Let’s not compare him to the Greatest Manager Who Ever Lived just yet… but Paul Severn thinks Billy Davies has been using a few of Cloughie’s old methods.
We all know the stories of Brian Clough’s man management during Nottingham Forest’s glory years. Countless times we have read about a drunken Garry Birtles crawling up to bed the night before a cup final and Martin O’Neill being told he was too good for the third team. The game has changed so much you wonder whether any of the great man’s techniques would work in the modern game. The good news is that they do, and many are being practised by our current manager to great effect.
Clough was well-known for his belief that if you had better players than the opposition, you should let them worry about your strengths. He was very respectful of Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg in the second European Cup triumph but in general his best players went toe-to-toe with Europe’s finest. However, under Sean O’Driscoll, despite his laudable desire to play the Clough way, he became too concerned about some average teams. I believe his defensive formation against Hull at home and the calamitous 3-5-2 experiment at Watford went a long way to convincing the owners a change was needed.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that decision, Billy Davies plays his best team and sticks to it. Interestingly against Hull, in contrast to the cautious O’Driscoll, he persisted with two strikers against Hull’s packed midfield and it worked spectacularly. In my opinion, whether you are Manchester City or Steve McClaren’s England, you cannot play 3-5-2 as a one-off against teams that are used to playing that way. Nor will Billy Sharp thrive up front on his own against three huge central defenders. In short, teams will now start setting up to stop Forest rather than vice versa – sounds familiar?
Clough and Peter Taylor did, however, make some positional moves that had great results. John Robertson was shifted to the wing and Kenny Burns was converted from poacher to gamekeeper. Chris Cohen is a popular player who works hard, but essentially he replaced Garath McCleary on the right of Forest’s midfield. What was gained with Cohen’s workrate was offset somewhat by the loss of McCleary’s pace and trickery. It has been a near genius move to play Cohen at left-back. The position makes the most of his fitness and gives the team much needed width. As he learns the defensive side, I can see him returning full time to the position he started his career. The move also has allowed an extra attacker to be added to the midfield which has made us more dangerous, while the mercurial Andy Reid has been give a free role which has ended any concerns about his defensive weaknesses.
Another Clough trait was man management and pushing players to improve – like he did with a frustrated Martin O’Neill. Both Radi Majewski and Henri Lansbury were highly regarded by fans, but despite their technical ability neither had scored a goal all season. When looking at the Forest website just after Christmas I was surprised to learn that between them the pair had also had only two shots on target each and very few assists for such attacking players. Davies was alive to this and immediately challenged both to score goals. Majewski responded with a sublime hat-trick against Huddersfield and Lansbury showed his Arsenal pedigree with a sumptuous double against Wolves. Scoring goals is now part of their brief.
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Clough was also famous for reverse psychology, such as making Trevor Francis serve the tea after his million-pound move. We are seeing glimpses of that at the moment. Davies seems to be glossing over the contributions of matchwinners, but really building up the performances of Simon Cox and Dexter Blackstock who are finding goals hard to come by. As a result the pair are still making a massive contribution in creating goals and even keeping them out in Blackstock’s case. It would be easy for their droughts to affect their play, as happened under Alex McLeish.
Clough also had the ability to turn players who were written off into stars – Larry Lloyd and Frank Clark are just two examples. Again we are seeing parallels this season. Captain Danny Collins suffered a horrible lapse in form under McLeish and many fans called for changes at the back. Davies left the skipper out and it was a big call. However, those fans writing off Collins have now had to rethink as the captain is back to his best. Clearly a solid professional, Davies knows that Collins will be a key player on and off the field for the remainder of the season – but perhaps leaving him out was the key to his return to form.
Then we come to Lewis McGugan. He is an enigma but extremely talented with a goal record that compares well against most Championship midfielders. I have always felt he has been harshly treated by some fans. He has a languid body language that seems to infuriate some. While by no means the finished article, some fans (and managers) do not realise that a player like McGugan will find it harder to use his talents each week as his strengths are different to the likes of Cohen or even Adlene Guedioura. Therefore both O’Driscoll and McLeish froze him out and his Forest career was all but over as Forest fell down the table.
Billy Davies knew better and announced he needed to polish his boots for the run-in. Rather than sitting on the bench unwanted, Billy had McGugan ready to come on during the Bolton game – showing him faith that had been lacking for so long. Billy lavishes him with praise about what he can offer and he must feel ten feet tall. After his third consecutive goal off the bench, McGugan ran to the away fans at Hull with a celebration that was a million miles from the lazy, doesn’t-care portrayal he gets on internet forums. Davies has turned him from benchwarmer, to the most dangerous substitute in the Championship.
All these successes are down to simple changes and techniques employed by Davies. As we see on Late Kick Off, he does all the video analysis and homework that is required of a top manager and his staff. But overall, it is simply keeping players feeling involved and pushing them to improve that is reaping the biggest rewards at the moment. It is an example of simple man management and charisma – which was perfected so brilliantly by Clough. Add to the mix a revitalised fan base, Forest are coming good at the right time.
Some fans understandably feared the return of Billy Davies but so far, at least, it has been a masterstroke by Fawaz Al Hasawi. We cannot predict how the relationship will fare during the inevitable tough times to come, but for now we should enjoy the very best of Billy Davies who is using the same methods which became folklore on Trentside – and all without a single signing.
You can follow Paul on Twitter: @paulsevern7
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