouldn’t last far into the next season – Palmer, is on the fact of it, the most unremarkable of the signings. An experienced Premier League player, and the only one of the five signed from a club in the division, Palmer had played under Atkinson at West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday. He made this most appearances of the five, with 13, but later described the move to the City Ground as the worst decision of his career.
DC United, loan
One of the first examples of the spring MLS loan, later popularised by David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, among others, Harkes was another player familiar to Atkinson – partnering Palmer in his Sheffield Wednesday days. Harkes brought plenty of top flight appearance to the team, but only managed three appearances – including the 8-1 defeat to Man United – before returning to the US.
San Jose Clash, loan
Another MLS loan, centre-back Gough was winding down a career that had seen him win ten Scottish titles, nine in a row with Rangers. Although Gough only made seven appearances for Forest, the move prolonged a career that Gough was planning to end, in order take up a coaching role in the US. Instead, though, at the end of the season he instead received contract offers from Forest, West Ham and Everton. He joined the latter – reuniting with former Rangers boss Walter Smith – and spent two successful years at Goodison, occasionally partnering the equally experienced Dave Watson.
Now the Championship Manager-ness steps up another notch. I’m sure I remember Porfirio being loan-listed in at least one version of CM around that time, and Ron clearly took notice of this. The Portuguese winger had played in the Premier League before, on loan to West Ham from Sporting two years prior and though he is less well-remembered than his compatriots Paulo Future and Dani, he did score a superb goal against Wrexham in the snow in the FA Cup (boss Harry Redknapp remarked that it was the first time Hugo had seen such weather).
By 1999, Porfirio’s career was already tailing off – he had barely played since joining Benfica – and a struggling Premier League team was probably not the best place to resurrect it. He made nine appearances, scoring once, returning home at the end of the season. The situation didn’t improve though, and Porfirio broke his contract with Benfica – only to return again shortly afterwards – before dropping down the leagues.
Another player who was perpetually available in Championship Manager, Norwegian left-back Stensaas had been part of the great Rosenborg team of the 1990s. Like most of this team, he earned a move to a bigger club, and joined a Rangers side chasing their tenth straight title in 1997. He had been part of a large spending spree, with mixed results – players such as Lorenzo Amoruso, Gennaro Gattuso, Sergio Porrini and Marco Negri came in, with mixed results, and while Stensaas couldn’t match the latter’s dramatic falling out, he, like Negri, would remain on Rangers’ books for some time after his last appearance.
Rangers had failed to win the title in 1998, and manager Walter Smith stepped down, replaced by Dick Advocaat. The Dutchman brought in his own left-back, in Arthur Numan, and clearly saw no use for Stensaas, even as a backup. After two appearances in the first half of the season, he joined Forest on loan, but failed to make an impact in his seven games. Back with Rangers the following season, he didn’t make a single appearance, before returning to Rosenborg in 2000. Here he was able to resurrect his career, adding five more Norwegian titles to the three he’d already won, and earning a first international call-up for Norway.