Putting aside local rivalry, can Nottingham Forest learn something from Derby County about long-term stability? Paul Severn asks the question…

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When the Football League fixtures are released each year, Nottingham Forest fans skim through at high speed looking for two key dates – Derby home and away. But with the second showdown of the season rapidly approaching, for many Forest fans the fixture will be greeted with some trepidation.

Statistically, there is every reason to dread the game. Derby have won the last three encounters – with Forest registering only one penalty in the process. In the past 13 derbies, Forest have won just three times – all under Billy Davies. The league fortunes of the two clubs over this period have followed a similar pattern with Forest dropping into League One, as Derby managed a promotion to the Premier League.

These facts seem hard to explain, especially as it is Forest who appear to have had the financial injections to take the club a level above Derby. This was even more apparent over the summer as Forest were taken over by the Al Hasawi family and a new squad was put together that seemed on paper the envy of the Championship. In return, Forest fans snorted over Derby’s £1.2million signing Connor Sammon. Yet, in September, when the teams met, again it was Nigel Clough’s side who took the three points and bragging rights.

Of course Forest may well finish above Derby this season, but there can be no question that in the last decade, Derby have achieved better value-for-money than Forest. There are a number of reasons for this.

Stability is certainly a huge factor. Nigel Clough has had his critics, but Derby have shown patience allowing him to cut the wage bill and develop a competitive Championship side. At times, Derby have flirted with the bottom three, but unlike Forest they have always pulled away from trouble. I wonder whether Forest’s tradition of sacking the manager and making changes has increased the pressure near the bottom of the league, while Derby seem to steady the ship and move clear of danger. Forest incredibly will have their fifth manager in five derbies when the teams meet on January 19th. This cannot be a recipe for success.

Many of Derby’s wins over Forest have been closely fought games. Often they have snatched victory, sometimes very late on as Forest’s big name signings have failed to fire. Even the maligned Sammon put in a shift at the City Ground that was never seen from the likes of Ishmael Miller, David McGoldrick or Matt Derbyshire – an expensive attacking trio that have been loaned out to score goals for other teams. I cannot imagine Derby making such signings, nor can I imagine Forest making shrewd purchases such as Theo Robinson or Jamie Ward. In the games I have seen between the two sides, Derby have had few shots on goal but seem more organised and more streetwise – almost certainly a result of the constant management structure in place.

The Derby set up is also more conducive to youth development. Would midfielder Will Hughes get a chance in Forest packed midfield? Would Forest have given a debut to 15-year-old Mason Bennett? After the way Patrick Bamford was not utilised, I guess not.

These are painful lessons as they are taught by our greatest rival. It is difficult to say any progress has been made since the departure of Billy Davies. In the summer it seemed as if Forest were entering the long-game. Sean O’Driscoll was brought in to head up a three- to five-year plan. However, after mixed results the plan was ended in a short, but astounding Boxing Day tweet from Fawaz Al Hasawi. The appointment of Alex McLeish does little to suggest that the club were looking to build on any foundations laid by O’Driscoll. The two men have little in common if tactics employed in the past are anything to go by. It can only be concluded that a more pragmatic approach was required in an attempt to get the club promoted as soon as possible.

Unlike some fans, I was not 100% convinced with O’Driscoll. I believe the Championship on the whole remains a simple, very English league and sometimes his tactics seemed a little over-thought, or at best difficult implement at a club impatient for success. The passing style never really bedded in and I also felt that the players started too many games very flat, which perhaps raises questions about personality and charisma in the dressing room. I went to both the Watford and Leeds games over Christmas and afterwards had little idea whether any progress had been made or not. The truth is we never will know where O’Driscoll would have taken Forest but the sacking was rash and harsh in the extreme whether you liked the manager or not.

By abandoning the plan, the Al Hasawis have set a dangerous precedent that will take Forest towards the hire-and-fire model of Chelsea, rather than the long-term approach of Derby. Having already paid off two managers, the owners have put themselves under pressure with every defeat suffered by McLeish. Some fans tweeted and posted calls for yet another change after his first three games, perhaps egged on by the example set so far by the club’s hierarchy. It should be remembered by fans calling for the heads of any future Forest manager that it will get increasingly difficult to attract any top name to such a precarious role.

We can only hope that money does talk on Saturday and some of the new signings can help Forest towards a welcome three points. As things stand, throwing more cash at the problem seems the only way to achieve the owners’ lofty goals. But they do need to seriously look at the structure in place along the A52 and implement a genuine plan that builds a culture and stability that gets the most out of their investment. Like Derby, it may not be pretty, but it can save a lot of wasted money in the process.

Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulsevern7

Image: Alan Murray-Rust (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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