Retro football writer Sid Lambert looks back at when Nottingham Forest replaced hot-shot Stan Collymore with the worst striker the Premier League has ever seen.
It takes a lot to make Frank Clark smile. The Nottingham Forest boss wore the permanent expression of a man who’d found a melted choc ice in his back pocket.
Clark had every reason to feel nervous. A quiet, humble man, the former Leyton Orient manager was replacing the iconic Brian Clough at the City Ground. Clough’s joie de vivre had lit up football’s horizon for over 20 years. If Clough’s presence could fill any room, then Clark was the type of guy who sat in the corner admiring the paint job on the skirting board.
The club had been ripped apart by the double blow of Clough’s retirement and relegation from the top tier. It was Clark’s task to rebuild it.
But on this summer’s day in 1993, he wore a genuine smile. And why wouldn’t he? Standing next to him was the best-kept secret outside of the Premier League. The man who would take Forest back to the Promised Land.
Posing for pictures in front of the press, holding aloft the club scarf, was Stanley Victor Collymore.
STAN THE SHRIMP
Unable to dislodge Mark Bright and Ian Wright – up there with Robson & Jerome and Samantha Fox as one of the decade’s most impressive front pairs – Collymore spent the early Nineties languishing in Crystal Palace’s reserves.
It took a move to Southend to kickstart his career. By November 1992, the Shrimpers were fighting to survive in Division One. Collymore’s 15 league goals in 30 starts helped them complete a miraculous escape.
In the space of six months, he had become a legend at Roots Hall. On the final day of the season he was stripped to his underpants – not the last time he would be disrobed and manhandled by total strangers – and hoisted aloft by the jubilant locals.
His exploits didn’t go unnoticed in the Midlands, where Frank Clark convinced the board to shell out a whopping £2.2m for his new striker.
STAN THE MAN
The hefty price tag brought little pressure to Collymore, who relished the goalscoring burden. Good job really. Forest’s other striking options were Rob Rosario and Jason Lee, two misfiring forwards who could make a game of Russian Roulette last for hours.
There was a slow start to the season as Clark tinkered with players and formations. It took the arrival of Lars Bohinen to help him get the best out of Collymore. With the cultured Norwegian pulling the strings in midfield, Collymore scored six goals in four games in November as Forest finally found their stride.
Collymore was playing up front on his own in an era when deviation from the standard 4-4-2 was considered blasphemy.
Then again, everything about Collymore defied convention. He didn’t fit any of our stereotypes for what a striker should be. He could hold the ball up, but he was more mobile than target men of the era like John Fashanu and Brian Deane. He could run with the ball at his feet, but unlike the Peter Ndlovu, who could score a humdinger then miss a hatful of chances that Sandra Redknapp would bury in a heartbeat, he always had an end product.
From November onwards, Forest only lost three more league games. Promotion was sealed with a 3-2 win at Peterborough thanks to goals from Stuart Pearce and a Collymore double. Heroes old and new combined to take Forest back where they belonged.
He finished the season with 19 goals in 28 league games. He’d asked for the opportunity to prove himself and had done so. Now it was the ultimate test.
Two years into the megabucks deal with Sky, the Premier League was booming. Murdoch’s millions were creating a new breed of stars. Stan was all set for the biggest stage of his career.
COLLYMORE AND ROY
Forest were immediately installed as relegation favourites. Recognising that his squad of huffers and puffers (step forward Ian Woan and Steve Stone) needed some extra flair, Frank Clark brought in Dutch international Bryan Roy from Foggia. Employed in a free role behind Collymore, Roy flourished in the tactical void of England’s top flight.
Clark had discovered the perfect blend. Blessed with a left peg that picks your front door lock from 20 paces, Roy’s poise was the perfect accompaniment to Collymore’s power.
Against all expectation, Forest flourished on their return to the top flight. Roy scored in an opening day win at Ipswich and 48 hours later Forest hosted Manchester United in the first Monday Night Football of the season.
With the full beam of Sky’s spotlight upon him, Collymore seized his moment to shine. He ran the champions ragged, lashing home a spectacular equaliser to earn the home side a point.
Incredibly Forest stayed unbeaten until late October when a midwinter wobble set in and they lost four of their next five games. It took a visit to Old Trafford to reset their season. Once again Collymore took centre stage, smashing a 25-yarder past Peter Schmeichel. It was the first league goal United had conceded at old Trafford all season and proved the catalyst for a sensational 2-1 win for the visitors.
Indeed, Alex Ferguson was so impressed by what he’d seen that he sounded out Forest about selling their prize asset. Refusing to jeopardise the team mid-season, the board held firm and the Manchester United manager moved on to his second choice. A week later Andy Cole arrived at Old Trafford.
Undeterred by the speculation, Collymore continued to score goal after spectacular goal, including a corker in an astonishing 7-1 win at Hillsborough that had the Sheffield Wednesday fans standing in appreciation. By the end of his debut Premier League season, he’d netted 25 times and Forest finished third, earning them a UEFA cup spot.
