As the new season beckons, Peter Blackburn reflects on what was and what might be for Nottingham Forest’s new era…
Nottingham Forest’s City Ground stands like a ghostly monument on the banks of the Trent – an ageing souvenir and a memento of a glorious past. These now rusting footballing spires cut into the Nottingham skyline, casting an imposing shadow over the south of the city.
This hallowed ground has tasted success and the subtle scent still lingers wistfully in the air. The City Ground is as thorough an example of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as anything in this world. While Proust’s senses were unravelled and brought to life by the aroma of a baked madeleine – a smell that sent the adult back to years gone by, so vivid is the recollection, remembrance or appreciation of the past that is empowered by a walk around the winding, wooden-clad corridors of the City Ground.
The setting within could hardly be called Premier League plush, although there are a few signs of the great history of this place amongst the mementoes of recent years. In the reception, a semi-grandiose bust of Brian Clough provides historical context watching over pictures of the likes of Joe Garner – no longer at the club – celebrating a goal gone by.
Once upon a time, this provincial club challenged the order of all that was established within football. With a brilliant maverick at the helm, Nottingham Forest beat the best in Europe and became known across the world as a club synonymous with success and aesthetically delightful football.
Decades on, the City Ground is becoming something of a relic. The paint is cracked, the stands are tired, but the great soul of this club is still alive, ready to have the fire rekindled and to take its place within the upper tier of the footballing establishment once again.
Underneath this quiet and ageing exterior, a beast is stirring. Nottingham Forest is a club in the throes of a footballing revolution.
Just months ago it seemed that a dark foreboding written so many years earlier by Nottingham’s greatest literary export, DH Lawrence, was an apt description of the footballing times in this East Midlands city: ‘Ours is essentially a tragic age… The cataclysm has happened, and we are living among the ruins.’ With administration looming following the tragic early death of former owner and chairman, Nigel Doughty, a deeply uncertain future loomed ominously ahead for the club.
When all hope seemed lost, however, a white knight arrived. Nottingham Forest’s new Kuwaiti owners, the Al Hasawi family swooped to save the club from imminent ruin.
While the start made by Nottingham Forest’s new owners has been little short of excellent, the road will indeed be hard and is certainly a long and rather arduous one. The path to promotion is difficult, a deeply competitive journey that usually rewards the best, not just the lucky – as such Forest will have to show a level of performance and consistency that would have been utterly alien last year over the coming months and seasons.
There is little doubt that Forest’s new owners are ambitious. There is a sense that these are people who will let nothing stop them from returning this club to the Premier League. After all, this is the only way that the club will begin to have genuine business value for them. On top of this, the owners, particularly Fawaz seem to be embroiled in the love of the game that the fans can relate to. The delirium of winning will not simply be etched on the fans faces this year – should such victories occur – but on the faces of those at boardroom level. These are football people, perhaps from another footballing culture, but football people nonetheless.
Clearly, a tremendous start has been made. One could hardly have believed that Forest would be entering this season with a more or less complete squad to choose from having seen the meat of their first-team squad so ruthlessly dismantled. But, in a difficult market, those doing business at the club have done it well and above all, swiftly. Things are in place for Forest to field a relatively balanced side, with options on the bench and begin to re-forge a team spirit that was so prevalent, so unbeatable during the early times of Billy Davies’ reign.
The appointment of Sean O’Driscoll is as good as the club could have made in the circumstances, and gives Nottingham Forest a chance to become the next team to find a philosophy and grow together in this division, with the ultimate aim of taking that game plan to the Premier League. Forest have been pragmatists – and not very good ones – for some years now, but the time has come to build a project, with foundations that can stand in the long-term.
There should be no doubt that the cornerstones of a club that can build a successful legacy are very simple, but also very rare and very difficult. Ultimately, significant investment and prominence must be given to the Academy. Forest have good form here in some ways already. The academy staff and facilities are already of a wonderful standard and have seen some incredible talents in their recent history. Despite this, a statement must be made. A statement that will see Nottingham Forest have the ability to compete in the Premier League in the long-term. The Academy needs even more investment, and a plan to bring facilities and staffing to the level that satisfies the attributes needed from a Category 1 Academy under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). The Nigel Doughty Academy is Nottingham Forest’s chance to create a legacy that will be remembered, one that can be proud of its history and stand shoulder to shoulder with the great achievements of the past.
Further to the need to build the Academy, Forest need a footballing philosophy. The club has to work as one from top to bottom. O’Driscoll has the brain for this job and must be given enough time to fulfill this clubs needs. It’s time to stop hoping that short-term pragmatists can patch over the cracks and lead us to quick-fix Premier League glory and put Forest’s fate in the hands of a progressive thinker.
Nottingham Forest is a club with a chance to start afresh; to remember those things that worked well in recent years and emulate them, and to learn from its mistakes. There is a bright future at the City Ground if those in charge can grasp it and make the dream a reality.
Build from the bottom and build forever – Nottingham Forest deserves a future out of the shadow of its past.
Follow Peter on Twitter: @petermblackburn