Ahead of the first game of 2021 we caught up with former North End and Nottingham Forest midfielder Brian O’Neil to preview the clash between the two sides at Deepdale.
The Scottish international spent a period on loan at the City Ground under Stuart Pearce’s tenure at the end of the 1996/97 season and enjoyed the opportunity, as he explained to iFollow PNE from his home.
“I went down in the March of 1997; Pierre Van Hooijdonk signed permanently and I signed on loan. Stuart Pearce was in charge and Dave Bassett was there helping out as well,” explained Brian.
“I actually really enjoyed. I had had a bit of a tough time at Celtic, I did my cruciate and found it tough to come back, but I went down there and played in the Premier League. It finished off with a 5-0 defeat away to Newcastle, so that wasn’t pleasant!
“It was a good club and they tried to buy in the summer, but Celtic wanted more money, which I was disappointed at, because I had enjoyed my time and it was a nice change to come down south and play with a lot of big clubs.
“The biggest presence there was still Brian Clough. He had been there for so long, before Frank Clark took over, but a lot of the lads had still come through playing under Brian Clough and they would still tell stories about him and the things he used to do – he sounded like a wonderful man, who did great things.
“At Celtic we have the Lisbon Lions who were overbearing on us, because they were the standard and for Nottingham Forest, as a provincial, but big club, to have also won that trophy twice was an amazing feat.”
Eventually the midfielder made his way to Deepdale via Derby and a spell in Germany with Wolfsburg and the Craig Brown signing was part of the squad that twice went close to the Premier League in the mid-noughties.
Watching the current side trying to go one better, he has been impressed by the side’s change of tactics in recent games that has seen them climb the table with a trio of wins and clean sheets, but understands why it took a while to get going at Deepdale without the fervent Lilywhites support.
“Not having the fans in at home games must be a strange experience – I can’t imagine it. We used to play practice games at Deepdale and the intensity just wasn’t there,” he continued.
“A lot of teams have found that tough, but what has been really clear over the last month or six weeks in the games I have seen, is that Alex [Neil] seems to have changed things a little bit.
“There are lots of ways to get the ball in the back of the net and I have noticed the way they seem to have changed the way they get the ball in the opposition’s half.
“Most teams have had a similar start to the season; there is a small gap between everyone. I don’t think anyone at the club would have worried about where they at the start of the season; a couple of wins can make a huge difference and that has been shown to be the case.”
The weekend’s visitors have also had a change and the return of some of Forest’s experienced key players is something Brian believes will give Chris Hughton options.
“His [Chris Hughton’s] biggest problem is probably that he has too many players! It is hard to keep a lot of players happy. They have a lot of quality there and he is a very good manager, isn’t he? He has done it in the Championship with numerous teams and you know he is going to get it right.
“From North End’s point of view, you just hope that it isn’t in Saturday’s game.
“They have started to pick up and got more consistency in his team selections. I keep an eye on them and Chris is a manager who knows how to set his team up and how to get points and you know they will start to go in the right direction,” he added.
There’s loads more from Brian in the full interview, available on the video at the top of the page, as he reflects on the 2005 Play-Off team and how they used to ground out results, as well as looking forward to hopefully seeing fans return to stadia in 2021 – just click on the video to watch now.
You can watch Saturday’s game live on iFollow PNE. Jonathan Breeze and former North End and Forest skipper Paul McKenna are in the Deepdale hot seats bringing all the action live from just after 2.30pm. Click here now to sign up for an iFollow PNE match pass for just £10.