Friday, September 2, 2011
Echoes in the Forest
Little over 30 years ago, Nottingham Forest won back-to-back European Cups, but recent history - like that which went before the Brian Clough era - suffers by comparison.
A succession of poor managerial appointments - among them David Platt, Joe Kinnear and Gary Megson - have meant that, since the relegation under Ron Atkinson in 1998-99, there has been no return to the top-flight. Worse still, in 2004-05, Forest became the first European champions to be relegated to the third tier of their league system.
Matters have improved of late. The team has been on an upward curve, and the outside perception ahead of the current season was that Nottingham Forest should be considered among the favourites to reach the Premier League. Having qualified for the play-offs the previous two campaigns under Billy Davies, new manager Steve McClaren, desperate to rebuild his reputation in England, announced his intention to go one better. "I wouldn't be sat here if I didn't think I was the man to fulfil everybody's dream of playing in the Premier League," he said upon his appointment in June.
Ostensibly at least, there were grounds to believe Forest should be among the forerunners, but the club's underlying problems have long been made public. Davies had arrived in January 2009 with a reputation for falling out with his board, but he outstripped all expectations in that regard. Remarks about the inadequacies of his squad were made as a matter of course every time he stood before a microphone, and at times he seemed openly at war with his own club. A former Rangers player and a fan of the club in his youth, Davies openly flirted with Celtic in the summer of 2010 and, as if he had not made his discontent clear enough, added that he "certainly would not turn my back on any potential interested party". As Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian in September last year: "Were Forest under the microscope of the Premier League, we would probably all be familiar with it by now. Instead the political infighting, the divisions, the fall-outs, have largely gone unreported."
By the end of last season, Davies had proved himself the finest manager the club had seen since Clough, but his sacking came as little surprise.
Inevitably, many fans sided with Davies and there was a modicum of hostility regarding the McClaren appointment, but the changeover seemed to point towards a more positive, harmonious future. The club's 'transfer acquisition panel' - designed to assess and procure signings, and featuring David Pleat among its number - has been much derided by fans and, of course, Davies himself, but there was also a sense that the former manager was too inflexible in his requested targets. McClaren, it seemed, had surely been appointed on the understanding that he was willing to work with the panel.
Having spent three months under the same conditions, though, and having won just one of his first five league games, McClaren appears at the end of his tether. Davies' reputation for conflict and scapegoating sometimes overshadowed the fact he was working with one of the smallest squads in the Championship, but it was a legitimate problem, and after taking on the role McClaren made clear that he wanted eight new players.
A month after his appointment, McClaren said: "I hope it's not going to be a problem. I came to Forest because I wanted certain things. They want promotion and that's a challenge. I had a bad experience in Germany because I was not in control of signings. That is something we have to establish. They let nine players go last season and we need to fill the gaps. The fans, the club and everybody here is frustrated we haven't replaced those players, so it's key that I do that."
Forest eventually brought in five new players, with Andy Reid and George Boateng joining on free transfers, Jonathan Greening signing from Fulham for £600,000, Matt Derbyshire arriving from Olympiakos and Ishmael Miller joining from West Brom for £1.2 million, while out-of-contract midfielder Guy Moussi also re-signed. They would also have signed a quality wide player - seemingly McClaren's primary concern - had ADO Den Haag winger Wesley Verhoek not had cold feet about leaving the Netherlands upon arriving in England at the height of the riots.
In the final days before the close of the window, the intensity of McClaren's demands escalated: "I will be making it quite clear what we need - deliver it or it is going to be a long season. We have been saying it for long enough. You say that Billy Davies was saying it for two years previously - I don't know about that but I can see it. Over the next few days, we will see the ambition of this club."
By the close of the window, Forest had failed to make a single signing and, worse, didn't even seem to have made an effort to convince the public otherwise. On Wednesday night, in the final hours of the market, David Pleat was busying himself with an appearance on 5 live, discussing other clubs' business.
By Friday morning, it appeared most of Fleet Street had been briefed that McClaren was to spend the coming days considering his options.
Davies had left fans divided on his departure, but with McClaren now singing from the same hymn sheet, the supporters are now, by and large, of the same mind. The reality is a little more complex. Chairman Nigel Doughty - a Nottingham Forest fan - has faced understandable frustration, but he has already invested significantly - it was his funds that steered the club to a stable financial position after the collapse of ITV Digital - and, as he has been at pains to point out, Financial Fair Play rules demand a tightening of belts. "Wanting something is one thing," he tweeted this week. "Being able to do it without punishment in coming seasons is another."
There can be no denying that there are clear problems with the transfer acquisition panel - the absence of a permanent left-back since December 2008 tells its own story - and certainly the failure to strengthen in key positions has been damaging, but Doughty's point is valid. Gambling on the future of the club through excess spending, as has been the case at Leicester, is shortsighted and wrongheaded, particularly given that Davies reached the play-offs in the previous two seasons with a squad of similar size and quality.
The chief failing of the board would appear to be the decision to appoint another manager who was so expectant of big spending, but there is still time for rapprochement. With all and sundry having been made aware of McClaren's current state of mind, the suspicion is that - at this stage, at least - the manager's aim is to make the board aware of the extent of his frustration ahead of the reopening of the loan window on September 8 rather than taking his leave of the City Ground.