Out of contract and out of favour, Lewis McGugan is the mercurial talent often described as one of the best players in the Championship. Yet he’s never really found his place in the Nottingham Forest side. Paul Severn thinks we’d miss him if he left.
On 3 May 2008, a young midfielder, born just a few miles away from the City Ground, stepped up to take a free-kick. It sailed into the net past the despairing dive of the goalkeeper and helped to end Nottingham Forest’s darkest ever era. The same player scored a critical 85th minute winner the previous week in the final away game of the season. These were goals that played a massive part in dragging Forest out of League One oblivion. He went on to become Forest’s top scorer in the club’s last successful play-off campaign and last season became the Championship’s top super-sub AND Forest’s second top scorer.
So you’d expect Forest fans to be badgering Fawaz Al Hasawi on Twitter to make attempts to keep Lewis McGugan in the same way as they did for Radi Majewski and Dexter Blackstock. Instead McGugan has become one of the most divisive players in recent times to wear a red shirt. Some forum comments border on the unpleasant, while others still believe his talent will one day flourish. I do not know whether McGugan will stay or go — or whether he will finally reach his potential — but I can guarantee Forest would be much weaker without him in the squad.
I tend to have a soft spot for local players. Although Julian Bennett and Wes Morgan were not the most cultured defenders ever to grace the City Ground pitch, their passion transmitted itself into the stands. Their joy at scoring a goal seemed like our joy at watching the ball hit the back of the net. McGugan has never quite had this bond with supporters despite being a long-serving – and dare I say loyal – member of the squad. It largely comes down to one thing. Workrate. In the British game you must work hard to please supporters. Even players of the class of Dimitar Berbatov come under scrutiny in this country.
McGugan is not a natural athlete. He has been deemed both too fat and too thin. On a frustrating Saturday afternoon he is usually the first port of call to blame when things go wrong. Even when players such as Paul Anderson struggled, he largely escaped criticism because of his effort. But who would opposition players fear most? McGugan or Anderson? I wonder whether the British obsession with graft, athleticism and power is demonstrated in the reluctance to trust flair players like McGugan and give them regular games and the licence to take risks.
One player who doesn’t have the crowd on his back is Chris Cohen and our player of the season is perhaps the antithesis of McGugan. I once overheard a man in the Test Match pub say: “If only we had 11 Chris Cohens…” I would argue that would not be enough for promotion. Cohen has a one in 20 goal record for Forest and is not a ‘matchwinner’ despite his undoubted effort and versatility. But his athleticism and stamina is something that can be replicated more easily than say a McGugan free-kick. Both players have their place and I would argue both care for the club.
Cohen will play at left-back and would no doubt take the goalkeeper’s gloves if asked. But in the 96th minute at Burnley, it was always going to be McGugan who took the penalty rather than Cohen because you need a player with a streak of confidence – or even a slight arrogance in a pressure situation. McGugan cares but shows it in a different way, wanting to take that crucial penalty, free-kick or shot at goal. Another common swipe at McGugan is that he is ‘greedy’. This is true to a degree as he can be wasteful, but the greed is actually confidence. In a game like Burnley away, this manifests itself positively. I would sooner see a player keep going for goal, rather than lose confidence and become inhibited. I think defenders visibly do fear McGugan because he is willing to run at them and shoot.
However, the most important factor in McGugan’s failure to really blossom has been the chaotic and unstable managerial situation in recent years. Top managers such as Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are able to mould players such as Tom Cleverley and Jack Wilshere because they have the time to shape these talents in their own vision. At Forest, a range of short-lived philosophies have been in place. McGugan actually did well with the managers who stayed a reasonable amount of time — Colin Calderwood and Billy Davies.
Raw talents need careful coaching to bring out qualities and manage limitations. Davies quickly realised that McGugan has limited defensive ability, so often played him on the left, drifting in to join attacks. However other managers, such as Sean O’Driscoll and Steve Cotterill, just assumed he was a central midfielder, got frustrated and dropped him. To be fair McGugan has never publicly criticised any manager and has kept coming back after being written off. He is not a problem player in the mould of Mario Ballotelli, that’s for sure.
McGugan isn’t the only example of stunted player development. In 2010 many would have predicted Premier League futures for players such as Anderson, Lee Camp, Luke Chambers and Chris Gunter. However, all have drifted away from Forest, with their careers going sideways or backwards.
A change in manager also brings about changes in the playing staff. Each manager wants to make their own signings. This hasn’t helped McGugan as the squad has become bloated with attacking options. Davies brought in Majewski, who is difficult to fit in alongside McGugan. McClaren signed Jonathan Greening and Andy Reid, Cotterill acquired Adlene Guedioura and O’Driscoll made his Guedioura’s move permanent and brought in Henri Lansbury. Alex McLeish was also an eye test away from signing George Boyd. McGugan started last season fairly well, but in came Jermaine Jenas and a traffic jam quickly built up in midfield. Many of these midfielders, though talented, are also somewhat sporadic in their play and have not demonstrated real promotion consistency as of yet. Lack of games equals lack of sharpness and it is interesting to see a less talented player, David McGoldrick, look a different player with regular games away from the City Ground. Food for thought…
I am sure some will say I have made too many excuses for McGugan, that he has had his chances and not taken them. That is true to a degree, but even last season when he went on that tremendous late season goalscoring run, still he was left on the bench as Forest stuttered. Maybe it is time for him to move on and have a new start. But come next August, if we are a goal down with 20 minutes to go, not having McGugan to bring on will be a big loss. Midfielders with a one-in-five goalscoring record are not easy to replace at any level.
If Lewis does leave, he will not go down as Forest’s most popular player. However, I think a tiny piece of a club dies when a homegrown player departs. I hope though fans will be able to raise a glass to a local lad and remember the amazing 40-yard free kick against Ipswich and so many other goals that brightened our Saturday afternoons and often left us gasping in amazement – albeit less frequently than we’d have liked. Talent like McGugan’s is not easy to find and with the right manager in place to utilise it, I do hope Forest can persuade him to stay.
You can follow Paul on Twitter: @paulsevern7
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