A TYPICAL ENGLISH CENTRE FORWARD?
YouTube footage of Andrea Silenzi in Forest colours is hard to come by. In fact, any moving images of the lumbering Italian are in short supply. He is the Sasquatch of the Premier League: a mythical beast who precious few have seen in person, but whose legend remains to this day.
The £1.8m striker arrived with some fanfare from Torino. During the summer, Forest had pocketed £8.5m for Collymore from Roy Evans’ Liverpool and Silenzi, an Italian international, was supposedly a direct replacement.
Two seasons ago, his total of 17 goals in Serie A, the most miserly league on the planet, was bettered only by Roberto Baggio, Beppe Signori and Gianfranco Zola. He’d also played with Maradona and Careca at Napoli earlier in his career, so the prospect of lining up alongside Kingsley Black and Des Lyttle would surely hold little trepidation.
His last year had been ravaged by injury and that, combined with Torino’s crippling debts and the tumbling exchange rate of the Italian lira, meant he was up for sale at a bargain price. Clark, beaming with pride in front of the press once again, described it as “an opportunity too good to miss”.
First impressions were mixed. For a 6ft 4in target man, he looked remarkably fragile – sporting the sort of malnourished frame that gave Bob Geldof sleepless nights. His slender build was magnified further by a flowing mane of hair that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bon Jovi. How would he cope with the lumps and bumps dished out on the Saturday afternoon battlefields of the Premier League?
Clark was undeterred. “You look at the power in his legs and you know he’ll cope,” he said. “He’s almost a typical English centre-forward – strong and powerful, though also good technically.”
As the formalities concluded, Silenzi’s minimal grasp of English was tested playfully by a Sky Sports reporter who asked what he was looking forward to about his new home.
“The beer,” was his reply.
With Clark’s endorsement ringing in their ears, Forest supporters ignored their doubts and toasted the new arrival.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
As the first Italian to play in England’s top flight, the scrutiny upon Silenzi was more intense than some of the Premier League’s other foreign contingent. So there was a degree of sympathy for his first few non-descript outings in a Forest shirt.
After all, Dennis Bergkamp – another recent arrival from Serie A – was enduring some teething troubles at Arsenal, prompting Spurs chairman Alan Sugar to suggest that Chris Armstrong was the best striker in north London.
However, as autumn turned to winter, Bergkamp had started to find his feet in his new country whereas Silenzi was still playing like his shoelaces were tied together.
Perhaps his greatest gift was to manage to exist on a pitch in near-total separation from everyone else, including the ball. At times it appeared that the Italian was playing his own version of association football, one that involved a half-hearted leap, a cautious hop and a baffling skip in the wrong direction – like Rod Hull and Emu entering the Olympic triple jump.
The early whispers of discontent at the City Ground were rising in volume with each appalling performance. Surely this was some terrible mistake? How could this happen? Not only had Forest sold Stan Collymore, who was banging in goals aplenty for title-chasing Liverpool, but they had replaced him with the worst striker they’d ever seen.
The nadir for Silenzi’s career came during a particularly dreadful showing in the UEFA Cup when BBC pundit Alan Hansen pilloried his first-half performance. When Gary Lineker pointed out his Italian international status, the unimpressed Scot replied, “Were four hundred players injured that weekend?” Ouch.
In all, Silenzi made just 12 league appearances for Forest and didn’t come close to troubling the scorers. By mid-season Jason Lee, he of the pineapple-based hair, had taken his place in the starting XI and the Italian fell behind youngsters Bobby Howe and Paul McGregor in the pecking order.
He shuffled off to Venezia on loan and was never seen again in Nottingham, eventually having his contract cancelled by an irate Dave Bassett the following season.
Stan Collymore enjoyed a successful first season at Anfield before successfully alienating anyone and everyone he came into contact with. It was, of course, the early sign of an ongoing battle with depression and mental health, a battle that cut his career sadly short at the turn of The Noughties. What followed was a litany of personal PR disasters, including his gleeful participation in some roadside dogging, that have kept his Wikipedia editors in near-constant work.
In that respect, Frank Clark can probably say that he was the manager to get most consistency out of Collymore, who gave the Forest faithful two of the finest seasons in recent memory.
Peruse any click bait on the worst strikers in Premier League history and Silenzi sits happily amongst them, normally vying for first place with Tomas Brolin and the incomparable Ali Dia. After leaving Forest, he scored a grand total of five more league goals in four utterly forgettable seasons as a professional. So Clark can console himself that it wasn’t his own man-management that contributed to the Italian’s woeful legacy at the City Ground.
In Italy, they still refer to him as ‘Pennellone’ which translates as ‘Big Brush’.
Unfortunately, we’ve not yet found one sizeable enough to wipe the stain of Silenzi from Clark’s reputation.
Bio: Sid Lambert is a historical football writer, who has recently released his new book Cashing In. It tells the story of Ray Cash, a 19-year-old footballer making his way through the murky world of the Premier League back in 1992, when football changed forever. You can buy it here.