“Ah, here he is!” comments a Maidstone United player as an almost shy looking Nicky Southall enters the club’s Gallagher Stadium. As soon as the United players having cups of tea before training notice ‘Trigger’ entering, you can instantly see the respect they have for their assistant manager, who plied the majority of his trade as a player in the Football League – as well as a stint in the top flight once upon a time. The 44-year-old turned out for Gillingham, Norwich City and Bolton Wanderers amongst others, but the topic of discussion on the agenda today is Nottingham Forest.
The Reds have been through a rather turbulent four years as the club has regressed in each season under Kuwaiti owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s reign, and while there is cautious optimism regarding the supposed takeover from Greek business tycoon and Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis, the Al-Hasawi regime goes down as one of the worst in the club’s history – but not the absolute worst. That ‘honour’ belongs to the period when Forest fell into the Third Division – where they remained for three years – back in 2005 for the first time since the 1950/51 season.
Out of every darkness comes light however, and one of Forest’s lights then was midfielder Southall, who signed on a two-year deal from Gillingham in the summer of 2005. Ironically, Forest had relegated Southall’s Gillingham a few weeks prior to his arrival, and made the bold call to offer the then 33-year-old a two-year deal. “To get a two-year deal at that age, well, you wouldn’t get that kind of contract now,” Southall tells me. “I know it didn’t get off to the best of starts with Gary Megson, but he brought me to the club and made me feel welcome, as a lot of the Forest fans did.”
Gary Megson is a name that still sparks hatred in Forest fans, and in some cases, former Forest players. Seen as arguably the worst manager in the club’s history, Megson’s 13 month reign was an unmitigated disaster for nearly all involved – players included. Southall refuses to lift the lid on what exactly happened with other members of the playing staff out of respect for his former team-mates, but instead, he tells me how he experienced no major issues with Megson, and made it his mission to become an established member of the dressing room.
“We got on fine, I was obviously one of his signings…he had his differences with certain players which stays in the dressing room as I don’t want to get into that, but for me as an individual, I used to go out there and give everything for the cause and I think if you do that, you become well liked in and around the dressing room, with the staff and with the fans,” Southall explains. “When I signed, it was one of those where people raised eyebrows, like ‘who is he?’ and this, that and the other, but I thought first and foremost that if I can win the respect of the players in the dressing room and obviously the fans, that would be key.”
It adds more depth to the respect shown to Southall as he emerged before this interview took place, as the Maidstone players know he’s essentially one of them, even if he doesn’t take to the field himself. Finding people you can trust in football isn’t easy as many players will testify, but by keeping issues regarding other players off limits, perhaps Southall is one of them. Given the nature of the issues in hand, you have to praise Southall’s integrity further.
Forest fan favourites Alan Rogers and David Johnson both castigated Megson on social media, with their tweets recalling horrific bullying from a dictator who’d lost the plot. Johnson claimed he was once dropped for refusing to tackle Wes Morgan in an impromptu game of American Football – organised by Megson – in a car park the morning of a match, while for Rogers it was a lot more personal.
The left back insists he was greeted on Megson’s first day with a handshake and the words, “I will ruin your career” as Rogers once turned down an approach from Megson’s West Bromwich Albion. Rogers, a mainstay at left back in the disastrous 2004/05 season, played just nine times for Megson following the new manager’s arrival in January 2005 before being placed on gardening leave, with Megson even banning the popular defender from using the club car park. Perhaps understandably, the dressing room was divided before the new signings – including Southall – arrived, but the midfielder focussed solely on working his way into the first-team.
“I’d come in pre-season as a new boy with the other new signings so you tend to not really see it, but stuff did happen that I wasn’t aware of the season before,” Southall states. “Every manager has got his own ideas how he wants to play and what team selections he wants, and I think as a new player you’ve got to respect that and get your head down to try and get onto the pitch because that’s all I wanted to do.”
However, it was clear that Megson was on dangerously thin ice, and after a run of one win in 10 games, the already anti-Megson fans really cranked up the hatred. Banners started appearing demanding for his head as Forest – expected to challenge for promotion – found themselves just four points above the drop zone following a 3-0 defeat away at Oldham Athletic. Southall recalls that the players were more than aware of the animosity in the stands, and on a personal level, believed they were entitled to act the way they did, even though he’d rather they hadn’t.
“Obviously we were aware,” he tells me. “As a player it doesn’t help when there’s a lot of negative energy in the stadium, especially a very big stadium with a lot of fans there, but the fans voice their opinion and as they pay their money, they have the right to do that.” Megson’s fate was sealed after that loss and he left in February 2006 by mutual consent, with Ian McParland and Frank Barlow – Charlie and Frank – taking temporary charge. The change seemed to reinvigorate the club, and the players knew they needed to step up.
“As players, we knew we had to perform – and that’s what we did till the end of the season,” Southall declares. “You see it all the time, a manager gets sacked and the team seem to turn it around over the next few games – whether it’s because the new manager is sat in the stands looking down or players who weren’t in the team try to get a second chance with a caretaker manager.”
And boy, did they perform. The two games after Megson’s departure saw Forest score a whopping nine goals in two games, including one memorable encounter against Swindon Town at The City Ground, with Forest running out 7-1 winners. The man spearheading a rampant Forest that day by bagging a hattrick? Nicky Southall. When it comes to picking his best moment for the club, it’s little wonder Southall chose this – even if it got an old mate into some hot water.
