Following last Friday’s statement on the future of the club — and the possibility of new owners next season — does Nottingham Forest need a Supporters’ Trust? Steve Wright isn’t so sure.
“The wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few things for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even his life — knowing that under certain conditions it is not worthwhile to live.” Aristotle
In my heart a supporters’ trust is exactly what I want to reignite my enthusiasm for Nottingham Forest. My head, on the other hand, remains to be convinced. The problem is that my heart speaks to me in an idealised way about how I could be a real part of the club that even in adulthood continues to pull strongly on my emotions, but my head recognises only years of divided fans growing increasingly frustrated and angry.
There are two elements to having a successful trust which works effectively with the football club. On the one hand you need a unified and coherent fan body which can identify key issues for fans whilst also being realistic and truly reflective of what is a very diverse group of people. Alongside this you then need an owner and board who actually want to engage with such a fans’ group. Given that we do not know who the owners will be come the summer we can only really focus on the former element for the time being.
It is worth noting that there has already been one attempt to start a trust at Forest and it floundered, which not only highlights the problems of finding a unifying force amongst the Forest faithful but also means that Supporters Direct – a key organisation for any aspiring trustees – can no longer offer financial help to any new efforts. Although they would be keen to see a trust succeed they have invested in Forest once and cannot do so again.
This points to a group of people who struggle to grasp a shared vision and that is backed up by internet message boards, noisy but little-supported car park demonstrations and stand-up rows in the stands of the City Ground. Some demand more investment in playing staff whilst others want to see a financially responsible and sustainable club. Some want youth development whilst others will boo every mistake and stifle potential. Managers and players are heroes one Saturday and villains the next and long-term thinking rarely seems to feature, so what can a Supporters’ Trust really offer either the fans or the club other than even more frustration?
These are the reasons why Supporters’ Trusts generally take off in a period of crisis and we have to ask whether Forest are facing a crisis substantial enough to bring enough people together to plan a way forward. On the surface some may think that we are a club in crisis but in reality we just struggle to meet the expectations of fans who remember better times. Ask fans of other Championship and League One clubs and many will tell you that Forest supporters are arrogant, living in the past and worthy of any misfortune that comes their way.
If we had a trust and it was invited to a board meeting what would it say? At the moment, opposition to the leadership has not moved beyond a vague sense of wanting things to be better. It is an understandable desire but has nothing to offer a team of professionals.
At a smaller club lower down the pyramid there is a logical place for a supporters’ group because there is a huge need for people to contribute. At a non-league club, for example, a group of committed fans prepared to write programmes, steward games, publicise the club and so on, is a vital resource but at Championship level with a professional board and a wide-ranging staff what is that group going to offer beyond a ‘well done’ or a ‘please do better’?
As the club faces such an uncertain future — with negotiations for a sale apparently taking place — there are genuine reasons for concern. We have seen other clubs suffer through a poor sale, with Portsmouth standing out as a stark warning of how these processes can go wrong. A well organised group of fans could play a part in ensuring that any new owners keep the long-term interests of the club at heart – but is that what fans really want?
Portsmouth fans weren’t making any noise about potential future financial problems when they were winning the FA Cup on the back of unpaid taxes and although they were up in arms at their last administration they were not condemning the immediate signings of Premier League players Liam Lawrence and Dave Kitson once those debts were written off. Similarly, Leicester City fans are not complaining about their current owners who have wracked up debts far in excess of those which caused their administration in 2002, though they will surely claim innocence should it happen again.
During Nigel Doughty’s time as owner, even though he paid all the bills and put millions of pounds into the club every year, fans called for more to be spent and some even claimed he was holding us back because he did the right thing by creditors whilst others were benefitting from using administration to fuel excess.
Ultimately, many fans just want to win and often care little for the way their club is run, unless it all goes horribly wrong and the club’s future is threatened. A Supporters’ Trust cannot operate like that however, and needs to be able to rise above the emotions of a Saturday afternoon to look long-term.
If such an organisation is to have any impact at Forest then those with an interest need be sure of what they stand for and what they hope to achieve. They have to be realistic about the performance of the club and acknowledge that once it has gone into a formal relationship they need to raise the quality of debate. If these points are clear then they can go to the wider group of supporters and seek some consensus and membership – which also means reaching out, much more widely than the internet community, to all fans.
To be honest I’m not sure there is enough interest and momentum at Forest for a large enough and committed enough group of people to try to set out a vision that, ultimately, will probably receive a lot of criticism even from other fans. It would require an awful lot of time and effort to create what could ultimately be nothing more than a limited pressure group speaking mostly to itself.
Suppose an unknown group takes over the club this summer promising millions of pounds of investment and an all-out attack on promotion to the Premier League. Some fans will look at Portsmouth and Leicester and be deeply concerned whilst others will be keen to jump on for the ride. How does a Supporters’ Trust respond to such a crucial split of opinion?
Follow Steve on Twitter: @mistrollingin