The £15m sale of Britt Assombalonga to Middlesbrough is good business for Nottingham Forest. But the money rewarded to relegated clubs is increasingly a problem, says Paul Severn
As we walked away from the City Ground on the final day of last season, Britt Assombalonga’s smile was shared with every Forest fan. Our number nine had saved us. A calm penalty and a ferocious finish into the roof of the net ensured that our summer was time to look forward to the future, rather than the abyss of League One. But, like many Forest heroes, Britt now is also just a memory.
It’s easy to remember just the good times though. I remember travelling up to Middlesborough on a freezing Boxing Day and saw him substituted at half-time by Stuart Pearce after a half-hearted display. And of course there was penalty-gate last season against Cardiff. His terrible knee injury was one of the worst ever witnessed at the City Ground and after his initial, rusty returns as a substitute, I wondered whether he’d actually make it back. I’ll never forget the pure relief as Forest fans tumbled onto the pitch at MK Dons when Britt showed us he could come back after all. And that comeback was confirmed, once and for all, in his final game for the Reds.
We’ve been through a lot with Britt and it hurts that he has gone. But of course he is not the first talented Forest forward to be snapped up by richer clubs. Oliver Burke and Michail Antonio immediately spring to mind, but we can scan through Forest history to see history repeating itself – Pierre van Hooijdonk, Stan Collymore, Nigel Clough, Teddy Sheringham, Peter Davenport, Ian Storey-Moore and many more left a hole when they departed. It’s also easy to rewrite history when it came to our greatest era. The likes of Trevor Francis, Garry Birtles and Tony Woodcock moved on to pastures new because, in reality, Forest have always been a selling club, as most clubs are.
I don’t really agree with the analysis that football has changed too much in this way. Yes, Britt will have an agent and he will be handsomely rewarded at his new club. But we have to take it as a given, that top players will move on – as they have done in the past. They are not fans, and apart from some exceptions, do not think like fans. My family has supported Forest for over 110 years – so I’d never expect Assombalonga to share the same affinity with Forest.
However, I can see why some fans do panic. I remember in 1995 attending a reserve game. Stan Collymore had left the club. I was devastated but we had £8.5 million to replace him. Part of that record fee was spent on the infamous Andrea Silenzi, the first Italian to play in the Premier League. I was excited to see Silenzi wear the Forest colours and replace my hero. As we all know, it did not work out – because it often doesn’t. In theory, a hefty fee should allow you to reinvest with committed players to refresh the team. But the likes of Silenzi, Robert Rosario, the tragic Justin Fashanu and more recently, Lica, show that usually, losing quality players will weaken a side. With Forest only escaping relegation on goal difference, it is natural and understandable that fans will fear the worst post-Britt.
However, it is hard to blame the club. Keeping unhappy, want-away players is an option, but not an appealing one. Lee Camp was told to stay after interest from Swansea and became a shadow of his former self. Kelvin Wilson also disappeared entirely after interest from Celtic. In professional sport, players must be 100% committed, because at Championship level, you cannot be at half-pace. An eight-figure fee for a player with a bad injury record could be seen as good business at a pragmatic level.
But the main point I have about the sale is the fact it is to a Championship club. For £15 million. For me, this signals the complete and total failure of parachute payments and Financial Fair Play. I am not an accountant, but as a sports fan of 30 years, I cannot understand what is happening in our league. A parachute payment, presumably, is to allow a soft-landing into the Championship following relegation to ‘avoid another Portsmouth’. I could accept that, until we see John Terry sign for Aston Villa. There are other examples of the likes of Fulham, Norwich City and now Middlesbrough, making huge purchases, using money that has been awarded to them for failure. Betting on promotion remains a precarious business, even with bonus codes. It seems to me that while the parachute payments have been increased and extended, the Financial Fair Play rules remain strict, mostly for clubs without parachute income. A club like Forest, with new owners looking to build, must sell, while a club such as Huddersfield will become super-rich for several seasons based on one play-off promotion.
This unfairness seems all the more irritating when you compare football to the United States. The most capitalist country on earth takes a very different view to sport – redistributing merchandise income, giving the first college draft picks to the worst performing teams, and even in the National Football League, modifying the fixture-weighting to ensure closer competition. Yes, relegation is not an issue in these closed-shop leagues, but our football has serious thinking to do if it is to remain competitive and fair into the future. For me, the sale of Oliver Burke to the sporting offshoot of an energy drink company was perhaps an even bigger damning indictment of our sport than the sale of Assombalonga. Things must change, and soon.
However, at the moment, all of this is out of our hands. The new Forest regime is now charged with putting a competitive side out against Millwall on 4 August. Despite the loss of Assombalonga, we need to improve and I am confident we will. Clubs such as Southampton, Swansea and even Tottenham Hotspur have lost critical players and continued to do well. Forest must get better at scouting replacements and unlike last season, planning with the managerial team when players are sold so suitable replacements can be found in a timely manner. It is appalling to think how much of the Oliver Burke money was wasted on Niklas Bendtner, Ross McCormack and Lica. That must not and cannot happen again and under Mark Warburton and Frank McParland. I am confident that it won’t.
Forest were run so appallingly under Fawaz Al Hasawi, it is understandable that fans panic when a side so close to relegation loses its top scorer. But we also must remember that we spent far more than the likes of Burton Albion for such little reward. This was due to a total lack of structure and strategy, more than selling top players for profit. Football is become ever more unfair as money distorts the competition, but to survive we will have to face moments like this in a more professional way. The ghosts of Silenzi and Rosario still haunt Trentside, but last season we got a glimpse of how we can approach the future. Ben Brereton’s winner against big-spending Aston Villa gave hope to all teams fighting against the unfairness now engrained in our League. With clever management and development of players, Forest might yet improve this season, even without our number nine.