Back To The Future

Describing a football club’s season as a “rollercoaster ride” is beyond cliché. And yet, it seems somehow, to be the best – only – way of describing the last seven months of being a Nottingham Forest supporter.

I was a massive fan of Sean O’Driscoll (as my previous post on the subject probably made clear). I wasn’t a fan of Alex McLeish, and was (probably unfairly) very much against his appointment. I didn’t like his reputation for dull, unattractive football; I didn’t like the implications of his appointment (a twelve-month rolling contract doesn’t sound like a chairman thinking too far into the future) and there was a certain amount of resentment I directed towards him for the fact that he wasn’t Sean O’Driscoll. He came to be a lightning rod for all my concerns about where Forest are heading and so I wasn’t exactly upset when he decided to bring his tenure to an end less than six weeks after his appointment.

“I surrender!”

Once the dust had settled, I began to feel a pang of regret for the fact that someone who had conducted themselves with quiet dignity and integrity had felt obliged to resign so soon. His actions also succeeded in wiping the slate clean as far as Forest and I were concerned; clearly he wasn’t a shameless Al-Hasawi puppet, brought in to field their players and shield them from direct criticism as I had suspected in my more paranoid moments.

And now we have the return of Billy Davies. I can’t begin to describe how pleased I was by this appointment – I surprised myself in fact. When he was originally given the boot by Nigel Doughty in May 2011, I was a little tired of his incessant gripes about lack of investment etc. and felt that he got what he deserved having backed himself and the board into corners and left only one possible solution available.

“I’m back!”

However, his appointment has reassured me in a number of ways. Firstly, I know he’s capable of success at Forest and on a tighter budget than exists now. Secondly, I don’t think he’d return unless he felt confident that he could succeed. Thirdly, I know he won’t take any interference from the chairman (if that is the chairman’s intention). Fourth, he seems to have a genuine passion for the club and wants to be here and to be a success. Finally, the players seem to like him almost as much as the fans.

It seems like the mood at the City Ground has changed significantly within the space of a week, and with Billy taking over in a much better position than he did last time, things are really looking up.

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The Final Straw (postscript)

So, I was a little wide of the mark with my assumptions of innocence on the part of the Forest hierarchy and nefarious doings on the part of the agents. It would seem that Alex McLeish was the Al-Hasawis’ first choice all along and they were simply waiting for him to “recharge his batteries”. Sean O’Driscoll was on borrowed time before the ink was dry on his contract.

Ultimately, it doesn’t change how disgusted I am with Forest’s conduct over the last week, it merely focuses that disgust in the right direction.

The Final Straw?

Regular visitors will know that my patience with football is wearing thin. I’ve stopped playing because I didn’t enjoy the atmosphere in which many of the matches took place; I’ve stopped watching England because odious scumbags seem key to the whole setup and there is an unsettling air of nationalism whenever the England squad congregates; I’ve stopped listening to, reading about or watching football because I’m tired of the hype, the nonsense opinion portrayed as fact because some forty-something ex-international said it and the fact that every other person on Twitter is an aspiring journalist with an amateur (and amateurish) blog to promote. The saying about opinions and arseholes seems extremely appropriate.

The only thing that has survived this sea-change of opinion has been Forest and my affection for them. My enthusiasm may be diminished, the frequency of my visits too, but they still hold a special place in my heart.

Until now. Perhaps.

The sacking of Sean O’Driscoll, only hours after his side beat form-team Leeds 4-2, and its undignified execution (apparently the news was broken to him by the chief executive as he sat editing a DVD of the game) is a bewildering move from owners who seemed to be recovering from a shaky start to do a good job of running the club. Replacing him within 24 hours with a manager with a patchy reputation and a completely different tactical approach smacks to me of a naive owner conned by a crafty agent.

O’Driscoll was one of my favourite managers Forest have had. He talked calmly and intelligently about the game, avoiding the usual cliches about passion, hard work and results justifying all. He accepted that football’s random nature meant that results weren’t representative of the match itself but that by following the right processes the players could influence proceedings and thus increase the chances of a favourable result. He was building an intelligent, flexible squad committed to attractive possession football and laying long-term foundations. (This article is a fantastic demonstration of his approach.) The players – the few who were left from last season – asked for him as manager. He had had no pre-season preparation, inherited an unbalanced, demoralized squad and had to build a defence only days before the season began. Despite all this, Forest were only a point outside the playoffs when the axe fell, six months intoa three year contract. Even though the Al-Hasawis had recently changed the season’s objectives from consolidation to promotion he wasn’t doing much wrong. The only possible criticism that could be directed at him would involve the inconsistency of the performances which saw Forest win the difficult ties only to lose the easier matches a week later.

