Saturday’s winning goal by an Academy graduate, on the fifth anniversary of Nigel Doughty’s death, was a fitting tribute to the legacy of the former Nottingham Forest owner, says Paul Severn
I must admit, when 17-year-old Ben Brereton was brought on against big-spending Aston Villa, I wasn’t sure it was the right decision. The Championship is a tough, unforgiving place for any teenager. I couldn’t quite convince myself that it was the time or place to give Brereton his chance. But I was proved completely wrong.
The injury-time winner was one of the great City Ground moments and one that will live long in the memory. But at Nottingham Forest, such brilliance from young players is becoming almost commonplace. Indeed, I would go as far to say that the Academy is currently propping up the club.
Many of Nottingham Forest’s finest players and greatest moments have come from homegrown players in recent years. The list is hugely impressive, How about this for a best XI? Karl Darlow, Wes Morgan, Michael Dawson, James Perch, Jamaal Lascelles, Ben Osborn, Andy Reid, Jermaine Jenas, Lewis McGugan, Oliver Burke and Patrick Bamford.
The failure to keep many of these players is a complex matter. Each left in different circumstances, but each of those players (and many more) have helped the club survive and compete in one of the world’s toughest leagues.
For this we have to thank one man more than most – Nigel Doughty. The Academy quite rightly bears his name, and it is exceptionally sad that he has not lived to see the continuing realisation of his vision. It was totally fitting that Brereton’s winner came on the fifth anniversary of his death, which was marked by a moving minute’s applause in the fifth minute.
There can be no doubt the Nigel Doughty Academy is keeping Nottingham Forest in the Championship. Matty Cash is still very raw, but his energy and enthusiasm is infectious. Oliver Burke’s brilliance was largely responsible for three consecutive home wins at the start of the season. And Ben Osborn plays every game, never hides and is Nottingham Forest through and through.
This season, the difference between the young players and more experienced and expensive imports has been truly amazing. While many more senior players have retreated into the shadows as the going got tough over the winter, young defender Joe Worrall impressed media and fans alike for his frank, honest assessment of Forest’s problems. The attitude and integrity of the young players shines through, even in our lowest moments. Ben Osborn showed guts to sincerely apologise for his reaction to a challenge in the 3-0 defeat against Derby County. This honesty and professionalism ultimately means that Osborn continues to give his all and turn things around, rather than be happy to take his wages in the Under-23s.
Academy staff must also take credit in shaping these players. In a recent interview, Jack Lester told Yahoo!: “I believe a coach’s duty is to educate players not only in the fundamentals, the movements and the gold nuggets of information that can help on a football pitch, but also to sell the beauty of the game, to sell the attitude and not the money.
“Competing physically and mentally against your opponent and striving to conquer is what we love to see from our players, but humility in defeat or victory are as important too. We love them going to war with opponents, but that battle ends with the final whistle and always leave the pitch with a handshake.”
This outstanding approach is a credit to the history of Nottingham Forest and a credit to the vision of Doughty. As the father of a footballer himself, he realised the need to educate and provide other opportunities for aspiring young footballers. I’d like to bet that even if young players do not make the Forest first team, they are set up with an attitude and life skills to help them in the rest of their career inside or outside of football.
Lester said: “On the other side of the scale, the players who don’t come through to the level they want can still find pleasure and fulfilment from the game when it is not defined by the wage they are paid to play it. The drop out from clubs is enormous. If a player is released from our club, but still goes on to find fulfilment from the game, then we have done our job.”
It is not surprising that the first team has responded to Gary Brazil. The caretaker manager is an accomplished media performer, who has turned around results by blending experienced, proven players, with young talent such as Brereton. The potential is exciting, but there is a danger of losing the brilliant talents of Brazil and Lester if they are permanently given the poisoned chalice of the full-time manager’s role.
It is hard to give Fawaz Al Hasawi much credit for the Academy’s success. Many needless vanity signings have blocked progress of players such as Jorge Grant and Tyler Walker. You tend to think the youth teams have flourished because they are outside the immediate interest and reach of an owner who believes success is achieved by short-term measures in the first team playing and managerial departments.
Forest have been extremely fortunate to have these players wearing the red shirt with pride – but with that comes an important responsibility. While fans must be forgiving with their growing pains, the owner must start to understand the importance of these players to the people of Nottingham. The decisions to sell Darlow, Lascelles and Burke so early in their careers were tragic, and ultimately unnecessary. The two sales to Newcastle United now look poor deals (as was warned by Stuart Pearce at the time). Both are now first team regulars in a table topping side. The Burke sale was defended by Al Hasawi, but it is difficult to understand when a portion of the money went to sign Nicklas Bendtner et al and pay off various fringe players and sacked managers.
Of course, there may be a time when it is right to say goodbye to homegrown players, but that decision must be made with great care. If the likes of Brereton and Osborn are no longer at the club by this time next season, then the very heart of the club will have been ripped out. These youngsters give us joy and hope. They must be nurtured and protected at all costs, with the same care, attention and forward-thinking that Nigel Doughty showed when he set up the Academy.
Thank you Nigel.