Sunday’s game against Ipswich will decide Nottingham Forest’s future: for better or worse. It’s been an abject season in many ways but whatever happens we — the supporters, the fans — will always be here, says Paul Severn
The width of a post, a referee’s decision, a dive, a deflection, a goal at Brentford. These are just some of the things which many well consign Nottingham Forest to League One next season. At 2pm next Sunday, there will be no more second chances and no more tweets from players saying they’ll ‘go again’. Our fate will be sealed once and for all.
For season ticket holders (like me) who haven’t had the dubious pleasure of seeing many away games, the fact our Championship existence hangs by a thread is a strange feeling. Home performances have been largely decent. There have been some crazy games – from the first game of the season versus Burton Albion, to the last against Reading. But in general we have looked a dangerous side. There have been memorable, euphoric late winners and by and large it has been value for money.
Having only been to two away games, it’s hard for me to identify where it has gone wrong in any detail. I went to our uninspiring 0-0 draw at Birmingham City. The Blues at the time were starting an awful run which has dragged them into the final day relegation equation. They battered us for long periods and we offered little in return. Only fine performances by Matt Mills and Jack Hobbs saved a point, and both were soon injured…
It’s clear that there is talent in this team. Even if we stay up, the club will receive multiple offers for young players this summer. But having just watched Arsenal capitulate to Tottenham Hotspur, it’s clear that talent alone is not enough. It’s clear for all to see that not enough Forest players with character have been available this season. It’s character that’s crucial to stop conceding two goals rather than one. It’s character that allows skills to be performed under severe pressure.
Pressure. That’s a word that sums up the games since we took the field against Burton Albion in early March. That defeat, and those to Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers were the result of pressure. Forest have more talent than any of those out-of-form teams, but instead froze, leaving fans bewildered as much as disappointed. Of course, against the top teams our talent has shone when the pressure has been off, but that has been more than negated by losing three absolutely critical six-pointers. These were monumental games that may well leave lasting marks in our memory after this season ends.
It would be wrong though, to concentrate this article on on-field matters. Off the field, Forest have been an absolute shambles. The sale of Oliver Burke turned Phillipe Montanier’s cavalier Kevin Keegan-style team into something unsustainable. While it was difficult to turn down the money, much of it has been wasted on Ross McCormack, Niklas Bendtner and others. It is impossible to accept. The protracted and failed American takeover meant that key time in January was lost to strengthen the squad as we meandered down the league table. A final, rash and uncoordinated splurge of cash on new signings pacified many protesters, but in retrospect, the January window has been a massive failure.
In crisis, you look for leadership and Forest have been completely rudderless. There’s no question that Forest would’ve been relegated out of sight, had it not been for the good fortune of having players from the Nigel Doughty Academy available. If we do go down, I will feel for these players, who have given everything and may well do so elsewhere next season for another team. It has been youngsters like Joe Worrall, Ben Brereton and Jordan Smith who have led the fight, more than our amateurish owner. His tenure ends with him being involved in yet more childish Twitter spats with fans – behaviour wholly unsuited to the figurehead of a great club such as Forest. If an owner must use social media, then it should be used as calming influence in dark times, to offer support in defeat and keep everyone pulling together. Yet the silence after every defeat says everything about what owning Nottingham Forest really means to him.
It has been difficult for every manager in the Fawaz era. And so it is for Mark Warburton. He is an impressive, intelligent, level-headed figure, with a strong desire to give the club an identity that it sorely lacks. But he is not a proven firefighter. He is a manager schooled in youth coaching and savvy recruitment. This is of limited effect outside the transfer window in a relegation dogfight. While performances have improved, results have not yet followed. I sincerely hope that if we do get relegated he gets the opportunity to properly rebuild the club. Out of any recent manager, I trust Warburton to prepare for this game thoroughly and approach it the Forest way. My fear though is that relegation will severely wound him in many ways. That’s why this one last game is so important.
So, perhaps for the first time this season, Forest fans have started to imagine how relegation may really feel. We now know where and when it could happen. We know which people we will share it with. Non-football fans find it difficult to understand our passion. It is more than just a hobby. It affects our moods and takes up an extraordinary amount of our time. We travel the country, often to return disappointed – missing out on family and social occasions. If we must miss a game, we’ll check the score under a table at a wedding reception. When we talk about our club we use the word ‘we’ because it is our club, our sorrows and our achievements as we cheer the players on around the country, month after month, year after year, generation after generation.
That is why the mere thought of next Sunday’s game pains us so much.
That is why Nottingham Forest deserves to be run in a professional manner.
Last year I wrote about the matches that came to define Nottingham Forest. Ipswich will be another – perhaps bigger than many on that list. If we stay up on Sunday, we should enjoy it. We should celebrate with our friends and family and thank our young players. We should take our slice of the joy of staying up, because the fans have been the beating heart of our relegation fight.
If we go down, there’s no hiding from the fact it is a disaster. An apt ending to the Fawaz regime maybe, but a disaster nonetheless. Watching Portsmouth and Coventry City fall further down acts as a dire warning. However, Nottingham Forest will still be our club when the final whistle blows. We will be here at the City Ground and following the club after this manager, this owner and these players. I’d urge everyone to stay on board, keep coming to games, join the many fans’ activities and groups that are starting to take shape and start rebuilding a supporter-based club to come back stronger. It won’t be easy, but it won’t happen without the fans.
We will do our job on Sunday, no question. There is nothing more we can do than support the team. Then it is out of our hands. That’s the tough thing about being a supporter. We just have to watch, hope and pray.