Only two years ago, things were very different at Nottingham Forest.
Summer 2021: There is a limited budget as Chris Hughton looks to put together a squad capable of challenging for a top-six finish in the Championship.
There were four brilliant signings made; a quartet of players who were to go on to play a massive role, they were Djed Spence, James Garner, Max Lowe and Philip Zinckernagel — fringe figures at Middlesbrough, Manchester United, Sheffield United and Watford, who all arrived on loan.
The permanent additions had less impact. Almost none, to be precise.
Xande Silva (West Ham, £200k), Rodrigo Ely (Alaves, free), Braian Ojeda (Olimpia £2m) and Mo Drager (Olympiacos, free) made a total of only five league starts between them and have all subsequently moved on. USMNT international Ethan Horvath (Club Bruges, free) did have a part to play and remains on the books, but could yet move.
When it comes to permanent additions, Forest can rarely have experienced a worse window, shopping in a marketplace of unknown and unwanted players.
This summer, Forest gave brief consideration to moves for Sergio Ramos and Alexis Sanchez. Neither was ever close to happening. But this is the marketplace they are now operating in.
They spent about £90million ($112.5m) to land 13 new additions, including a club-record deal of £30million for Ibrahim Sangare, who was persuaded to swap Champions League football with PSV Eindhoven for a club still working to establish themselves as a Premier League force.
Of the 13 new signings, 11 have won international caps and the other two — Murillo and Nuno Tavares — soon might.
The memorable recruitment drive last season, which saw 29 new players arrive across two windows, saw Forest saddled with a certain reputation; mocked for their supposedly haphazard approach. But overall this window felt different; this window was far more carefully planned and executed, though Forest did expose themselves to scrutiny when they signed Gonzalo Montiel, the Argentina international full-back who is subject to an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual assault.
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Remarkably, considering Brennan Johnson was sold for a club-record £47.5m fee to Tottenham Hotspur, Forest finished the window with a much stronger squad.
Here’s how it all unfolded.
There was a clear sign of things to come in mid-July.
Willian, the 35-year-old former Brazil international who was available on a free transfer with his Fulham contract coming to an end, had been to the Nigel Doughty Academy for a tour of the facilities. He had been on the receiving end of the full Steve Cooper charm offensive and a lucrative two-year contract was offered.
Forest were hopeful that they had done enough to persuade the former Chelsea and Arsenal winger to sign.
But what would have been a statement of intent did not come to fruition, as Willian rejected Forest’s advances, to sign a new one-year deal at Craven Cottage. There was a feeling that Forest’s interest had been used as a bargaining tool.
Forest were also looking to strengthen in goal. They had already made a bid for Matt Turner, Arsenal’s USMNT goalkeeper. Part of Forest’s summer blueprint was to bring back Dean Henderson, from Manchester United, after he had impressed on loan.
There was some surprise at Forest that Luton Town had not taken up an option to sign Horvath — also a USMNT player — permanently, after he had played a key role in their promotion to the top flight, while on loan.
Forest also had Wayne Hennessey — but, as well as Henderson, they always wanted another genuinely high-quality goalkeeping option.
The slight issue was that Arsenal were also working on their own goalkeeper line-up. They would not sanction a move until their own efforts to sign David Raya from Brentford were given the green light.
In the meantime, Forest had concerns about the thigh injury that had effectively ended Henderson’s season. The former England man had undergone surgery to repair the problem in May and was still completing his recovery — to a point where it was questioned whether it would be wise to put him through the physical demands of the medical process.
Forest’s cautious mood had been influenced by the addition of Omar Richards from Bayern Munich in 2022, when he effectively signed with an undiagnosed fracture in his lower leg. The £8million signing is yet to play a game for Forest now, following a series of injury setbacks. He has joined Forest’s sister club Olympiacos on loan, where he will continue his fight to regain fitness.
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Forest were understandably cautious about investing a significant transfer fee into Henderson, a player they were aware had an injury issue. The question of whether United might be willing to allow Henderson to depart for a lesser fee — or even on another straight loan deal — was explored.
Forest had been encouraged by Henderson’s commitment during his time in Nottingham. He moved to the area and, even after his injury, he attended almost every game — and was central to the celebrations when Premier League safety was secured.
But the decision was made to step away. Forest’s path will cross with Henderson again on Saturday October 7 when they face Crystal Palace, with the 26-year-old having made a £15million move there on August 31.
Forest also held talks with Renan Lodi, another of their successful loan signings, in an attempt to make his move from Atletico permanent. But he was lured to France by the prospect of Champions League football with Marseille.
