Ahead of Nottingham Forest’s FA Cup fixture against Arsenal tomorrow, Paul Severn asks if top flight football will ever return to the City Ground on a regular basis
Outside the City Ground over Christmas, I saw for sale one of the defining pieces of merchandise in the modern game – the half-and-half scarf. Clearly, the visit of Arsenal is a highlight of the season, but I will pass on the scarf and remember Brian Rice’s 1988 goal at Highbury instead.
I didn’t go to the League Cup defeat last season and was told that the supporter who took my normal seat videoed the Arsenal penalty. He wasn’t even a Forest fan. I know I should be excited by the prospect of playing the big teams, but instead I often feel deflated about how the game has changed since the days of Brian Rice.
The questions I always ask are: Will we ever see Forest back in football’s elite? Will we win major silverware again in my lifetime? Increasingly, I worry that the answers are possibly, no. I’m not sure I feel comfortable with that. Should we accept it?
I was surprised to find that I have some surprising allies in this debate. Sky pundit Jamie Carragher said: “The Premier League now is becoming a bit of a joke league, with the top teams being so far ahead of the ones at the bottom. For those clubs, it’s almost like they are accepting they are going to lose the game, as long as it is only one or two-nil.
“The Premier League has been built on every team having a go, that’s why everyone around the world wants to watch it. Will they keep watching if they keep seeing football like that?”
If the top league is becoming a joke, I wonder where this leaves a club like Forest? Is the joke on us? Next was Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho, who lamented the money spent by rivals Manchester City. These, of course, are crocodile tears from the manager who signed Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku. But it is interesting that a debate has started – not just in the lowly EFL.
In sport, change is evitable. When I first started watching football, English clubs were banned from Europe and it was a fairly level playing field. Obviously things started to change with start of the Premier League and Sky money, but the competitive nature of the sport did not change as rapidly as Forest were able to finish third a year after being promoted in the mid-90s.
Increasing television money has widened that gap since, but the expanded Champions League has been crucial too. The old format of a knockout European Cup of real ‘champions’ was replaced and made the pie much bigger and ensured the top clubs got four slices – and a minimum of six games. Almost immediately this attracted the top players to join Champions League teams who disappeared out of sight – apart from the freak achievement of Leicester City.
It is now difficult, if not impossible, to compare eras. I have no doubt that Pep Guardiola is one of the top managers in football who has revolutionised the way the modern game is played. However, he can spend – and indeed waste – as much money as he likes until he is successful. This can’t be compared to Sir Matt Busby who built and rebuilt Manchester United. If Arsene Wenger one day wins the Champions League – will he be up there with Brian Clough and Jock Stein? Wenger has had an astonishing 18 failed attempts to win the trophy.
There is no doubt that clubs like Forest, Derby County and Leeds United have themselves to blame for slipping out of the big time. Idiotic decisions were made at all three clubs and there is no excuse. However, can it be right that these clubs may be permanently locked out of the elite? Similar failures were made at Manchester City in the not-too-distant past, but now they are flourishing, because a massive cash injection came at the right time. Is it right that the timing of the errors of Nottingham Forest mean that we will never sit at the top table again? The consequences of our mistakes are too big and the rewards of Manchester City spending money are too great.
I didn’t agree with the sacking of Mark Warburton. I gave my views on the subject in November and my opinions have not changed. However, I increasingly realise that the decisions made at Forest are influenced by the changes and pressures in the wider game. In the desperate attempt to get promotion, many teams are sacking managers – and the financial oblivion of League One bounces owners into rash decisions. I also think the utter frustration of two decades outside the top flight makes our fanbase irritable, even to the point where young, promising and homegrown players are derided for doing their best.
But it isn’t just Forest fans who feel like this. In the Premier League, all teams who feel pushed out in some way have the same anger, just in a different situation. I met someone recently who had just moved to the UK. He was wearing the national team shirt of his home country. I asked if he supported an English club. He told me he had supported Arsenal but had given up. It was just “too hard and depressing”.
So if the top clubs feel like this – how should we feel? How do we react when our best players are taken by relegated clubs using parachute payments?
In the words of one former manager, should we just say “it is what it is”? Do we accept the consequences of our failures in the last 20 years? Or do we accept the changes in the game and work to build a modern club using Manchester City as a template – rather than something to criticise?
I don’t have the answers, but I will quote a much more distinguished manager – Brian Clough. He correctly said that “football belongs to everybody”.
So I think we should have a say at least. Fans could’ve just accepted high ticket prices, but an initiative between Virgin Media and the Football Supporters Federation reimbursed away fans to ensure affordable tickets for a round of Premier League matches and from 2016/17, prices were capped at £30 for away fans. So I’d argue that we can make positive changes, at least in small ways.
But they need to go further. The National Football League (NFL) is one of the most lucrative sports leagues in the world. It has massive worldwide reach. However, it understands better than our football that fair competition is essential for its product. It has a range of rules such as roster sizes, salary caps and draft systems which help all teams stay competitive in a sporting sense. Well-run teams such as the New England Patriots can still dominate the sport, and badly-run ones like the Cleveland Browns barely win a game. Obviously there are differences in a closed-shop league, but there is a different approach to parity.
We have a scenario where by November, Chelsea had 33 players out on loan. This mini industry is obviously lucrative for Chelsea, but has by default turned other teams into feeder-clubs for the big boys. Players can be strategically loaned out, which is bad for the sport and has done little to develop players for clubs like Chelsea, or indeed the England senior side. It needs reform. I have also written before about the impact of parachute payments on the Championship.
Another less popular idea I like is the FA Cup winners going into the Champions League, just like the Europa League winners. This would give clubs a better chance to access the big time. Of course, the likes of Arsenal would howl that 38 games is a bigger test then six knock-out games. However, a Champions League should contain winners, not losers. World Cups and Super Bowls are decided by a knock-out final. Usain Bolt did not need to run 38 races to win his gold medals. Top clubs and players should be able to deliver on a given day when it matters – and this would mean that the FA Cup would be transformed in many positive ways.
However, this will never happen. The top clubs are risk-averse, even though they usually win the FA Cup year after year. My concern of this ‘locking in’ of the elite at a fixed point in time will see that clubs start to resemble brands, rather than the clubs they should be. I’m sure that the top clubs have a full appreciation of corporate social responsibility and do excellent charitable work, but at what point does supporting Manchester City becoming something that reflects well and looks good – like owning an iPhone? Indeed the blurring of the lines went even further when an energy drink company – Red Bull – bought our most exciting young player in Oliver Burke. We need to be careful where this is all going.
Last month sneering Chelsea fans chanted at Huddersfield Town fans “Champions of England, you’ll never sing that”.
Huddersfield had indeed been champions of England, a good 31 years before Chelsea. This arrogance and disregard for the history of the game is not surprising. We should be proud of our history and our clubs. We should remind other fans what a club like Forest stands for, what it gave to football, and what could be lost forever.
Change is indeed inevitable, but football really does belong to everybody. Let’s have debates and share ideas. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to keep pushing for football to remain a sport, which gives all clubs proper respect, a proper chance to be successful and keep it a fun, affordable way of spending our time.