Could Nottingham Forest’s 13-match unbeaten run be a blueprint for next season? Andrew Brookes takes a look at six previous runs over the past decade and wonders whether Dougie Freedman is just a couple of players short for the 2016/17 campaign
I was worried when Dougie Freedman said “back to basics” after the defeat at Brentford in November. It evoked images of John Major and grey Spitting Image puppets and, frankly, I worried that it meant long ball football.
I needn’t have worried. While the football hasn’t always been free-flowing, his mantra has resulted in the establishment of a sound shape which has been the foundation for the highly-impressive run of late.
By now we’re probably all familiar with the numbers. Dougie’s current 13-game unbeaten streak in the league includes six wins and has seen 18 goals scored with just seven goals conceded, with four consecutive league clean sheets. In tough times, Dougie has delivered and forged an effective outfit in a tough league.
Freedman’s hot streak is not, in some respects, unusual when looking at our recent past. The past 10 years have been littered with occasional bursts of form – booms that have almost always been following by a crushing bust. Here’s a look back at six great runs from the last decade, and then some reasons why Dougie’s run might be able to build the legacy that those runs couldn’t.
2005/06: ‘Charlie and Frank’
It’s almost 10 years since Gary Megson’s ‘Reign of Error’ finally came to an end — we probably ought to throw a ‘Megson Out’ party on 16 February to mark the occasion.
Taking up the reigns from Gary were ‘Charlie and Frank’ – Ian ‘Charlie’ McParland and Frank Barlow. Barlow was the wise old head and Charlie the fired-up motivator and the pair proved the perfect antidote to what came before. They brought some much-needed relief to an otherwise miserable season that had seen cup humiliation at the hands of Woking, Chester and Macclesfield.
Their record was: P13 W8 D4 L1 F27 A11 and included six wins in a row and a 7-1 home victory against Swindon. We ended the season in seventh, just two points off the play-offs having gone into the final game at Bradford with a (very) outside chance of getting into the top six.
The rebound gave us optimism for the future, but it’d be another couple of years until we’d get out of League One.
2007/08: The Calderwood Surge
On 28 March 2008 the mood was gloomy. We’d just lost 1-0 at promotion rivals Doncaster, a defeat that looked to consign us to the play-offs at best… and we all know how well we fare in play-offs. We were 11 points off second-placed Carlisle and nine behind Rovers after the loss, with just seven games to play. The game really was up.
Manager Colin Calderwood may have had his faults – exposed fully in the Championship – but he was certainly a calm character and kept his head despite the numbers and time being against him. His side knuckled down from that game on and in those last seven games won six, drew one and scored 13 while conceding just four.
Yes, we might have got lucky that Carlisle and Doncaster wobbled, but Calderwood’s super charge took full advantage and ended our three-year stint in the third tier with automatic promotion.
2009/10–2010/11: Fortress Billy
Hindsight might well cloud our judgement of Billy Davies but, regardless of what we feel about the Glaswegian now, there’s no doubting that his first spell in charge transformed us. We changed from being a naïve and toothless team under Calderwood to being a streetwise and effective Championship outfit, capable of challenging for a return to the top flight.
There’s also no denying that the strength of his side was built on a formidable home record. After a 1-0 defeat to bogey side Blackpool on 19 September 2009, we didn’t lose at the City Ground in the league again until we played Hull on 5 March 2011.
The incredible run was 36 games long, with 27 wins, nine draws and 70 goals for and just 17 against.
It wasn’t too long after the Hull defeat that Billy’s second play-off campaign ended in defeat at Swansea, and the club decided to end his reign and enlist Steve McClaren to gain promotion. That went well.
2013/14: Unfinished Business
After a couple of years of chaos, Fawaz Al-Hasawi was seduced by the idea of Billy Davies returning to the City Ground. With the mantra ‘unfinished business’, Billy immediately delivered a 10-match unbeaten streak which included a Charlie and Frank equalling six wins on the spin.