And now he has been replaced by Alex McLeish. Replaced too quickly for my paranoid liking. 24 hours is not enough to go through the whole above-board recruitment process of advertisement, application, interview and selection. The fact that someone as mediocre as McLeish has got the job suggests that he was the only candidate all along and by extension I can only assume that in the last week or so his agent has exploited the complementary weaknesses in O’Driscoll’s record and the Al-Hasawis’ experience to full effect and for the benefit of their client above all else. If I am correct, then in some ways one can only admire the ruthless handiwork albeit with horrified eyes peering through shocked fingers.

Of course there is always the possibility that I am wide of the mark and the whole move was instigated by the Al-Hasawis alone, though that would raise questions about appointing O’Driscoll in the first place and backing him so heavily. However the disparity between the styles of the former manager and his replacement would indicate people with little understanding of the links between personnel, style, performances and results.

But that’s probably enough talk of an episode in Forest’s history about which the full truth will probably never be known. A lot of talk about the distant cause and little about its immediate effect on me personally.

For the first time in nearly two decades, I am considering severing my ties with Forest. I have no geographical or familial links with the club; they are mine by conscious choice and conscious choice alone. My support has long had an idealistic underpinning and now that too is being eroded. I have always wanted to believe that regardless of results there was something about the club itself, a soul, an ethos, a moral standard to which we held ourselves which somehow validated my support for this distant and otherwise unremarkable club. It is this which is no longer apparent. With the death of Nigel Doughty, the club are no longer in the hands of an owner who was a fan first and filthy rich investment banker second; a man determined to run the club prudently and to put the Nottingham back into Nottingham Forest. Now we are much like any other club: the ego-polishing plaything of a foreign millionaire and wholly subject to their whims. We are in danger of becoming indistinguishable from the likes of Chelsea and Man City – a ruthless corporate machine, chewing up and spitting out managers, players and fans alike in our never-ending drive to be bigger, better and more efficiently monopolistically successful – and worse still is the prospect of becoming another Blackburn, run in a slapstick fashion as a vanity project by people whose only defining characteristic is their unerring ability to seek out bad advice from a range of different sources and attempt to follow all of it simultaneously.

I don’t care if we’re crap, if we fail, as long as there is something distinctively Forest about what we do. But should we lose our individuality then the greater part of my reasons for supporting Forest ahead of all other clubs are gone, and if I might as well support anyone then I might as well support no-one and spend my time, energy emotions and money elsewhere, on something more rewarding.

Quitting football

Anyone who knows me knows that I love football. It has been my main interest since I was about 9 years old. If you look back through the posts on this blog, you’ll see that the largest category is ‘Football’ and many of the posts are about Nottingham Forest. Given the rollercoaster season (Copyright, National Bureau of Press Clichés) they have just endured, why is it that my last football/Forest related post was back in September, before the proverbial really hit the fan?

The answer is simple, even if its reasons are not. I am falling out of love with football.

There are many reasons for this, and some carry greater weight than others.

I want to play football, but the team I currently play for is probably the worst I have ever represented (no offence guys). In a year of playing for them, we have yet to avoid defeat. Sometimes, we struggle to field enough players for a five-a-side league. As a result, our defeats are pretty heavy and even if you aren’t the kind who needs to win, this wears you down after a while. Add in the fact that many of our opponents are less than gracious victors, and some make no attempt to hide the fact that they see matches against us as a great opportunity to boost their goal difference, stir in a little unecessary aggression from time to time, sprinkle with idiots who take the whole thing far too seriously and bake in an oven pre-heated to gas mark confrontation-over-mildly-clumsy-challenge, and you have recipe for footballing unhappiness.

The obvious answer would be to hire a sports hall and arrange an informal match between a dozen or so of your mates. However, experience tells me that that just doesn’t work. Try gathering ten or more of your friends together at the same time and you’ll see what I mean. Now try arranging that every week. Initially, people are full of enthusiasm, and then the novelty wears off and the numbers dwindle until there are only a handful left, paying £10+ each for the privilege of a 2-a-side game with lax rules.

Then, there comes the professional game in general. This year in England alone there have been several incidents of racist abuse, a couple between players and then a few between fans and players. It’s hard to unequivocally love a sport which manages to behave with so little dignity.

There’s something about the way the professional game is going which fills me with a sense of disillusionment. The introduction of Financial Fair Play rules is something which should be encouraged to an extent (anything which stops clubs getting into ridiculous debt and then walking out of it having paid the players in full and screwed over their suppliers and the likes of St John’s Ambulance can only be a good thing), but when combined with the impending Elite Player Performance Plan it all looks like the rules (inadvertantly) will merely reinforce the status quo and are essentially authorising the big clubs to pillage those further down the league pyramid in order to reinforce their own positions and make even more money all in the name of producing a better England team. My attitude is simply this : what is the point in investing emotionally and financially in a sport which is no longer really competitive? Many would say it hasn’t been truly competitive for years, but I get the feeling that (unless I have missed something major) English football will become even more predictable and contain even less hope for those of us not at the top table.

