With a play-off position still within grasp, Nottingham Forest’s season is not over yet. But the appointment of Stuart Pearce as the new manager should see a different approach to results, recruitment and playing says Paul Severn
Fans of Nottingham Forest are in a familiar place. Two games to go and a play-off place is still achievable. A manager has gone and a caretaker has taken charge. We’ve been automatic promotion contenders, play-off certainties, written off and now back in the hunt. For some fans it might be a thrilling ride. For the City Ground faithful it is almost routine – just another season on Trentside.
A crazy season I might have predicted, but what I wouldn’t have expected was the debuts of two young players in a win-or-bust game against Leeds United. Debutants Dimitar Evtimov and Stephen McLaughlin each played their part in an excellent 2-0 win, alongside more established youngsters Jamie Paterson, Jamaal Lascelles and, more latterly, Ben Osborn.
I have always been a little sceptical when it comes to blooding youngsters. A club like Nottingham Forest needs promotion yesterday and it always seems safer to sign and select a seasoned professional over a rookie. However, this season has challenged my thoughts to some degree. As we know, Forest’s promotion charge was derailed by an incredible injury crisis, which mutated into a full-blown, terminal crisis for Billy Davies. On paper the squad was strong and deep. Internationals such as Simon Cox, Djamel Abdoun, Rafik Djebbour, Radi Majewski, Gonzalo Jara and Danny Collins were expected to step into the void left by injured star players.
What followed was a series of hugely disappointing performances. Davies lost his job and Gary Brazil also struggled to get any decent performances out of the remaining players. Without going on a personal witch-hunt, some individuals have let themselves and the club down.
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Throughout the season there have been some rays of light in the performances of young goalkeeper Karl Darlow, Lascelles and Paterson, but it was the efforts of Osborn against Birmingham that really got me thinking that this might be the way forward under Stuart Pearce. After watching insipid performances from more experienced players, it was so refreshing to see Osborn not only chase every lost cause, but also show skill and confidence to get on the ball and use it effectively. In the Leeds game, McLaughlin made a similar impression, creating a goal seconds into his debut and coasting through the game with a calm, measured display.
Stuart Pearce has the pedigree to continue this approach by utilising his experience with the England Under-21 team. He knows how to identify and develop players and the fruits of his labours are beginning to appear in the senior England team. The squad has a younger, more dynamic look than it has had for years with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw and Raheem Sterling among the players who have made the graduation into the senior squad. Pearce will surely bring some of this approach into his role at Forest.
With Forest though there is always a ‘but’. There are huge question marks whether we as a club are ready for a new approach. In my opinion, neither Fawaz Al Hasawi, nor the fans, have really learnt how to take losing properly. It’s a strange thing to say, but learning to not overreact to defeats is vital. The role of a leader is to identify the reasons for failure and act swiftly to rectify them – and that doesn’t always mean sacking the manager. Similarly I think some fans (of most clubs) have also adopted a short-term mindset and stop supporting managers remarkably quickly.
It would be foolish to suggest that Billy Davies only lost his job only because of footballing reasons. But losing was a major part. Davies, for all his issues off the field, was near untouchable when Forest were thrashing the likes of West Ham United and on a long unbeaten run. Many fans were supportive or ambivalent about his media stance as we moved up the table. But the backing of the fans and owner evaporated after just a few defeats – even though injuries were a huge contributory factor.
It is difficult to feel too much sympathy for Davies who alienated almost everybody by the end of his tenure, even appearing to be in a sulk with the fans and not appearing on Forest’s own pay-TV channel. But the same hire-and-fire approach cannot be used with Pearce. A bad run or a 5-0 defeat is not an excuse to rip up the plan and start again – even more so if you are looking to develop young talent, rather than buy internationals. Fans must also be on board too and not call for panic buys like Djebbour on deadline day or abuse the owner if targets are not landed.
We must make sure that any additions from abroad are thoroughly scouted as to their playing style and only brought in if they are tough enough for the Championship. We need to be certain as to their character to fit into the dressing room. We must be careful about handing contracts to senior bit-part players who have already failed to get the club promoted. Instead, we are better off buying another Paterson from the lower leagues or giving the next Lascelles or Osborn a chance. It can be cheaper and more effective.
And finally, to knit everything together, we need more experienced staff behind the scenes to oversee improved scouting, develop the Academy and restore public relations. This probably means a chief executive and definitely not allowing a manager to come into the club, black out most of the media and install family members into suddenly vacant senior positions – a fiasco that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Instead we need to develop a club philosophy. Good examples are Southampton, who develop the best young players in the country, or Swansea, who have risen through the leagues with a playing style that is embedded by employing managers with the same tactical DNA.
Even though our season is not yet over, there have been big mistakes at all levels – owner, manager and fans. Stuart Pearce is a legend at Nottingham Forest who gave his heart and soul into every performance. His stature demands and deserves the time and patience to implement his strategy – whatever it is. Of course, one day it will end. But it would be a massive shame to see Pearce removed after a few poor performances, an injury crisis or a defeat to Derby. Time will tell whether our owner and fans are truly ready to take Nottingham Forest in a new direction. Hopefully the performances of the likes of Lascelles, Osborn and McLaughlin might just help a little.