With the new season just days away, Nottingham Forest face another new beginning — time to rethink, refresh and restart says Paul Severn. The future could be bright
Supporting Nottingham Forest has rarely been boring. In the club’s first few seasons the team was constantly on the move from ground to ground, even playing at Trent Bridge cricket ground for a spell before settling at the City Ground in 1898. Shinguards, crossbars, goal nets and the referee’s whistle where all pioneered in early Forest matches. In 1959 Forest secured a second FA Cup – but did it the hard way, hanging on with 10 men after losing a player through injury, all before substitutes. And when it did threaten to get boring, a certain Brian Clough appeared in 1975 to work miracles.
Recent seasons have seen us stabilise in the Championship. Various changes in manager have left supporters divided on many occasions. The twists and turns have become flirtations with play-offs and relegation. At times last season, it did get boring. Injuries, a transfer embargo and overly-pragmatic tactics meant that home crowds began to drop alarmingly. It felt that people had stopped caring.
In the final game of the season, I had my shortest away trip of the season to Stadium MK. In just a three-mile journey, I saw more and more Forest fans swarm towards the ground. Thousands of away fans entered the stadium to get behind their team – in a dead rubber. I realised that people do still care about Forest. When Britt Assombalonga capped his comeback with the winning goal, the communal joy was very emotional. It was a reminder of what a football club is all about. A homegrown player in Ben Osborn bamboozled a defender, laying on a chance for a goalscoring hero to complete his own fairtytale. He was swamped by the thousands of fans to the bemusement of MK Dons supporters.
That small moment gives hope for the future. However, it also showed that for now, supporting Nottingham Forest is more about moments, rather than expecting a return to the glory days. Every year, clubs have to improve to stand still in the Championship. Forest have spent heavily and gone backwards. With more and more big clubs dropping into the Championship, and smaller clubs moving up the leagues with fresh ideas and impetuous, wins become like gold dust. Each one is cherished and harder fought than ever before.
The goal this season for Philippe Montanier must be two-fold. To improve and entertain. Forest cannot continue to decline because we know the dire consequences. The new manager needs to achieve a better league table finish, and secondly in a better style. In the end, Dougie Freedman’s tactics cost him his job, and Montanier needs to be aware of that. Forest fans are understanding after so many lean years, but he needs to make positive selections and substitutions to at least try to please. Of course, the more points on the board, the easier that becomes. Therefore a decent start is paramount for his chances.
Montanier has a decent European pedigree, but doesn’t have background in the Championship. In such a tight league, this is a big disadvantage where games are won and lost by small margins. Players are inconsistent and equally matched. As Neil Warnock showed at Rotherham, good management makes a massive difference. The positive about Montanier is that apart from the concerns I’ve just noted, no one will have any pre-conceived ideas about him. He has a blank page that few Forest managers can enjoy. He can build his own reputation and the early signs in the friendlies are encouraging.
This year there are no expensive signings to scare opponents. There’s no massive squad and no real expectation of promotion. This gives some scope to bring through young players like Matty Cash and Jorge Grant. A good academy is a vital part of club not able to spend money. It must be a key aim to build on the success of Ben Osborn and Oliver Burke and start to build a reputation that Forest is the top local club for talented young players.
Finally, there should be an aim off the pitch. It is one which we can directly influence. It is vitally important that Forest does not become a train set for a rich businessman. Whoever is owner, the club must be more than a brand or a company, but an organic club belonging to ordinary people which players are proud to represent. The signs were there at MK Dons as fans wrapped around the stadium in red and white. But to really take back control of the club, fans need to be active.
This means supporting initiatives like the events run by Forza Garibaldi, buying new fans’ publications like Bandy & Shinty, and backing the new Supporters’ Trust. These are all new developments which start the long process of making us a real club again.
In my opinion, the attempts to buy promotion and chase the Premier League millions have damaged the club. The strategy left people frustrated and then apathetic. If the club can set more realistic goals, and become something bigger than just chasing unrealistic goals, then football might become fun again. Things will turn around one day, whether it be with Montanier or another manager. But I’m sure the good times will be more enjoyable if we start to become a proper club once again.