While the season is yet to conclude, and the play-offs still to come, it might seem early for retrospective. But before the finale of 2009/10 concludes, it’s worth remembering how far Nottingham Forest have come in the past 16 months.
Having finally attained redemption from League One, it looked likely that Forest could be plunged straight back down last season. Cue the arrival of a certain Billy Davies and relegation became something we had merely flirted with — and ultimately thought better of. Some key loan signings made a huge difference but here was a side that believed, that was organised. There was discipline, fluid passing and a directness on goal that had been sorely lacking for years.
Come the summer and there was general surprise at the club’s activity in the transfer market. Nine major signings — and many for relatively bargain prices. Questions remained over the defence but as a work-in-progress it was promising. Whether it was the work of Davies alone or the much-maligned transfer acquisitions panel, we don’t really know, but it’s safe to say the one player pursued all summer by Davies was Paul McKenna. Someone many had never heard of but he proved to be the engine, the catalyst, the captain we had been missing for years.
If you had offered any Forest fan a top 10 finish this season they would have bitten your hand off. Stability, a platform to build on, a season for the new players to settle and gel. And that’s how it started. And then we started winning. And winning well.
The key to Davies’ success is quite simple but remains so elusive to so many managers. Increased training ensured the players had stamina, they could last 90 minutes. Discipline and organisation meant everyone knew their role, what was expected of them. Perhaps most importantly, here was a team who fought for each other, who chased and harried the opposition, who wanted the ball and wanted to do something with it. And with McKenna barking orders, dictating play from the centre of the pitch, this ‘young team’, as Davies is wont to remind us, played with confidence. The belief they were good enough to play anyone, play their own way, and win.
Fears about the defence proved unfounded. Lee Camp proved to be one of the best, if not the best, goalkeepers outside the Premier League. And the back four of Chris Gunter, Wes Morgan, Kelvin Wilson and whoever was picked at left-back remained one of the tightest in the division. Attacking-wise it was classic counter-attack, traditional Forest style.
Forest surged up the table, unbeaten away in nearly a year and equalling Cloughie’s 30-year record of 12 home wins in a row. The City Ground became a fortress and the fans became the 12th man – just as Davies had promised.
But the failure to sign anyone in the January transfer window seems to have been a turning point in more ways than one. There was talk of a left-back, a centre-back and a midfielder. Nicky Shorey signed for Fulham on loan — to be honest, whether Aston Villa were willing to sell we don’t know but we couldn’t afford his wages on a permanent basis and the promise of Premier League football, Europe and the forthcoming World Cup are hard to argue with. Attempts at signing Victor Moses and Darren Pratley failed but, as everyone says, the January window is very difficult to work with and clubs think/assume Forest have money to burn.
Either way, there were no signings and our away form slumped to the extent that an unbeaten record that had lasted from March through until January became seven losses in a row — effectively ruling out automatic promotion. It’s also impossible to ignore the loss of McKenna through injury, surely more important than any new signing. Play-offs are now assured but it’s Davies’ posturing over the past few months that has caused concern.
It’s clear a battle with the board is probably necessary — the transfer acquisitions panel, set up to avoid a recurrence of the disastrous reign of David Platt, is an obvious issue. David Pleat’s involvement is confusing for fans and an obstruction to Davies. Mark Arthur appears to have coasted through a career as chief executive of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club and now Nottingham Forest with no real scrutiny — his business acumen and leadership skills remain questionable.
However, Davies would do well to let his results do the talking — win promotion and then talk about transfer funds, a new contract, whatever… The late, great Brian Clough may have always had issues with chairman and directors — he let them know who was boss — but he brought silverware to the club. And that’s when you can start dictating on your own terms.
Davies has done an incredible job at Forest but I’d like to see a legacy, a future to look forward to. Nigel Doughty has put a lot of money into this club and the Premier League would bring a lot more. The prospect of relegation next season and parachute payments of £15 million a year over four seasons would, at the very least, propel us into that group of clubs straddling the Premier League and the Championship, rather than a club hoping to relive past glories. Let’s just hope. And wait. And cross everything.