It was around this time that Forest decided to restore their working relationship with George Syrianos, who had left his role as head of recruitment in October 2022.
With hindsight, the quality of the job he had done — including identifying Taiwo Awoniyi, Moussa Niakhate and Orel Mangala as signings — was more appreciated and he returned in an advisory role to the board.
With input from chief football officer Ross Wilson, Carlos Borges of Manchester City was installed as a target. The winger ultimately moved to Ajax for €14m. Forest also held an interest in Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi. But there was a feeling that they might be frustrated, with a deal understood to have been broadly agreed with their London neighbours, Fulham. But Fulham head coach Marco Silva was an influence as they opted not to buy.
Forest were offered Brazilian wonderkid Matheus Nascimento and had given some consideration to whether to sign the Botafogo forward and loan him out to Olympiacos. Similarly, Forest had been offered Wilmar Barrios, a Colombian international midfielder who plays in Russia for Zenit, Sofyan Amrabat — who ended up at Manchester United — and Leicester City forward Kelechi Iheanacho.
But, on July 22, it was Ola Aina who became the low-key first signing. Aina had Premier League experience from a loan spell with Fulham but arrived as a free agent following the end of his deal with Torino.
Aina was always a key part of Cooper’s plan, as he wanted to return to the 3-4-3 formation that had helped Forest to win promotion — and believed having quick wing-backs would be vital. Aina would provide that down the right and, down the left, he wanted the pace to be supplied by Arsenal’s Tavares. An approach was made but he was wary of making a hasty decision.
Forest explored alternatives — Wilson flew out to France to hold talks over a move for Ismael Jakobs but the fee Monaco wanted was too high. Instead, Forest completed their second signing on July 25, made with half an eye on the potential departure of Johnson.
Anthony Elanga fitted into Cooper’s desire for pace and athleticism and Forest felt they were getting a good price for an established Sweden international who came with vast potential. He cost £15million from Manchester United and immediately made a positive impact. His ability to speak five languages helped him to slot straight into an internationally diverse dressing room.
At the same time, Forest were driving a hard bargain for Sam Surridge, eventually managing to persuade MLS side Nashville to part with £5m for a player who had cost half that amount when he signed from Stoke in January 2022.
In early August, it was suggested that the club had bid for Roma defender Roger Ibanez. But, while there was interest, that was all and the Brazil international secured a €30m move to Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia. Forest were linked with Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish keeper, but they had other targets and, on August 9, with Raya’s move to Arsenal from Brentford having progressed, Turner was finally allowed to join Forest.
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The goalkeeper made his debut against his former club as Forest performed well in a 2-1 defeat. Afterwards, Cooper voiced his concerns about the lack of signings.
“If we want to grow and improve, we need to bring some players in. I really hope the club can do that now,” said Cooper.
Cooper was a big fan of midfielder Leeds’ Tyler Adams, but there were concerns about his injury status. On August 17, an ambitious, verbal offer of €35m was made for midfielder Youssouf Fofana but, even if Monaco were interested, Fofana was dubious.
There was interest from Saudi Arabia in defender Serge Aurier but the popular figure preferred to stay. Forest nevertheless signed another right-back to their ranks — adding to Aurier, Aina and Neco Williams — when they signed Montiel on loan from Sevilla. Montiel, 26, has quality and is versatile, but he also arrived with allegations of sexual assault hanging over him.
In June, he was interviewed by Buenos Aires prosecutors investigating an alleged rape of a young woman at a party at his house in January 2019. Montiel, 26, is one of two male suspects under investigation over the alleged crime.
Montiel denies the allegations and has not been charged with any offences. When asked if they had any concerns about signing Montiel in the circumstances, Forest responded with a short statement: “The club has conducted due diligence and we are fully satisfied following conversations with his representatives.”
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Forest bolstered their midfield options when Andrey Santos joined on loan from Chelsea on August 25. The Brazilian had impressed during pre-season with his parent club, but Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino was keen for him to experience regular first-team football. Landing him was significant.
Another notable signing came as Forest agreed a deal worth around €15million to sign Murillo from Corinthians. Tavares was also at the City Ground to go through more of the paperwork associated with his loan move from Arsenal — which includes the option to make the move permanent for £12million.
Loic Mbe Soh, who had struggled to fulfil his potential since joining Forest for £5million from PSG in September 2020, joined Almere City in the Dutch top flight on loan.
Forest headed into deadline day still wanting a powerful No 6 as their priority — and with Sangare as their No 1 choice.
Plenty was still up in the air, but Forest were playing a game of poker. Their first bid for Sangare came more than a year previously but he signed a new contract with PSV.