The last thing which has disillusioned me in some ways is my own interest in the game. Now if that sounds a little cryptic, let me explain. I am very interested in the theory of football, tactically, physically and so on. As a result, I have found several websites and publications which satisfy this appetite (such as Jonathan Wilson, Zonal Marking, and The Blizzard), but unfortunately they have had an unexpected backlash. Many of these sources make it very clear that English football is living in the Dark Ages and that we should be heading towards the likes of Spain and Barcelona tactically in order to compete. This has left me feeling ever-so-sightly guilty for enjoying a typical blood-and-thunder English Championship match with both teams playing direct, physical football and going at each other hammer and tongs, and for finding the admirably patient football of Spain a touch dull at times. It’s hard to reconcile what you enjoy the most and what you are being told is the best when there is such a disparity between the two. I end up disliking myself for being so easily pleased with unsophisticated football, and then disliking myself more by being so easily persuaded into such intellectual snobbery.

A Good Day To Bury Bad News (part 2)

Of course, only a couple of days after I wrote the previous piece on Forest’s situation, it all got a whole lot more undignified. Steve McClaren let it be known (via ‘sources’) that he was considering his future at the club, and then once his representatives had spoken to Nigel Doughty and Mark Arthur, announced that of course he was staying, and was going to see things through, and that there had never been any chance of him leaving at all.

Essentially, it was all a fairly childish episode of using the media to mark territory. Steve McClaren wants Nigel Doughty to know that he won’t be let down again, and has other options. Really?! You think a man of Nigel Doughty’s intelligence needs that spelled out to him? You think using the media to tell him is the most dignified way to do it? You think this behaviour is going to win you the respect of the Forest fans who were either skeptical about or outright against your appointment as manager? To be honest Steve, as far as I’m concerned, the answer to all of these is NO.

A Good Day To Bury Bad News – general thoughts on Forest

Defensive problems

Though it is highly unlikely that it happened by design, Forest managed to time their heaviest home defeat since they retained their Championship status very well. While Spurs managed to go one better (or worse) by losing 5-1 at home to Manchester City, Arsenal took the biscuit by going down 8-2 to Manchester United.

Whilst that ensures that much of the neutral attention is directed elsewhere, it doesn’t make such a heavy home defeat easier to bear. The scoreline wasn’t truly reflective of the match but did reveal Forest’s lack of organisation in defence, something of a surprise given that a strong back line has been the foundation of the last two seasons’ play-off campaigns.

Forest v West Ham

Wes Morgan and Carlton Cole scrap for possession

Individually, the defenders didn’t have particularly bad games, though Luke Chambers did score an own goal, and Lee Camp looked less confident than usual, but as a unit they looked like five strangers thrown together at the last minute; worrying as they have all been at the club for a minimum of three seasons.

Lack of Balance

One of the things that has been worrying me the most over the last few months – since before the end of last season in fact – is the lack of balance in the squad. With Kelvin Wilson’s imminent departure an open secret, it was fair to say that Forest’s squad consisted of two goalkeepers, two right-backs, three centre-backs (one of whom could play at left-back), one left-back (who was only on loan), two defensive midfielders, two wingers, three attacking midfielders, and eight strikers (one of whom was often deployed as a winger). In other words, while some players were virtually guaranteed a place, others weren’t even making the bench and so represented wasted wage expenditure, and key areas of the team were desperately short of cover in the event of a medium- to long-term injury.

As the summer progressed, and various players left, the squad seemed to be balancing slightly. Four of the strikers left, as did one of the defensive midfielders, and the on-loan left-back returned to Liverpool. New manager Steve McClaren then added a replacement defensive midfielder (George Boateng) an extra winger (Andy Reid) and a further central midfielder in Jonathan Greening. However, early struggles to score prompted Forest back into the transfer market, and another couple of million pounds were spent on Matt Derbyshire and Ismael Miller. Along with the return of Joe Garner from loan, this means Forest now have seven strikers fighting it out for a maximum of two places. As the Football League have voted to reduce the number of substitutes to five from this season onwards, this again means that Forest are extremely top-heavy and are wasting wages on players who aren’t even going to make the bench.

Tactics

As Jonathan Wilson (my football journalist hero) has suggested for several years, 4-4-2 is becoming an outdated formation. When Steve McClaren was appointed manager, one of my main hopes was that he would drag Forest into the 21st century tactically by employing the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 he had used when winning the Dutch Eredivisie with FC Twente. My hopes were realised when Forest started the season at home to Barnsley with David McGoldrick as a lone frontman, but since then the Reds have gone back to 4-4-2, much to my disappointment.

