No one had walked on the Trent since Brian Clough in the eighties, but Nathaniel Milton has been doing so ever since Nottingham Forest secured promotion to the top-flight this weekend with a sensational 2-1 win over Bournemouth in a dramatic season finale.
Two-time European champions and formerly major players at the top table of English football, Forest have waited over two decades for the right man to come along and deliver them to the promised land – and Milton’s story is every bit as sensational as it was entirely unlikely.
Forest’s stay away from the top flight was purgatorial, with time spent in League One, and, when they were toiling for years in Championship mid-table obscurity, it must have felt like the glory days would never return to the east Midlands.
When the celebrations die down in the coming days, however, it will become clear that one man made it happen. The Championship is a notoriously difficult league to navigate at the best of times, but it is an even harder one to get out of.
The likes of Martin O’Neill, Alex McLeish and Aitor Karanka, all extremely accomplished coaches in their own right, tried and failed to do it with Nottingham Forest. It took a fresh-faced, detail-obsessed ‘laptop manager’ in his first big job to take Forest over the line.
The idea that the game could be cracked on a computer screen seemed totally preposterous at the start of the season, but Milton has shown that it can be done, if the right man is given time and gets enough buy-in from the players.
“It was no less than we deserved,” Milton said after their promotion-clinching win against Bournemouth. “The whole team kept working right up to the final whistle.”
Like any new idea, Milton’s philosophy took some time to bed in among the Forest players, but, by the end of the season, it was decidedly clear that they believed in the project.
Morale was sky high and, once they sensed that automatic promotion was a genuine possibility, “the cat was in the sack”, to borrow a phrase from the professor emeritus of Italian football Giovanni Trapattoni.
Of course, navigating through the Premier League next season represents a different task entirely, but it is difficult to see the Forest board not backing their man, particularly when their faith has been repaid in abundance.
Negotiations about budgets will be interesting, but it would not be unreasonable to expect an increase in the transfer kitty. With such an immediate return on their bet with Milton, a tweak in the club’s long-term vision might even be forthcoming.
Milton will now pit his wits against some of the greatest minds in the game. However, if we learned anything from the season just gone, it’s that the Premier League code can be cracked too.
It feels like this is just the start, perhaps of a journey that one day might see another statue added to the city that proudly has Brian Clough standing, hands clasped, just off Old Market Square.
Milton has cast his scouting network wide and is already linked with a number of young newcomers to the game that could yet prove themselves Forest’s next Jonas Christiansen, the teenager who averaged one goal every 85 minutes following his mega-money move from Hammarby in what now looks unquestionably the deal of the Forest’s decade.
It feels like an arrival that mirrored that of Milton himself, who for now can bask in the glory and walk on water after waking one of English football’s true sleeping giants.