That run, towards the end of the 2012/13 season, gave cause for real optimism for the following campaign. That optimism seemed to be well placed too. Despite three defeats in a month in October/November, December 2013 saw Billy gearing up for his traditional surge to the top. This had been the time that his previous play-off teams had gone from strength to strength and it looked as though history was to repeat itself, despite off-field concerns about his relationship with the press.
Billy’s men went on a 16-game unbeaten run in league and cup, winning nine, scoring 31 and conceding just 10. At 1-0 up at Bramall Lane, this side looked like being a Charlton home win away from a Wembley FA Cup semi-final too.
Alas, the Blades beat us 3-1 that day, Billy’s run ended and he lost five of the next eight games, ending in utter ignominy at Derby, with a 5-0 defeat. The starkest boom and bust of the past decade. Not only that but the relationship between Billy and the outside world had deteriorated massively and the club’s spending policy had, by then, spiralled out of control, putting us firmly on the path to an FFP embargo.
2014/15: The Pearce Honeymoon
By the start of the following season the Billy business was behind us. Club legend Stuart Pearce was back and even the doubters were swept away by the sheer emotion of seeing Psycho march out to great acclaim in his first game against Blackpool.
Riding the crest of an optimistic wave, and on the back of yet more spending, Pearce didn’t taste defeat until 18 October. His first 11 games included five wins, six draws, 19 goals for and just nine against.
The trouble came after that defeat. Once the honeymoon was over, Pearce won just three more games. The fairytale dream wasn’t to be.
The thorough misery of seeing Stuart Pearce’s reign fail to deliver was lifted by the unlikely and enjoyable turnaround in fortunes brought about by Dougie Freedman.
As fans revelled in ‘sunshine, moonlight, good times, Dougie’ he breathed new life into Pearce’s squad. Before he took over there had been just one win in 10 games (a heck of a win at that). Dougie’s first 10, in contrast, were: P10 W7 D2 L1 F24 A11.
The bubble eventually burst, injuries took their toll and the last eight games of the season then brought six defeats, two draws and no wins.
Dougie’s new hope?
Last season, then, was a bizarre microcosm of the past 10 years. Two booms and two busts. As a whole these streaks are probably symptomatic of a club that has chopped and changed managers. Yet these are not all honeymoon periods. Calderwood knew his players well enough by the time he surged to promotion and Billy’s two best streaks came once he had assembled a side and established his tactics.
Dougie, too, is now building a run that cannot be written off as a honeymoon period. Despite well-known restrictions in the transfer market, Freedman has done the old-fashioned thing and ‘built from the back’. His ‘back to basics’ approach has involved building a back four and a midfield shape to ensure his teams are rarely overrun in the middle.
Why might this be any different from the six streaks above? You’d like to think that when the run ends Dougie won’t panic. He’s already come under fire for his tactics before and during his unbeaten streak and hasn’t budged. His tactics might not be to everyone’s taste, but he has a fairly clear plan and isn’t about to be budged. His patience has paid off and he deserves great praise as a result.
Best of all, though, is the fact that he is doing some pretty necessary ‘donkey work’. His blueprint for next season could be, for example: De Vries, Lichaj, Mills, Mancienne, Pinillos, Vaughan, Lansbury, Osborn, Burke, Ward, Assombalonga – with all bar Britt having a thorough understanding of the manager’s game plan. The run gives them all the confidence in themselves and the manager that they can succeed at this level.
My ambition for the season was for Freedman to get us into a position where we were just a couple of players short of being the finished article. That side outlined above would be just lacking an extra striker and experienced winger to mount a decent challenge (I’d love to keep Gardner too but that might be tough). This run should prove to Fawaz that Freedman deserves the chance to finish off the job he’s started and that post-embargo spending should be targeted to those gaps in the squad, the players that simply can’t be purchased under an embargo.
The run has been a blueprint for 2016/17. It should show all involved – manager, players, supporters, chairman – that we’re on track. In order to avoid the ‘bust’ that normally follows such a run we all need to show the same patience and resolve as Freedman. That way we might be able to talk of successful seasons as opposed to unbeaten streaks in the next decade.