At this juncture, I should point out that I am well aware that my desire for a non-4-4-2 formation is based largely on a kind of tactical elitism, an intellectual snobbery, rather than a deep understanding of formations and systems on my part. However, there is some logic behind it. In recent years, many of the clubs in the Premier League have moved towards playing five men in midfield, and as that is our intended destination, it would seem wise to prepare for it in advance. Secondly, the likes of West Brom and Swansea have been promoted in recent years playing an attractive, attacking brand of football based around a 4-3-3 system, and thirdly, in both of Forest’s unsuccessful play-off campaigns, they have lost to teams playing 4-3-3 in the semi-finals. While much of this could be dismissed as a series of coincidences, it could also be seen as the beginning of a trend which points Forest away from employing a 4-4-2 for much longer.

There is also a small element of financial sense in moving away from a 4-4-2. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book ‘Soccernomics’ shows, strikers are generally over-valued in the transfer market, and so a system with fewer strikers means fewer are needed in the squad, and so less money is needed to build a squad, or a larger, better squad can be constructed using the same funds.

Finances

That talk of money brings us on to the next, and in many ways most important area, even if it is one which can’t be analysed by watching the game. Forest’s finances are not in great shape. As this article shows, our chairman has been supporting the club financially for the last few years, and investing in excess of £10m each year. In fact, our current wage bill exceeds our turnover. As the article points out, Forest current spend “£2 for every £1 [they generate]”. He then goes on to say “to give an idea of the magnitude of Forest’s challenge, if they wanted to get in line with the 60% salary cap employed in League One, they would have to either increase their revenue by 77% (£11.3 million) to £26 million or cut their wage bill by 43% (£6.8 million) to £8.8 million, neither of which seems very realistic”.

Mark Arthur and Nigel Doughty

Chief Executive Mark Arthur (left) and Chairman Nigel Doughty (right)

This makes reference to the fact that the Football League clubs have voted to implement their own Financial Fair Play regulations from next season. Championship clubs will be restricted to spending what they earn, while those lower down in Leagues One and Two will have their wage budgets capped at a percentage of their revenue. It seems that there won’t be quite such a specific restriction on Championship clubs, but the point makes stark reading. Forest are overspending badly, and will have to drastically reduce their outgoings by this time next season. It all points to the fact that this year is make or break: if they don’t secure promotion, it could trigger an exodus of the more valuable players (Lewis McGugan, Chris Gunter, Lee Camp to name just a few) for purely financial reasons, and then trigger a drop in the quality of the squad and consequently the results leaving the club firmly rooted in mid-table Championship territory. The only small ray of light comes from the news that Deloitte announced this summer that more than one in three clubs is spending more on wages than it brings in, so Forest clearly aren’t alone.

Bits and bobs

Firstly, you may have noticed that my header image has changed. Like it? I took it myself, dontcha know! It’s a place called Orlestone Woods at the back of Hamstreet near where I (used to) live. It’s a fantastic place to go walking, particularly if you have a dog you need to exercise. It’s probably too late now, but during spring, around April time, there is a carpet of bluebells and on a sunny day it looks magical. I know that sounds very hippy-ish, and I would hate for you to think I’m going soft in my old age, but it manages to delight even a miserable sod like me.

Secondly, as hinted by both the paragraph above, and the recent posts on house buying, I have moved to Essex! This is a temporary step in the whole relocation process: I am now living with Emma and her family while the purchase of our house goes through. Thankfully, I have a job up here; I transferred within the wide-ranging Waitrose network a month ago, and though there are many things about Waitrose that cause me to sigh, curse and/or roll my eyes, there are also quite a number of advantages to working for them, not least the fact that they can accommodate me in giving me a transfer. It gives me one less thing to worry about while going through the process of moving house, something which regularly tops lists of “most stressful things you’ll ever do”. I’m pretty sure I saw one list somewhere that had placed it ABOVE divorce and the death of a close friend or relative (though I guess if it’s topping the list, it has got to be above those things…)

Finally, things seem to be improving at Forest too. A month ago I was giving up hope of us even making the play-offs, so alarming was our slump in form since February (there was a point, just before we faced QPR, when we could have gone something like four points clear at the top had we managed to win our games in hand etc.), and yet four wins on the trot, with fourteen goals scored and five conceded has secured us another crack at the play-offs. Emma and I went to the last two games of the season, at home to Scunthorpe (a 5-1 win) and away to Crystal Palace (a 3-0 win) and both commented that the games were actually rather dull, despite the fact that the Reds scored eight goals, had a player sent off and secured their play-off place, mainly due to the fact that Forest were in total control of both games, from start to finish. Obviously, Swansea present a much greater challenge than two sides from the bottom of the table with nothing to play for, but there are some encouraging signs to be seen.