With the likes of Andy Reid, Henri Lansbury and Jack Hobbs missing, Nottingham Forest’s injury crisis threatens to derail the season. But Paul Severn believes the situation shouldn’t be exacerbated by other factors
“It’s not an excuse, it’s a fact,” is one of the new catchphrases that has been added to Billy Davies’s repertoire this season as the Nottingham Forest manager has attempted to explain his side’s downturn in form.
The downturn became sharper as dreams of automatic promotion died, and new signings Jack Hobbs and Rafik Djebbour were also added to the casualty list. It has, of course, mutated into a bigger, more general crisis as Davies was banned from the touchline and withdrew from all media contact aside from the regular interview with the BBC’s Natalie Jackson. Fans started to become more and more divided over his style of management, the style of play and not even a loan signing could be brought in the ease the tension.
Injuries are critical in sport – not just football. In the National Football League, American football teams are allowed to carry 53 players on their roster. Plenty of cover perhaps? But not always so. Between 1998 and 2010, the Indianapolis Colts won 141 out of 208 regular season games with one of the sport’s greatest ever quarterbacks, Peyton Manning. In 2011, he was injured and the Colts lost their first 13 games of the season.
Anyone who remotely follows both sports will know that Forest lost their own ‘quarterback’ in Andy Reid as he missed crucial games with a hernia and possibly further games with a new hamstring injury. Reid is the player on which everything depends. He runs the game and can pass, cross and shoot to a Premier League standard. Now that he is in the best shape of his career, he also tackles and chases too. He’s also clearly a huge character and influence in the dressing room. He, like Peyton Manning was for the Colts, really is the difference between winning and losing. Whilst Forest do have international replacements in the likes of Djamel Abdoun and Radi Majewski, one glance at the assist and goals statistics shows that they are in no way like-for-like, top quality replacements.
But the Forest injury crisis runs deeper. Going back to the American football analogy, Forest have also lost their ‘running back’ in Henry Lansbury and ‘linebackers’ in Jack Hobbs and Kelvin Wilson. A captain is less important in American football, but not in our sport. In Chris Cohen, Forest lost desire, leadership and one of the league’s most dangerous attacking full-backs. These are absolutely critical losses to any team at this level. And we know the crisis runs even deeper than just these players I have listed.
Forest certainly do have a large squad, with experienced players like Guy Moussi, Danny Collins and Greg Halford able to step into the void. This is certainly true and many of the players who have come into the side will be disappointed in their efforts. For me though, the key is competition. At the start of the season, all players knew that a poor performance meant being substituted and probably dropped the next game. This raises the standards throughout the squad and we have seen the likes of Jamie Paterson, Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles flourish this season more competition – not less. When this is lost through injury, it is natural for some players to let standards drop and complacency to set into the subconscious. I think this has had a profound effect in the last month and has been allowed to fester without the leadership of Reid, Cohen and Hobbs.
The current Forest XI should be doing better at the moment, but this is not a team packed with players with promotion-winning pedigree – they are just not consistent enough and that’s the fault of the recruitment policy of all recent managers not just Davies.
Sadly, the injury crisis and the poor results are rarely seen in a measured way. Football fans are very bad losers and lash out in defeat. This can cause a negative atmosphere that filters onto the pitch. It can affect young players. Amidst a bad run, articles begin to appear in the local and national press which criticise the management. These articles often raise valid points, but there’s no coincidence in their timing. There was little in the way of interested readership after Forest had dispatched Blackburn Rovers and West Ham United scoring nine goals in the process. After a run of defeats, it feels a better time for (often well-meaning) fans and media to air concerns about the things they don’t like at a football club.
I am neither ‘for’ Davies nor ‘against’ him. As Forest manager he has my support and my sympathy with this unprecedented injury crisis. He has his limitations as a manager (as seen on Saturday against Doncaster with some bizarre selections and substitutions) and should represent the club more openly and positively in the media. But it is sometimes forgotten that his players and loyal staff seem to enjoy working with him. So we perhaps don’t know the ‘real’ Billy as much as we think. Did respected professional Paul McKenna think Davies was a poisonous figure when he followed his old boss from the familiar surroundings of Preston North End to reunite at the City Ground?
Whether you are a fan or not, Davies must be judged fairly and reasonably – and given time to complete the job. That surely includes next season when with a fully fit squad, Forest must have a great chance of promotion once again. With Forest already in difficulty with the Financial Fair Play rules, it would be a rash strategy to pay off Davies and staff and cut a huge chunk out of the playing budget to remove a manager that had ‘failed’ using Plan C since January. It might please X% of fans who really dislike Davies – but few fans have never met him or seen how he works with players on the training ground which is a crucial part of the bigger picture.
It is certainly true that some managers like Roberto Martinez at Everton are achieving success with dignity and class that sometimes eludes Davies. But management is a pressurised business and you don’t have to look too far to see managers across the country also losing their heads on a weekly basis – as seen with Alan Pardew most notably at Hull. The profession attracts bizarre characters and, often, bad losers too.
If Davies eventually gets promotion with Forest, he will be a hero. If he fails, then he alone will have to deal with any consequences of his approach when looking for alternative employment. Forest will live on with and without this particular manager – as it did before when a much bigger name presided on the banks of the Trent.
In-fighting, bickering and negativity between supporters is a massive distraction at such a crucial stage of the season. Billy Davies might shoulder some of the blame this has happened, but to me the injuries are the major factor that kicked off this whole ‘crisis’. The play-offs are still very much achievable, but only by standing united. At this moment, the City Ground isn’t a fun place to watch football. The team needs to play better and the fans need to be more understanding and up their game too.