It’s been a challenging first few months for Stuart Pearce as he settles into the managerial chair at Nottingham Forest. Paul Severn gives his verdict so far
As the wild celebrations started to die down after Michail Antonio’s stoppage time winner against Norwich City, there was a sense of relief around the City Ground that you could almost reach out and touch. Even fans like me who have sat through years of ups and downs felt something unusual – and special – had just taken place. The ‘Psycho’ chants at the end left a lump in my throat.
When a manager has gone through this type of winless run, many lose their jobs. Even if they don’t, they will suffer calls for their head in banners, phone-ins and tweets. On Saturday though, there were no such feelings – because our manager is Stuart Pearce. Everyone wants Pearce to succeed because he cares as much as the fans. And that means the fans care for him – almost as family, rather than a club manager.
In truth, it has not been an easy first few months for Pearce. The international break is frustrating, but does allow some time for reflection. Here’s some of my thoughts about how things have gone so far and where I’m critical, I am sure the ever-honest Pearce would not only agree, but already be working to put things right.
Media and PR – Grade A (plus)
One of the things that has impressed me has been the way Pearce has portrayed Forest externally. He picked up the club with a shattered reputation and one that even Neil Warnock did not want to touch. From his first day, Pearce has talked eloquently and intelligently about what he is trying to achieve. Win, lose or draw he has provided via the media an insight for fans and an honest assessment. His articulate interviews have surprised me to a degree as in his last spell as manager, he did seem to struggle in the spotlight somewhat.
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Of course the question is, does it really matter if a manager gives good interviews? I think Billy Davies probably provided the answer. If you are winning, most fans will forgive anything, whether it be shutting out the local newspaper or club employees being sacked. But once the defeats come, Davies had no goodwill, nowhere to turn and the support of the fans evaporated into thin air overnight. The affable Pearce has no such concerns and will be backed in bad times as well as good – which is vital for any long-term planning and vision.
Transfer Market – Grade A (minus)
It’s easy to forget that Pearce inherited a bloated squad in rotten form at the end of last season. After the key injuries to Andy Reid, Jack Hobbs and Henri Lansbury, a number of senior players with big reputations failed to step up. Pearce recognised this and shipped out the culprits.
No one can deny that the replacements are improvements: Michael Mancienne is a class defender; Robert Tesche is an excellent free transfer signing; Chris Burke, Matty Fryatt and Jack Hunt have been largely a success; and Antonio and Britt Assombalonga have been outstanding. Excitingly, there is probably more to come from all these players. Only Lars Veldwijk and Thomas Ince have failed to make any impact, but it is early days for both.
Losing Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles was a sad and depressing blow which will be felt in the future, but Pearce has taken this in his stride, keeping both involved and crucially hasn’t wasted the money.
Off the field, new coaches Brian Eastick and Steve Wigley have talked about their work in the same intelligent way as Pearce, which can only add to our confidence for the future.
Results and performances — C (minus)
While everything off the pitch has been impressive, the results have been a rollercoaster and recently one that has left fans feeling nauseous. After starting the season unbeaten in 11, it’s almost incredible we find ourselves trailing the likes of Bournemouth and Brentford in 11th. How has this happened?
Even when Forest were at the top of the table, warning signs were there that the balance between defence and attack hadn’t quite been achieved. Solid 0-0 draws with few efforts on goal were mixed with wild end-to-end thrillers, such as the 5-3 win against Fulham. With such good players on paper, it is difficult to isolate the issues, but what has been clear is a lack of confidence and a nervousness which has led to goals being conceded. Defending recently has been poor, not only from the back four, but from the team as whole, needlessly gifting possession away.
Losing leaders to injury such as Chris Cohen, Reid and Hobbs has made Forest a poorer side. We are reluctant to tackle in the box or receive the ball under pressure. A player like Reid will risk the wrath of the crowd to shoot or try a positive pass, even when he’s not playing well. Cohen will chase lost causes and lift supporters and Hobbs will clear both ball and attacker out of play when needed. Without them we are a ‘nice’ team who get rattled if we concede or stop scoring. As a result, the style of play has been a little unattractive to say the least. Under stress, we have been too ready to go long for the pace and power of Antonio and Assombalonga, and have not utilised the likes of Burke and Lansbury, who like to get on the ball and create.
I don’t think for a moment Pearce has been coaching a direct style. That always comes from a lack of confidence and taking the safe option. Goals and victories breed the confidence to express skills. As a result, it’s kind of like watching England in the World Cup at the moment – pressure inhibiting good players.
As we saw with Sean O’Driscoll, it’s not possible to install a tiki-taka style overnight and that is not the only way of winning games as Germany showed in the World Cup. Clubs with a structure and plan develop a style over many years, through stable leadership, coaching, youth development and recruitment. That is why Pearce needs time rather than choking the plans in the early stages.
Youth development – B (minus)
One of the big hopes with Pearce was that he’d end the days of mercenary foreign imports and promote youth. There have been some successes with Jorge Grant grabbing headlines at White Hart Lane and latterly Ben Osborn continuing his development with a number of excellent displays. Many fans have been disappointed not to see more of Jamie Paterson and that is understandable.
What needs to be remembered is that there will always be casualties when managers change and fans demand new exciting new signings. Paterson obviously didn’t impress Pearce at first and new wingers were signed. Hopefully his recent performances off the bench have impressed Pearce and we’ll see more of Paterson, but let’s remember that in January too when we implore Fawaz to make signings.
It seems possible that Forest may have a transfer embargo in any case, which will make youth development even more important. I am confident that Pearce will embrace this part of the club and we are seeing currently with Osborn that if youngsters really do excel, they will start games over more experienced big names.
Overall – Grade B
I’ve tried to break down what Forest have achieved so far this season and what still needs work – while looking wider than just results. For me, 11th place is where we deserve to be. The squad is better than 11th, but it is not yet a team. It is a group of talented individuals missing true leaders through injury. It is a work in progress and that is always the case when a manager has inherited a mess – which Pearce undoubtedly did in July.
However, a football club is more than just results. Pearce has restored the good name of Forest and built through his own personality an identity once again for the club. This cannot be bought with cash and provides a sound basis going forward. We have in place a special relationship between manager and fans that needs harnessing in full.
I have never seen a Forest crowd so supportive after such a dire run of results – or so loud facing imminent defeat. I know some fans may have tweeted negatively about Pearce, but many may not be old enough to remember Pearce and his passion for Forest. They have grown up in time where patience isn’t a word used in football. But the overall feeling at the ground is extremely positive.
The winning goal against Norwich was a glimpse of what a rosy future under Pearce might look like. Dreams don’t often come true in football, but this manager needs to be given every chance to implement his plan in full to ensure that Saturday’s win is the first of many great moments in the second coming of Psycho.