Is there a blueprint for a great football club? Peter Blackburn has come up with a checklist that might give Nottingham Forest the kiss of life
It is a bitingly cold Tuesday evening in south-west London. The football is poor – shocking in fact.
The visitors, Portsmouth, have tried to knock it about and during glorious fleeting moments it seems a football match might break out in front of our eyes. The away side’s star-man Gary Roberts occasionally looks threatening before fluffing his lines. And Michael Doyle, once of Sheffield United and a player used to a higher level, is spraying his raking – or rather wildly inaccurate – passes all over KT1 (as much as I wanted to write SW19 here, it’s sadly not currently accurate).
The home side – my team on this occasion – AFC Wimbledon lack real quality. Lyle Taylor offers an outlet up front and looks sharp. But there’s no passer in midfield and the defence, led by the pleasingly retro Paul Robinson (high-waisted shorts, shirt tucked in, long, gangly stride) are firefighting and have little time to build anything.
There is an asphyxiating, close atmosphere and the pitch – here at the Kingsmeadow Stadium – feels tighter than the regulations should allow. There’s no room to play and chances are few and far between, a scrappy goal from Pompey aside. Live odd comparisons offer little comfort.
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But in between gulps of warm, sticky, salty Bovril and attempting to digest lumps of hurriedly-chewed beef burger I realise something.
I am enjoying myself. At a football match. And a bloody poor one at that.
It might sound like a simple pleasure – but it’s one I’ve not had in relation to my first love Nottingham Forest (as you can read here) for some time.
It made me wonder. What have they got that we haven’t?
I think I’ve narrowed it down to a few things, and perhaps this can serve as an – admittedly light, rushed and insubstantial – blueprint of the route forward for our great football club.
These fans rebuilt their club from the ashes of betrayal and have come so far. Nottingham Forest have a huge head start.
A hero (preferably more): AFC Wimbledon must be one of the smaller budgets in this league – the Portsmouth team is littered with formerly big names or rising stars but there’s little of note in the home dressing room. But that’s where captain Barry Fuller – an all-action full-back with an appetite for challenges much bigger than his frame – fits in. Add goal scorer Lyle Taylor into the mix and several other grafters and it feels the fans really mean it when they chant their heroes’ names. The songs sung to Fuller must be heard across the area. In Forest’s case we’ve a couple of potential love interests – Chris Cohen obviously springs to mind, and perhaps Britt Assombalonga, but it feels the apathy with which so many big-name and bigger pay-packet players have treated the club has probably shrunk the affection we can possibly have for most footballers. A fully-fit Chris Cohen for a whole season could just help redress the balance.
Fan involvement: This is crucial. Fans at AFC Wimbledon have voted for their shirts, they’ve chosen the pints that go behind the bar and they run the club. Clearly we’re a long way from this – and it’s arguable whether it could work – but there simply has to be a bigger role for fans at the club. It’d help if it felt like the club actually took us seriously, for a start. Maybe ask for views occasionally, maybe offer incentives and reward loyalty. These are small steps and a supporters’ trust will enable an organised cohort of fans to find a voice.
Sense of community: It’s a similar point to the last – but one of the most striking things about AFC Wimbledon was the social nature of the occasion. A large bar was open for several hours before the game and fans chatted excitedly over a few pints. On the terraces there was chatter and the music was fantastic. If Forest put a little more effort into the facilities and the offering at the club it could be a hugely improved experience. There are breweries – as one small example – brewing some of the best real ale and craft beer in the region just minutes away from our ground but yet we are fed the filthiest offerings from Greene King, Carlsberg et al.
Sense of purpose: I’ve spoken before about Forest needing a vision, and something for fans to buy into. It’s a huge question to address – from actually appointing people to the key positions which sit worryingly, and frankly, quite ridiculously, empty – to outlining a clear sense of direction. In AFC Wimbledon’s case, recent history has helped with this. These fans are on a journey back to where they belong, both in terms of their place in the footballing world and also returning home to SW19 at Plough Lane.
In our case, this would start with bringing in the sort of people who could identify a recruitment strategy and a playing style. Managers would come and go but this philosophy would remain. It would include a long-term plan of how financial and commercial dealings would take place to ensure that a boom and bust approach of FFP restrictions and then massive spending was no longer the method of operation. It would certainly include the fantastic Nottingham Forest academy being given every chance to bloom and those vital young players being given every possible route into the first team. The sense of purpose at the City Ground should first be putting these things in place, and then trying to secure success with them – a success which would clearly have a long-term goal of promotion and consolidation but with no time frames, just the knowledge that doing things right will hopefully get us there and there will be no redundancies, no protests and no embargoes on the way.
Success: That brings me to the last point. Obviously success is important; it’s nourishing. But surely the sensible method is to be able to enjoy the journey in the first place. That’s certainly not something I, or many, can claim at the moment as Forest lurch from one unpaid bill to another public shaming. If we do things right we can enjoy the ride – before hopefully enjoying the success.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Nottingham Forest Supporters’ Trust is a vital part of this club’s future. Nottingham Forest needs a kiss-of-life and who better than the fans to do just that?