“When I look back, it’s one of the standout performances of my career and the team performance – you don’t just look at yourself, but the team as a whole – was just amazing,” he declares. “Everything we seemed to hit or cross or head just seemed to go in that day. You get days like that, I’ve been on the end of results like that in the past and it’s not easy, but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. For me personally, it was a magical experience to score a hattrick in front of the Forest fans. However, in the dugout for Swindon was my ex-teammate and former Gillingham roommate Iffy Onuora, who lost his job not long after that game, so I feel a bit guilty on that one!”
Charlie and Frank oversaw 13 games with Forest, winning eight, drawing four and losing just one as the Reds narrowly missed out on the play-offs, eventually finishing seventh. On a personal level though, Southall’s debut season with the Reds was a resounding success and he came second behind Ian Breckin in the club’s Player of the Year awards following his exploits on the pitch. The new season saw Forest opt for yet another fresh approach, this time with Colin Calderwood, who was poached from his managerial position at Northampton Town. While it posed the challenge of proving yourself all over again, Southall had a good working relationship with the new boss.
“He was great,” Southall exclaims. “I’d scored quite a few goals that season (8 in 43 from midfield) and claimed some assists too, so being a consistent performer who could play in various different positions in midfield and with my experience in the squad, I’d hoped he wouldn’t change too much. But yeah, he came in, he’s got different ideas like all managers do, and he did OK.”
Calderwood’s Forest had a flying start to the 2006/07 season, winning five of their first six league games, only – in recent typical Forest fashion – to win two out of their next seven. Following the embarrassing 4-0 home pasting by Scunthorpe United live on Sky, Southall essentially won Forest their next three games with four goals, as well as a strike in the Football League Trophy, taking his tally to five in four. The first came against Southall’s former club Gillingham in a 1-0 win, and he refused to celebrate after netting at his former stomping ground.
“It was in front of the end where the hardcore Gillingham fans go, and just out of respect I didn’t celebrate, which I think was the right thing to do,” he says. “Whenever I used to score a goal, I used to score them in clumps – I do remember than if I got one, I tended to get another couple in the next few weeks. It’s just the confidence in getting in those positions, trying to read the game as to where the ball will land and trying to get to the far stick. That’s one thing I did all through my career, try and get to the back stick, because that’s where goals are scored.”
Southall remained an integral part of the side which looked certain to finish in the top two, but when the team travelled to Carlisle for a midweek match at Brunton Park at the end of January with the Reds in fourth – three points behind leaders Scunthorpe with two games in hand – that all changed. With the end of the January transfer window fast approaching, and with his contract expiring in six months despite his agent’s best efforts, a telephone call resulted in Southall surprisingly departing Trentside with a heavy heart for a third spell at Gillingham.
“The move was a shock to myself,” he explains. “I was up at Carlisle at a hotel about to have my evening meal as we were staying overnight, and then I got a phone call. My agent was in talks with Nottingham Forest as I wanted a two-year contract as I felt I was playing well enough and giving everything for the team, but the club was only offering me a year. I felt a bit let down by that and then Gillingham came in and offered me a two-and-a-half year contract. I still had a house down there which I’d rented out, so I thought to have a two-and-a-half year deal aged 34 would probably see me out. I didn’t want to leave Forest, we were pushing to get promoted and I felt I was a key component for that, but I went for the guarantee of a two-and-a-half year contract thinking of my family’s future.”
Southall’s last game for the Reds wasn’t exactly a bad one mind, as he got to mix it up with some of the world’s best as Forest drew Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Predictably, Forest were comfortably beaten 3-0 with Andriy Shevchenko, Didier Drogba and John Obi Mikel finding the net, but for Southall it was a brilliant occasion, and he left with a top memento from it.
“I swapped shirts with Frank Lampard, so that was a good shirt to swap with!” he says laughing. “It was a great occasion playing against superstars, and it’s always good to test yourself against those players – household names and incredible footballers both individually and collectively. It was a difficult game, Drogba was unplayable, but I remember the thousands of Forest fans in the top tier of the stand. It was sad losing it, and we weren’t realistically going to win the FA Cup, but it would have been nice to get a goal for the fans.”
Without Southall, Forest’s automatic promotion charge completely fell apart. The club won eight out of their last 18 matches, which saw them finish nine points behind winners Scunthorpe and three behind second placed Bristol City. Not content with spectacularly blowing a great opportunity once, missing out on the automatic slots resulted in the ill-fated play-off ties against Yeovil Town, which Forest lost 5-4 on aggregate having won the first leg – away from home – 2-0.
The next season, Forest finally got promoted back to the Championship after finishing second on the final day of the season with – ironically – a 3-2 win over Yeovil at The City Ground. Meanwhile, Southall’s Gillingham were relegated to League Two, allowing him to cruelly wonder ‘what if?’ The midfielder hit 15 goals in 78 games for Forest, which is outstanding for a midfielder, and Southall hopes that he’s remembered fondly for his performances at a club he holds in immense regard.
“I’d like to think the Forest fans would say that I was a success, I felt I had the respect of the supporters and those around the football club,” he tells me. “You’ve got to earn the right for fans to buy your shirt, and hopefully I did that. I’d like to say on record that I loved every part of being at Nottingham Forest, I’ve still got a lot of friends there and wish the club every success.”
A few months after this interview was taken, and assistant manager Southall was celebrating back-to-back promotions with former Football League club Maidstone, as they reached the Conference. With United – a former Football League club until liquidation in 1992 – only reforming mere days after folding in ’92 to start again in the Fourth Division of the Kent County League, this is an incredible achievement and highlights that out of every darkness comes light. Not for the first time in Southall’s footballing career, he’s involved in ensuring that.