Twelve months after narrowly avoiding relegation, Nottingham Forest are in a much better place, despite slow progress on the pitch. Paul Severn takes a look back over a season of two halves — with an eye on the future
A year ago, I was writing a piece on this site as we prepared to play Ipswich Town. It was indeed the D-Day we never wanted. The first half was my worst feeling ever as a Forest supporter, and the second was one of the best as Chris Cohen’s goal secured safety.
As a change in ownership loomed, the day felt like a crossroads, and in many ways it was. Of the previous owner, I wrote:
“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.”
Twelve months later, things seem a lot better. Crowds have been good, fans have been treated like fans and the whole approach to the way the club handles communications is completely transformed for the better. It feels like we do have a professional, talented and experienced set-up, which will surely start to improve matters on the pitch sooner rather than later.
But, on the pitch progress has been slow, and, let’s be honest, disappointing. Although the overall feel around the club is better, it has been another battle to 50 points, and another season of looking downwards, rather than upwards. In many ways it has been a quintessential Forest season. There was the pure joy of beating Arsenal 4-2 in the FA Cup, followed by capitulation in the next round to Hull City. We broke our club record for not scoring, and minutes later scored two in the closing stages to secure safety against Ipswich.
Our 22 defeats so far this season matches Sunderland. Our 23 goals conceded from set pieces has killed the season. Only one league goal has been scored from a (miss-hit) corner to my memory, while Cardiff and Wolves have scored 20 and over each from set pieces. Not so fine margins…
Looking back, the signs were there from the very start. Forest were bullied by an excellent Millwall side. Although we picked up the three points, Millwall looked far better set up to succeed in the Championship, and so it proved. However, early on, inconsistent Forest did find ways to score goals and win games. On 4 November, rampant Forest scored four against Queens Park Rangers. Goals for Dowell, McKay and Walker (2) delighted the fans and exciting young team seem to be forming under Mark Warburton.
However, such is life at Forest, it didn’t last. Less than two months later, it was over for Warburton and many of the players who excelled that day have barely been seen recently. I had hoped that the QPR win would provide a glimpse of an exciting future, but in remarkably short space of time, I was one of the few fans who still felt that. While I thought this was a long-term plan, at some point behind the scenes, the manager and director of football came to be divorced from that plan. On social media things descended into a familiar pattern, where being proved right, seemed to be more important than winning matches. Two bad defeats to Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland meant that we all knew the end had come. Experience told me it was untenable.
However, there is no point writing a piece in April lamenting the demise of Warburton – he made some clear mistakes. The board had their reasons for making the change, and it’s their club and their money. While to outsiders, another mid-season change may have seemed more of the same, it was better to make a quick, clean break if there were reasons it wasn’t working. It doesn’t necessarily follow this was a Fawaz knee-jerk decision. It’s a shame those reasons weren’t fully explained to fans, but what can we learn from this season?
The first thing is that I think we have to, regrettably, say goodbye to ‘the Forest way’ of playing for the time being. Playing football like Brentford is difficult and takes time. At a club like Forest you do not have that time and the pressure is too much to go through the growing pains of conceding daft goals and developing that type of side. I felt at times under Warburton that many fans actually didn’t want to play out from the back. It took Pep Guardiola a year to experiment with Claudio Bravo, so it was always going to be messy at Forest.
We’ve now seen two ‘developmental’ managers – O’Driscoll and Warburton – last until Christmas, so perhaps we have to admit that results, and the solid, pragmatic football with experienced personnel that is needed to secure that in the short term, is a better fit for our club and ambitious plans. We don’t have Pep, and we can’t spend that kind of money.
Where the Academy fits into that is a challenge. I hope it still plays a major role. Despite all the changes that have been made by Aitor Karanka, Ben Osborn and Matty Cash have been among Forest’s most consistent performers. From Jordan Smith’s save on the final day in 2017, to Ben Brereton’s penalty against the same opposition, the Academy has saved Forest time and time again in recent years.
However, I’ve been disappointed how much criticism that Smith, Worrall, Osborn and Brereton have taken this season despite playing in difficult roles within the spine of the side. Yes, we can still sign our Costel Pantilimons and Tobias Figueiredos, but let’s do this without saying our youngsters were never good enough all along and taking delight in ‘calling it’ all along. They have all represented Forest far better than many more experienced names in their positions. The Academy can continue to be a real differentiator for a club like Forest as it continues to battle against parachute payments and spending sprees from rivals.
As I said, I think the approach of Karanka is probably a better fit for Forest’s ambitions and plans. Despite results it ‘feels’ better on a pragmatic level. However, this absolutely does not give the green light to further changes in manager. Those who called for this change can argue that the important wins and 0-0 draws which have kept the club up may not have happened under Warburton. However, the table position remains underwhelming, like most EFL clubs who have sacked a manager.
The record under Karanka (five wins in 18 league matches with just 16 goals scored) is not really consistent with the idea that if only Warburton had made small tweaks (where’s Vellios?, Brereton on the wing, etc. etc.), all would be rosy. The Championship is a ruthless league and it is never that simple.
But the lack of miraculous turnaround is not Karanka’s fault either. Fans, media and probably ownership expected him to make big changes in January, with senior players brought in and several moved on. The result is a hybrid of two completely distinct teams, styles and philosophies and a job incomplete. Like any change in manager, good players like Liam Bridcutt can be pushed to the margins and the squad gets bigger and more bloated.
When we change manager, it is the easiest thing in the world to support the new guy. It’s easy to blame the previous incumbent, and even the ones before. However, we need to learn from this. At some point Karanka will go seven games without a win in this brutal league. Will we see it through, or blink again and call for more change? There’s no doubt that strides have been made to make Forest a more solid outfit, suitable to withstand this league. But change mid-season rarely works well – whether you are Forest, Sunderland or Reading. The teams that overperform for their budget – the Fulhams, Burtons, Millwalls and Bristol Citys have not blinked when a step backwards has been taken.
As we have seen time and time again, there is no quick fix. Karanka, like any manager, needs at least three transfer windows. The huge turnover in players in January will surely be followed by further massive changes. With several players returning from loan spells, a quick look at the squad shows that 10-15 players may require new clubs.
The hard reality is that since Christmas, Forest have continued to play relegation-fight football. We can’t score enough goals and can’t defend set pieces. We lack leadership on the field. As Brian Clough says before every match on the video: “You can talk and talk and talk about your profession but you have to go out and do it. There’s no point in just talking about it and trying to convince people you are right. You have to give them the example and then talk about it.” Wise words that remain as relevant today – especially within the hype of social media and public relations.
I have confidence in Karanka to provide those examples, like the Barnsley win, if he is given time. It will be a costly exercise. The best January signings – Joe Lolley and Tobias Figueiredo – are the ones that commanded fees to permanently secure them – it’s that simple sometimes.
There’s no doubt that off the field, being a Forest fan is a lot more fun than it was 12 months ago. Big strides have been made in so many areas. But in 12 months’ time we don’t want to be patching up another season, looking forward to another fresh start and have another 15 players to offload. It’s time that we stick to a plan, break from past mistakes, develop an identity and make our season something better than crawling to 50 points. For the first time in a while I’m positive it can happen, but that involves learning from the past as critical friends as well as being cheerleaders for a new, better Forest.