While supporters and players breathed near eternal sighs of relief at the City Ground on Sunday, Nottingham Forest boss Mark Warburton and director of football Frank McParland’s thoughts had already turned to next season. Peter Blackburn hopes for a bright future on the banks of the Trent
For years – certainly the five years of Fawaz Al Hasawi’s calamitous ownership – Nottingham Forest have lacked the sort of planning, focus and vision that has brought success to teams like Brighton, Burnley and Bournemouth.
And on Sunday, for painful minutes which seemed like hours, it seemed the Reds, and Al Hasawi, were going to reap the rotten rewards of mismanagement with another spell in League One.
But a remarkable 3-0 win built on unforgettable performances from home-grown stars like Joe Worrall, Jordan Smith and Ben Osborn who — along with more experience teammates — refused to be beaten, has given Forest supporters, staff and players the chance for a fresh start.
But rather than reflecting on an afternoon which must have started with him questioning his decision to even take a phone call from Nottingham Forest’s senior management, let alone agree to take the job, but ended with Champagne corks popping across the city, Warburton was already looking to the future.
“We do have a clear idea of what we want to do… You cannot wait to start looking; to start planning,” he said.
Warburton’s words – and indeed his confident gaze and steely determination as be speaks – should give Forest fans even more confidence and pleasure than the result against Ipswich on Sunday. This is a man, along with his wider team, offering the sort of stability and plan this team, this club, desperately needs.
Each of the past five seasons has seen a poorer performance on the pitch, a more concerning final standing in the league and deeper misery off the pitch at Nottingham Forest.
The club has been mired in managerial changes, vast incomings and outgoings, staff sackings and general chaos and calamity have ruled in the corridors of the City Ground.
Unpaid bills, rumours of player revolts, a well-trodden path of back-office staff from Forest’s employment to that of Notts County and a growing sense of apathy have added to the problems.
Just last season two takeover deals failed (albeit with one now likely to be resurrected), three managers held the reins, loan players were paid in salaries not dissimilar to the overall budget sheets down the A50 at Burton Albion and fans were treated with contempt yet again.
In the summer a new manager and a new director of football with no relationship were brought to the club and a fragmented recruitment policy followed heavily bolstering the list of contenders for worst Forest player ever.
The summer culminated in the sale of Forest’s brightest youth prospect for years, Oliver Burke, contrary to the empty pledges and promises of Al-Hasawi.
The following season reflected the madness in the running of the club more than any other to date and Forest can count themselves extremely lucky to have survived so unscathed.
Club captain, and consummate professional, Chris Cohen summed things up himself following the match, admitting that the off-the-field mess had engulfed the players.
But change is coming – and soon these reflections will, one would hope, be memories of a different, distant past.
The future is likely to lie in the hands of Evangelos Marinakis and his staff, subject to Football League approval.
But most importantly it should lie in the hands of an experienced chief executive or general manager; Frank McParland, a director of football with an impressive record; and Mark Warburton, a head coach Forest probably, based on recent events, don’t deserve.
Warburton has proven his worth already – and this is not a coach made for a relegation battle, this is a coach with loftier ambitions and the skillset to coax Forest, if the stability behind the scenes can return to the City Ground, into the sort of performances and results which could threaten much higher up the table.
The manager is clearly already preparing for that task – with “quality” the word most on his lips.
“You have to identify areas where you can strengthen; areas where you can add more quality. It is not about adding nine or 10 players, it is about adding three or four to the squad and using the loan market, if we have to,’ he said, after the final whistle on Sunday.
And this City Ground revolution does not only offer the possibility of the sort of football Forest fans have clamoured for but with the heart and soul of the city at its centre, too.
Warburton said: “If your young players are good enough, you give them a chance. Because there is no point in having an academy otherwise. I have no problem building a team with Jordan (Smith), Ben Osborn, Ben Brereton, Cashy (Matt Cash) and Joe Worrall at the centre of it. If they are good enough, you give them a chance.”
Warburton’s long-term priorities for this Forest side are clear and positive – build on the talent currently within the team, extend the successes of the pathway between academy and first-team and fight further up the table, dominating the ball at home and away.
In the short-term, getting rid of players, and selling the club to others, will be the day-to-day duties for both Warburton and McParland, should the latter agree to extend his contract, and it is vital incoming owner Marinakis provides sensible financial and practical support in all these areas.
Two full-backs, a central midfielder and an attacking winger are likely to be on the shortlist, at least, but a new owner should not mean a return to the gung-ho attitude to the City Ground balance sheets. Forest’s financial mismanagement is to blame for many of the failures at the club. There should be no more £40,000 a week contracts, no more players with more hospital appointments than first-team appearances and a recruitment and scouting team and a full analysis department must be put in place immediately.
All these tools will allow Warburton and his team to succeed, and success for them means success for Forest.
A former senior figure at Forest, speaking privately, said Al Hasawi was well meaning but that he had made so many mistakes that Nottingham Forest’s performance in all areas of the business could not recover.
As a result, the history books will speak of the Kuwaiti years, of the great last day escape from relegation and of the carnage of mismanagement at this provincial club which once punched so far above its weight.
If there is one lesson for Mr Marinakis it is this. This must be Nottingham Forest’s story, not yours. Make it a success.