Eighteen or so years on, however, and the former England international, now 33 and into the autumn of what has been an impressive career, admits his former club’s continuing wait for a return to the top flight underlines what Hull City are up against in their own quest to bounce back from last May’s relegation.
The Tigers, much-changed from the side that went down under Marco Silva, will host Forest in today’s televised tea-time kick-off occupying a place in the lower half of the table.
Recent form has improved, with the last three outings having yielded seven points for Leonid Slutsky’s men. But there is still a feeling that Hull remain a work in progress after a summer that brought a host of big money-departures from the KCOM Stadium.
“Forest had gone down not long before I got into the first team,” said Dawson, whose Forest debut came in April 2002.
“No one could have thought then it would be so long and the club still waiting to get back into the Premier League.
“Especially with the size and history of the club, having won the European Cup and played in the top division for so long. To not be back in the Premier League during all that time just shows how hard it is.
“There are big clubs in the Championship. But you have to earn the right to get back up because everyone wants to be in the Premier League, which is a worldwide success. It is our aim, but it is also everyone’s aim. That is what makes it so tough.”
Forest, of course, are not the only former footballing heavyweight to have found a return to the Premier League elusive. Here in Yorkshire, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United fell out of the top division so long ago that even supporters in their late teens will today have no recollection of either club doing battle with Manchester United, Chelsea et al in league combat.
“People still talk about all the success that Forest had in the past,” added Dawson, who made 91 appearances before joining Tottenham Hotspur in January, 2015, along with team-mate Andy Reid for a combined £8m. “Maybe that does lie heavy on the club. But I am sure the current Forest team are the same as us; they want to win matches and get back in the Premier League.
“There is no hiding how difficult it is to get back up. We also know how much money is spent in the Championship each year.
“Boro, Villa have spent a lot, and then you look at what Huddersfield did last year. No one would have expected that to happen, myself included.
“That is credit to them. It was done on a smaller budget and shows freak things can happen. It is great for football to see. We saw here two years ago how hard it is to get out of the Championship. That was when we also kept the majority of the squad.
“It is tough. You need an awful lot of togetherness, because you go through periods where you have it tough. We had that, but came back.”
Dawson recently joined the ‘century club’ at Hull after taking his tally of appearance to three figures. He hopes to make many more, even if an initial enquiry by the defender’s agent to the club’s hierarchy about an extension to the deal that runs out next summer is yet to bring a response.
Manager Slutsky, for his part, wants Dawson to stay beyond the end of this season, while the former Spurs man insists his only focus is helping Hull up the Championship table. Three points today against a club he and brothers Andy and Kevin all played for would be a great start.
“We have two big games coming up at home,” he added ahead of a double-header that will also see Boro visit the East Riding on Tuesday night, “and we want the six points.”
Back-to-back games against the club where it all began and the other who were closest to the Dawson family home in Northallerton also beg the question why the Tigers’ captain and his brothers ended up at the City Ground?
“It is a funny one that we all ended up in Nottingham when you consider where we were brought up,” he said. “Leeds and Middlesbrough were probably the two biggest clubs around us, while my two older brothers were at Darlington for a time when they were in the Football League.
“We all played for Northallerton Town in the Teesside League, but then Andy got spotted by a scout from Middlesbrough who worked for Forest.
“When Andy signed, I was nine so went down sometimes. I was a centre forward at the time and we played Lincoln in a seven-a-side game. We won 7-1 and I scored five.
“Sadly, that goalscoring streak did not continue but, from 10 years old, I was going down because of my brothers. Then, at 14 I signed (schoolboy forms). It was hard at times, especially when still at school. I would finish on a Friday and then get a lift to Darlington for half an hour before getting on the train to Nottingham for three hours. I wouldn’t come back until the Sunday.
“I was 14 at the time and all the school holidays were also spent at Forest, training. Once I got the opportunity at 16 to follow Andy and move down there full time, my career went from strength to strength.
“The discipline I had from (then Academy director) Paul Hart was a big thing, too. You had to be in your rooms at 9.30pm and back at the City Ground at 8.30am.
“Forest were a big part of not just mine, but the whole family’s life.”