As thoughts turn to next season, Nottingham Forest are faced with a dilemma — continue to chase instant success or embrace a period of consolidation? Jack Grummitt thinks it’s time for the club to rediscover its identity
Nottingham Forest are in an odd state. The bookmakers have Forest at 14/1 to win the 2015/16 Championship, whereas many supporters, including respected commentators, say that the play-offs are the realistic aim. I’m not sure what I think.
It’s clear that the club requires some sort of stability, and without going deep into Financial Fair Play — which, coincidentally, I feel is a good thing for the sustainable future of Forest — a period of consolidation, despite sounding tedious, could prove fruitful in the long run and save us further fiscal embarrassment. Whatever your views of the Al Hasawi family, they’re not making Forest in any way sustainable with the yearly losses rising sharply and the wage percentage compared to turnover bordering on the stupid.
There does seem to be a larger issue though, and that’s regarding the team’s identity. With so much recent fluctuation, the ‘Forest way’ has been diluted over the past decade. Who’s the last manager we had a very clear playing style under? Gary Megson? He was hardly positive…
Anyone who watched the play-offs recently can surely see how far away Forest are from that level, critically in ball retention, defensive structure and general cleverness on the ball. We panic where others do not. We look, at times, a tad old-fashioned.
As John McGovern once said “If you explain things clearly to hard-working men, you’ve got a fantastic product there.” Take Bournemouth. They’ve gained more plaudits for their attacking style than anyone in the Football League, but that’s down to a very clear, positive message from the top down. When they go two or three-nil up, they don’t knock it around and slow down the game. If anything, they accelerate. That’s not by accident. That’s by design. Ipswich are based on a strong, tall defence, cultured midfielders and power-packed forward players. Again, that’s Mick McCarthy’s design. It’s not luck.
We, as supporters, myself included, seem to look at our team on paper and simply decide that we should be better than we are — loads of football fans do it. We sit before the start of the season and proclaim, ‘De Vries, Lichaj, Mancienne, Hobbs, New LB, Osborn, Lansbury, Antonio, Reid, Assombalonga, Fryatt… that should get us promoted’. Alas it’s rarely that simple. We don’t watch every team every week and we can’t simply think that our best XI on paper is enough to guarantee success. We need an identity, and I’m not talking about a formation, I’m talking about an ethos. The players need direction.
I’m not entirely sure what that will be under Dougie Freedman. I don’t see him as a creative mind, but I also see him making us hard to beat. The first aspect that needs shoring up is the defence of course, where we learn to defend as a team and anticipate situations far more adeptly than this campaign. The second is possession of the ball, something Forest currently don’t do intelligently enough for long periods of time. If Freedman can solve these two issues he will have something approaching a team that can challenge in the top half of the league.
Every fan will have his or her own personal joys and gripes, naturally. I’d sell Henri Lansbury in a heartbeat — I think he’s been turgid this season — and I’d elevate Oliver Burke to the starting XI; he’s a match winner. But all these continual debates on individual players are worthless unless the team pulls together as one and finds a recognisable style. The best clubs all have them. Barcelona. Madrid. United. Chelsea. Arsenal. Bayern. You can all describe the way they play. You couldn’t do that this season with Hull, Burnley or QPR… or with Forest. Players can’t do it all alone (Antonio tried to his credit).
So, what should we realistically expect for next season?
I can’t see the play-offs. I just can’t. There are too many teams who are better than us and too many teams not restricted by sanctions who will strengthen their squads this summer. In a way, the position is not the most important part for 2015/16. A full season with the same manager and coaching staff in charge, a transformation of the playing style and further opportunities (I mean starts, not a token appearance on the bench) for our brilliant Youth Academy products would do very nicely indeed. Quick fixes rarely work anymore, the game is too competitive (the odd loan aside).
And in a season where we are literally prohibited from wasting money, now seems as good a time as anyway to start from the bottom, build a healthy attitude across the whole club, and vitally — recover the Forest identity. That’s a long-term blueprint for success. I don’t think our owner sees it that way though. Like so many, his generosity is blemished by the requirement for instant success, which won’t happen. It just won’t. So, buckle up, be patient, and start thinking long-term. It’s the only option left.