Forest did have fall-back options, with Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi at the top of the list. It suited them to make this information public, as they looked to leverage a deal for Sangare. Ndidi was only an option if Sangare didn’t happen.
Forest never really abandoned plan A, submitting a fresh bid for Sangare last Thursday and upping their charm offensive, with the help of Cooper, on deadline day.
It was to pay off when, after a late flight into Nottingham from the Netherlands, Sangare was finally unveiled as a Forest player at 12.15am.
Forest had already braced themselves for the chaos of deadline day, knowing they wanted to complete a lot of deals in a short time.
The capture of Tavares was officially announced at 10am. In the meantime, members of staff from several different departments were drafted in to act as player liaisons for the day — meet players at airports and ensure they got where they needed to be, whether that was to undergo their medical checks or to fulfil club media duties.
At 5pm, the swap deal that saw Remo Freuler — and a fee of €8million — go to Bologna, with Argentina international Nicolas Dominguez moving in the opposite direction, was confirmed.
An hour later, Hudson-Odoi’s move to Forest, for an initial fee of just £3million — an incredible figure for a player who almost joined Bayern in a deal that could have been worth £70million three years ago — had been confirmed and the former England winger was stood outside the stadium, signing autographs.
At 8pm, the door to the office occupied by the administration staff — led by Taymour Roushdi, the head of football administration — had been closed as they focused on getting all the required paperwork done.
But the efforts of last season were a learning experience, with few late dramas even as Forest continued to spin numerous plates.
At 10.30pm, Odysseas Vlachodimos joined from Benfica for €8million. With his Champions League experience and international experience with Greece, he is viewed as a No 1 goalkeeper.
Brentford’s pursuit of Johnson stretched back years, rather than months — but they had not given up.
On August 28, they bid again, this time offering £35million, rising to £40m. They upped the ante on deadline day as well, with another, improved offer.
Aston Villa had also made a proposal in July, including Lucas Diane as part of a potential deal — although his wages of £120,000 a week were an issue.
Forest knew selling Johnson would be a huge help when it came to complying with financial fair play regulations.
By mid-August, Chelsea’s interest was well-known behind the scenes, but Tottenham had also made Johnson their primary target.
Early in the final week of the window, Evangelos Marinakis involved himself in the process to ensure that Forest got the best deal, personally taking on negotiations with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy.
By Thursday, Forest had prepared for Johnson’s departure, to a point where an emotional video, thanking him for his service to the club, had already been edited and was ready to go.
On deadline day, Johnson reported for training as normal and was working with his team-mates when he was told to get in a car and head to the capital, with Forest having reached an agreement with Tottenham to sell him.
Johnson’s £47.5m move was confirmed at 11pm.
The sky above the City Ground was emblazoned with light as the new floodlights put on a spectacular show for the unveiling of Sangare, which came just after midnight.
— Nottingham Forest (@NFFC) September 1, 2023
There was still more to be done, however.
Miltos Marinakis, the son of owner Evangelos, is a long-time fan of Belgium forward Michy Batshuayi. Forest had pushed hard to sign him before and there was a desire to try again. But an alternative emerged, in the form of a loan deal to sign his international team-mate, Divock Origi, from AC Milan. Forest hold an option to make the move permanent for €4.5m and it is a less costly deal than it would have been to sign Batshuayi from Fenerbahce.
Trevoh Chalobah, the Chelsea defender, had been publicly courted by Bayern and was the subject of a late bid from Tottenham, but Forest had also made a bid of £25million on deadline day. Chalobah politely made it clear earlier in the window that a move to Forest did not appeal and that stance did not change, which is what led to the late, late push for Andrew Omobamidele.
As luck would have it, Omobamidele’s team, Norwich City, were set to play Rotherham United on Saturday so he was not far away and could travel to Nottingham to complete the formalities of an £11m move. Hwang Ui-jo had already gone to Norwich on loan, leaving space for one of the Championship’s brightest young defenders.
Alex Mighten has moved to Belgian club KV Kortrijk on loan and Giulian Biancone is expected to join Olympiacos before the end of the Greek transfer window on Monday. Forest are also hopeful of finding buyers for Emmanuel Dennis and Jonjo Shelvey while other international windows remain open.
But it is not just the signings made by Forest that typify how far the club have come. Amid Chelsea’s flurry of transfer activity, it was easy to joke that it was only a matter of time before they tried to sign Taiwo Awoniyi, given his remarkable run of scoring in seven consecutive Premier League games.
Sure enough, Chelsea did ask about him in the 48 hours before the deadline. But Forest are now in a position to say no.
(Top photos: Getty Images)