A fourth defeat in five games means Nottingham Forest’s season is ending with a whimper after losing 3-1 to high-flying Watford. Steve Wright offers a fan’s eye view from the City Ground…
I can’t exactly put my finger on why but I am overcome with a malaise when my thoughts turn to Nottingham Forest. In part it is probably down to the whole Stuart Pearce problem earlier this season but in many ways that just points to a bigger issue that has concerned me for a long time now, our continual, haphazard attempts to spend our way to promotion without any overriding plan.
With this in mind I was hardly filled with excitement at the visit of Watford on Wednesday night. I missed the Huddersfield game due to a family engagement and by all accounts it was a blessing that I did. Following Forest feels increasingly like a chore and that just makes me feel even worse, especially with the 150th anniversary looming large on the horizon. These should be exciting times.
Three years under the ownership of Fawaz Al Hasawi have done nothing to address the issues of the previous 13 years under Nigel Doughty; in fact they have taken the same problems and made them worse. By May 2014 annual losses had risen to £23m and the wage bill was an eye watering £27m, 165% of turnover. In return for this profligacy (it can hardly be called investment) the team managed an 11th place finish, three places below the previous year.
This year we have seen yet more money spent and seen more managers turned over and with three games remaining we currently lie in 10th place. So far under Al Hasawi the club has had five ‘permanent’ managers (plus two interims) and they have averaged 28 games each in charge. This in turn has led to 28 permanent player signings (as well as a host of loans) and some eyebrow-raising contract extensions that have seen staff costs shoot up but left a squad that looks imbalanced and mediocre.
Despite all this Fawaz Al Hasawi and his older brother Abdulaziz recently took to the club’s official website to state that everything was going to plan and they were very happy with the progress that had been made since their takeover. What plan? What progress? To be fair it isn’t entirely their fault, football has moved on and owning a Championship club is no easy task, but their words and their actions simply don’t add up.
Looking ahead the club has been hit with penalties from the Football League, due to failing Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, that may force it into a change of strategy. The appointment of Leon Hunter as football co-ordinator is a positive step that received a surprisingly small amount of coverage and fanfare from the club, but it will not be easy to change direction now. Even if that is what the owners want, which seems doubtful given that their rhetoric still talks of promotion – the club is several years behind the crowd on developing football structures that will support sustainable development.
A realistic target for the next two seasons would be retaining Championship status while bringing through young players such as Osborn, Walker and Burke and moving on high earners, using Hunter’s knowledge and network to replace with better value options. This would also seem to fit with manager Dougie Freedman’s plans but it is hard to imagine the owners or many fans accepting such an approach and it is more likely that we will continue to act inconsistently and erratically. In addition whilst FFP penalties may be a force for change they will also be a hindrance to achieving it smoothly, restricting the club’s transfer options even amongst lower league targets.
I realise that this will be overly doom and gloom for many people but when you scratch under the surface of Nottingham Forest it doesn’t look good on or off the pitch. We missed the boat on the Premier League windfall, just as we missed the boat on shiny new stadia, but we have failed to adapt so that we can compete without it. Putting that right is necessary but would also be a brave and potentially high-risk step, which surely makes it unlikely. It is said that real change only occurs in the face of a crisis and it feels like Forest are in a limbo that will only be broken by a major shock. It is not difficult to see the potential for such a shock in the club’s near future but it hardly seems something to wish for.
I suppose at this stage I should make some reference to the match which was actually quite entertaining. Watford are a very good side and in possession played with an assurance reflecting their position in the league, but Forest certainly played their part with chances being created at both ends. It felt harsh to be going into the break two down, we could and probably should have had a goal or two ourselves, although Watford could also have had more.
The second-half threatened to peter out as Watford were happy with their lead, until Kelvin Wilson decided that he was ready for his summer break now and kicked Ighalo picking up a red card and a three-match ban. As a result Mancienne reverted to his much preferred position in central defence and Forest improved significantly. Gardner scored a nice free-kick and there was a feeling that the comeback could be on as chances were created but missed, until Abdi knocked the wind out of our sails with a third Watford goal in the final few minutes. It’s difficult to know who’s going to top the Championship this season but backing every eventuality in the remaining games and still making a profit using RebelBetting, or other similar betting apps, is all we can hope for.
So, as an evening’s entertainment it wasn’t bad but as a fourth defeat in five games it does begin to highlight the potential for problems in the future. We know what happens to managers at Forest when they have a poor run of results and the mood wasn’t helped by some farcical uncertainty over the status of Freedman’s new contract in his post-match interview. What Forest need is the same as it has been for years, the problem is there is little reason to believe it will happen.
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