Just 36 days ago the Al Hasawi family confirmed the takeover of Nottingham Forest. The 2012/13 season is now only three days away and the new manager and seven new signings have played just three friendlies and one competitive game — so what can we expect?
While last season, by all accounts, is best forgotten it remains instructive in more ways than one. The disastrous reign of Steve McClaren showed that it doesn’t matter what kind of players you have available, they need to perform for the manager — and vice versa. The turnaround Steve Cotterill performed can retrospectively be attributed to Sean O’Driscoll but you’d be hasty to dismiss the hard work and dogged behind-the-scenes determination that laid the ground for the heady latter part of the season.
Occasional moments of champagne football followed by the 7-3 defeat of Leeds proved that something had clicked during February and March. Enough to make us pine for the return of Adlene Guedioura, the retention of O’Driscoll and new contracts for Gareth McCleary and Joel Lynch.
Of course the small matter of the takeover dragged on and on. There were real fears that administration was a possibility, relegation could be a certainty and things were only going to get worse before they got better. As it is O’Driscoll is still putting together a squad to rebalance the deficiencies at the back and the profligacy up front.
Thankfully the Al Hasawis stepped in and have yet to put a foot wrong. From saying all the right things and appointing a manager barely anybody has reason to doubt to signing players at breathtaking speed — at value-for-money prices — and actually communicating with the fans… so far, so good.
But the fact remains that this is still very much a project in the making. There’s been no real pre-season to speak of, there’s been no time for players to gel and, while O’Driscoll’s footballing principles are impeccable, he’s still working with the existing backroom staff. His right-hand man at Doncaster for seven years, Richard O’Kelly, is now at Walsall having previously resisted the temptation of Crawley.
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There’s no reason to cast doubt over the man once dubbed ‘the Arsène Wenger of the Championship’ but merely that patience is required; as he has already reiterated himself in an interview with the Evening Post.
“There is a Forest way of playing and we need to keep that in mind. There is a way that teams like to play here. There was a fantastic run of form at the City Ground under Billy (Davies) and, if we could recreate that, it would be great.
“I am a process man, rather than an outcome man. So we will be trying to encourage the players to do the right things at the right time. We have to create an environment and philosophy where we let the players express themselves.
“We have some really good players so, if we can let them do that, we will get the right kind of football. Hopefully people will enjoying what they see at the City Ground, whether we win, lose or draw.
“But the message we need to get across is that we need people to stick with us. If we are going to try to do things in the right way; if we are brave enough to play in a certain way, then please stick with us. You have to play the right way at the right time, otherwise you become predictable.
“When we are walking off that pitch, it would be appreciated if the supporters do support us when we have tried to do the right things, even if they have not quite worked out. The players would see that as a massive, massive plus.”
And in that respect it should be a clean sheet for everyone. There will be no miraculous turnaround, this will be a tough Championship this season with Leicester, Wolves, Birmingham, Bolton, Blackburn, Cardiff, Blackpool, Brighton and Middlesbrough, among others, expected to do well. And with Robbie Findley and David McGoldrick looking like they might figure in O’Driscoll’s plans, there should also be acceptance of the McClaren signings Jonathan Greening, Ishmael Miller and Matt Derbyshire, all of whom struggled with injuries last season. All players in the squad were signed for a reason and with a new regime everyone should be given their chance.
Luke Chambers might have been castigated for, albeit poorly phrased, bemoaning the booing at the City Ground. But, as captain, he spoke for the team and while the new owners and manager have been supported the past few weeks, the players should be given the same opportunity while the dust settles. It’s no secret that O’Driscoll often plays with one striker up front — it might be that he plays frontmen in wide positions — but there’s a real resistance to a lone striker at the City Ground. The hope, the belief, that the brand of football will win over is there; O’Driscoll is a purist, results matter but the style of the results are important.
With a brand new back four — Halford, Ayala, Collins, Harding — we have experience but little idea of their understanding, their relationship with the midfield and Lee Camp, and whether there’s any pace. Harding and Collins seem to be a comfortable fit on the left side while Ayala proved his ability to play out from the back against Fleetwood Town on Monday and Halford is versatile but will surely be first choice right-back. We await to see how the likes of Brendan Moloney and Jamaal Lascelles fit in but, sadly, Kieron Freeman looks like he’ll be on his way.
New signing Simon Cox has, presumably, left West Brom in order to seek first team opportunities playing in his favoured position up front, rather than shunted out wide or in a supporting role. But, with O’Driscoll’s favoured formation likely to be 4-4-1-1, a main striker and a player in the hole is unlikely to leave opportunities for our plethora of strikers and it’s expected a minimum of two or three will be moved on as the squad grows.
Width is clearly still an issue following the departure of McCleary and Paul Anderson. Without any recognised wingers at the club it will no doubt affect the formation. The question of pace remains — something O’Driscoll is no doubt very much aware of, particularly given the rumoured approach for Blackpool’s Thomas Ince. Penetrating defences as well as preventing pacing wingers from exploiting our deficiencies will be a huge concern.
As we saw against Fleetwood Town, a tactical change in the second-half saw something resembling a 4-5-1 formation begin to play the kind of football we expect from O’Driscoll. In which case, Andy Reid will no doubt fill a wide left position with another midfielder — Majewski, McGugan — playing on the right or even a forward; Findley, Derbyshire and Miller all offering at least potential.
Without any wingers — and there’s still two weeks left in the transfer window and loan opportunities to come — a diamond midfield may make the best use of the plethora of central midfielders. But, as we saw with Billy Davies, a diamond midfield has its limitations; notably a lack of width without overlapping wing-backs. The return of Chris Cohen from long-term injury will see him competing with Guedioura, Greening, Moussi, McGugan, Majewski and Gillett. Triallist Franck Moussa played against West Brom and, at the moment, is the closest we’ve seen to a right-winger in pre-season.
Seven signings in four weeks suggest O’Driscoll will have a decent sized squad to deal with — feasibly two players for every position — and there could be more to come. And who can argue with the speed of the acquisitions? The January transfer window could prove crucial as Christmas will be the first marker as to where this team will be. Perhaps the question is not ‘what kind of players do we have?’ but ‘what can O’Driscoll do with them?’.
There is much talk of promotion but this season should very much be one of consolidation — there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be threatening the play-off places as we face Leicester on 4 May. But a top-half finish should be a realistic goal with patience very much the order of the day. Let’s hope O’Driscoll is shown that virtue as he attempts to bring his brand of passing football to the City Ground — support the owners, support the manager and, most of all, support the team. We’re all in this for the long-haul.