With 11 new signings, in excess of 20,000 season cards sold and a buzz of anticipation around the City Ground, we asked some wise old heads about their thoughts on Nottingham Forest’s season ahead
We’re serious about promotion – are you?
It was the slogan from a doomed marketing campaign over a decade ago, but for the first time in ages it feels like Forest finally are serious. Aitor Karanka could fill a Championship team-sheet, including subs, with the new players he has signed since January, yet this is now a squad that looks the business.
Forest are being propelled into the new season on a tidal wave of optimism with no apparent splits in the camp, no off-field controversies and a bond with supporters that has been repaired after the Fawaz years. Over 21,000 season cards sold is testament to the progress made by the club over the past 12 months and while Karanka, chairman Nick Randall and chief executive Ioannis Vrentzos are the headline acts, so much good work is being done behind the scenes. This is now a totally different club, with a thoroughly professional structure, and it feels Forest are now in a position to challenge for promotion back to the Premier League.
After inheriting a mess last year, hands were tied financially and last season was always going to be about stability – boring as it sounds. I bumped into a few of the directors a few hours after the Bolton game on the last day and the word ‘angry’ doesn’t begin to explain it. There was huge frustration over the performance and mentality of the players, which suggested major surgery was on the way. And, don’t forget, this was essentially a meaningless game for the men in red.
What followed has been a huge statement of intent after a recruitment drive that has been focused and, most importantly, shrewd. Players are on sensible wages and deals have been structured to protect the club in the future if things don’t go to plan. Karanka will be under pressure to earn promotion but, as he said at his unveiling, he wants that pressure. He wants to take Forest back to the Premier League, he knows that is the only objective. With this squad, he will probably never have a better chance of being the man to end the 20-year exile.
He’s serious about promotion – are you?
I don’t really want to get thrown into Forest fan jail for this, but I’m not quite as optimistic as everyone else seems to be. Is nobody else nervous about spending £25 million in one summer when we’ve been FFP’d before? About ripping up the squad for the second time in six months? About a manager whose style of play seems slow and quite easy to combat?
The seemingly gradual easing out of the Academy products is a shame too: Worrall probably won’t be first-choice, if Osborn gets a game it’ll be at left-back, Smith out, tricky to get Cash into the team. Actually, I really am being very miserable here.
Those concerns still stand, but obviously there’s much more to be happy about these days. It’s a rare pleasure to have Forest team to be excited about, even if it is full of players who are gambles. My sentimental side is more excited about having Dawson back than any of the other, potentially excellent players we have. So, let’s enjoy the season: just don’t get carried away, is all I’m saying.
The natural pessimism I have as a Forest fan is undoubtedly being tested right now. Bitter experience suggests we really shouldn’t get carried away – especially after spending a lot of money. Yet it’s hard not to feel positive about the work done in the summer.
The new arrivals are a healthy blend of exciting young talent and proven Championship performers. While the Portuguese creative and attacking players hold the key to our goalscoring exploits, the arrivals of Costel Pantilimon, Michael Dawson and Tobias Figueiredo are crucial. We’ve shipped far too many goals for far too long and it’s important that they eliminate the silly mistakes that have blighted recent campaigns. Not only that, but in Dawson and Ben Watson we now have real leaders to help cope with the rigours of Championship football.
If we finally have the defensive solidity and motivational leadership that we’ve lacked, the attackers might have the platform they need to be able to perform. The pressure is now on Aitor Karanka to deliver. He’s been backed by the owners and can now ride on the crest of a wave of positivity. Let’s just hope the cold harsh reality of a tough season doesn’t burst our bubble.
Although last season was a disappointment, there was a feeling that the changes in the board room would start to pay dividends on the field sooner rather than later. That improvement now feels ever closer. The return of loanees Costel Pantilimon, Tobias Figueiredo and Jack Colback remind me of similar deals in 2009 to permanently secure the influential Lee Camp, Chris Gunter and Dexter Blackstock, providing continuity in the spine of the team amidst the massive changes taking place.
We now have a solid, experienced, British core, but a lot still depends on the success of the Portuguese signings. We need to be patient with these young players as they adjust to a new country and a new style of football.
Another key performer will be Lewis Grabban. His fitness and form will be crucial to any success. Lastly, let’s not forget our Academy, which can still be a differentiator at this level. It would be a shame if Matty Cash, Joe Worrall and Ben Brereton didn’t get the opportunities to develop their obvious talent. They, like every player, will face a huge fight for their place – but that’s what makes me hopeful for a strong run at the top six.
Aitor Karanka is a man refreshed – a previous winner of promotion to the Premier League, ready to do it all again. His state of mind should prove a warning sign to every team in the division.
“I want to develop a good project,” he wrote in The Coaches’ Voice. “I feel everything is in place in my mind… Now I am ready for a new challenge.”
The Spanish manager has been true to his word. After a stabilising, albeit dour, role in the latter part of Forest’s 2017/18 season has come a summer revolution – and it certainly looks like a “good project”. Underachievers and training ground moaners have been ushered out the door and in their place a riot of talent, flair and leadership has flooded into the Reds’ dressing room.
This Forest team is unlike any for years – it boasts genuine character and experience, the sort of pace and guile the City Ground hasn’t seen for years, arguably since Frank Clark’s best Reds side, and a host of homegrown youngsters desperate to become stars.
With the club’s ambition in no short supply what should our expectations look like? A little look through my betting account would suggest promotion is on the cards with new striker Lewis Grabban destined for the upper end of the top scorer charts.
Hands up, I’m getting carried away. But so should you. Be there, be truly supportive, particularly when things are tough, but get carried away when they’re exciting. That is what football is all about. Something is stirring at the City Ground.