High stakes: Unpicking the sale of Ben Brereton

The imminent sale of Nottingham Forest striker Ben Brereton to Blackburn Rovers is disappointing for many, and yet inevitable for some. For Paul Severn, it’s one of many difficult decisions to be made in football, and one which shouldn’t cloud the positivity around the City Ground

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At home we all own things that have a high price, but would never consider selling. It might be a ring, a watch or a rare Forest third shirt that would sell for big money on eBay. But we don’t sell it, because it means something to us. We value it more than its real price.

If you think about it, we value footballers. For most fans, the ones we value the most are those that ‘one of our own’. We’ve all enjoyed that warm, fuzzy feeling when Oliver Burke, Joe Worrall and Matty Cash have excelled in the Garibaldi – sometimes lifting the club from the depths of despair with their passion.

With Ben Brereton set to leave Forest for Blackburn Rovers, the feeling for most is sadness, perhaps anger. We all loved seeing him score goals in our youth teams – seemingly he was a man amongst boys. And then there was that goal against Aston Villa. For a while we did not talk about him much, in case he was stolen away by the Premier League scouts watching his every move on the pitch.

But the easiest thing in the world would be write an article like I did here about selling Oliver Burke. That episode was the death throes of a failed regime, looking for a quick buck to fund astonishingly bad mistakes. I don’t think this decision comes from remotely the same place. The current Forest ownership may not get everything right all the time, but the calibre of the whole operation is obviously quite different.

It is clear that they are trying to revitalise a fantastic club, to fill the ground every week and give us a team that is fit to wear a shirt adorned by two stars. They have employed a proven manager with top notch contacts. They are trying to restore Forest to football’s elite for a new generation – not just preserve it as a museum to bygone times for more fortunate older fans to enjoy. So I think we need to see decisions in that context. In good faith.

However, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that these decisions are easy and without a considerable risk. It is remarkably difficult to predict the course of a football career. That’s why some players like Stan Collymore played at several clubs before he became football’s hottest property, and others such as Craig Westcarr shone brightly in youth football but ended up playing at lower levels. Only those with hindsight can call it right every time.

In particular, it is difficult to predict the futures of players who operate in the spine of a team. It takes longer for a goalkeeper, a central defender and particularly, a modern lone centre forward to learn their trade. Forest striker Daryl Murphy scored only 20 goals by his mid- to late-20s, before maturing into a successful target man for Ipswich. Many Forest fans on social media scoffed at the abilities of Jamaal Lascelles when we sold him. He is now worth 10 times the amount we received for him because centre halves mature later.

There are also examples of players who haven’t kicked on, where Premier League scouts have backed away. We all are entitled to our opinions, but it’s hubris to suggest we know 100% how Ben Brereton will do in two, five or 10 years.

However, we have to ask: what might be some of the factors that have fed into the decision to sell Brereton? Karanka has made it clear he likes Brereton and huge bids for Joe Worrall were rejected last January. But football is changing quickly. This thread by Swiss Ramble is a stark reminder of the money being pumped into the top level of the game. The result is massive inequalities that trickle down through parachute payments and make life far more difficult for clubs like Forest who always have an eye on FFP.

Forest are quite a unique club given the massive expectation in relation to their size. The reasons behind that are obvious. Any owner of Nottingham Forest has bought the club because of its success and will demand a return to the glory days, and most fans will back them at first.

Owners will look at Sunderland who enjoyed parachute payments and were relegated out of sight. They will look at MK Dons, recently of the Championship, who had a long-serving, promising manager and clear strategy, disappear into League Two as a lack of investment left them uncompetitive, in an empty stadium. In this brutal league, if you stand still, you are toast. Former Forest captains are now playing for Pune and New England Revolution and, aside from Barrie McKay, every player who left Forest in the summer went to a lower level or have not been picked up, and that is frightening.

As the fans filed out early of the two Christmas defeats last season, I realised that Forest were a different club to Mark Warburton’s former club Brentford, with completely different pressures and dynamics. While I was (and still am) happy to give young Academy players time, football crowds are a raw democracy, and the clear evidence from our 21,000 season card sales are that fans wanted to push the club forwards in a different way. And I think they know the risks around FFP that entails. There is no plan in football that doesn’t involve a high element of risk – and that includes Blackburn spending big on a raw teenage striker. Wolves may have taken the shorter route to success, but may argue when they receive their Sky money that their plan is better than Brentford’s – it depends on what the goal is though, of course.

When we look at successful clubs moving from the Championship to the Premier League, spending money is a common thread. From Bournemouth, to Leicester City, ready-made players are seen as the quickest way to success. Sadly, it seems a matter of time before a club ‘sells out”’and makes a statement at the expense of their Academies.

Burnley’s goalkeeper crisis is a case in point – they don’t look to their Academy, but a third England international in signing Joe Hart. Clearly, someone at Benfica has decided that there’s no time to wait for Joao Carvalho to mature into a top Champions’ League player. From Pep to Eddie Howe, top managers are signing players and not developing any more homegrown players than Karanka is doing through Matty Cash and Ben Osborn.

It’s a sad thing, but it’s a real thing. But we shouldn’t sugarcoat the past either. Billy Walker bought experienced players in the late 1950s such as Eddie Baily and Doug Lishman to get Forest back into Division One. Brian Clough bought Peter Shilton and Hans van Breukelen when he had Chris Woods and Steve Sutton coming through. He spent a million pounds well on Trevor Francis, but wasted it on Justin Fashanu.

Frank Clark rebuilt the spine of Forest team to achieve his goals – with investment rather than youth development. There were signings that didn’t work out, and more signings were needed later to get over the line. Only Steve Stone broke through that season. It’s even harder now. On BBC Radio Nottingham, Steve Hodge spoke honestly about the barriers which face young players in the English game.

Money, footballing trends and expectation trickles down to what’s happening at Forest. With recent managers lasting no more than a year at the club, and FFP lurking in the shadows, we start to see the external conditions that drive these types of decisions. I am sure they are very tough decisions which are made with a heavy heart. But every strategy is a risk. Every ambitious club are making big, divisive, risky calls on buying and selling the Carvalhos and Breretons.

We don’t yet know how the transfer business will be concluded at the City Ground. But we need to recognise that the things we value as fans may not be the same as a manager. Mark Warburton gave youth a chance, but did not last to see the benefits down the line. Decisions football managers are making will have an element of self-preservation. We’ve probably all had to make hard decisions in our lives where we recognise the risk, consider the downsides, but choose to be pragmatic.

Despite all of this, I personally wouldn’t sell Ben Brereton. For me the value of our young players is something bigger than their market price. One of the best things about the summer was the unity of the fanbase behind the club, and this decision eats away at that too much. But it’s different if your job is on the line. Whatever happens the Academy must remain a part of our strategy and not just a cash cow. Perhaps it might be that the standards change, and only the performance levels of Matty Cash are good enough going forward. But it must still play a vital role.

This decision may well be the defining one of this era of Nottingham Forest. If our new team clicks in the next couple of years and Forest are back taking on England’s best, then this kind of decision will be seen as the tough, pragmatic call that was needed. But if it doesn’t work out and Brereton fulfils his promise, it will be difficult to stomach for those who valued him and those who called it out can justifiably say: “I told you so.”

A lot of good things have happened at Forest over the last year. These changes will hopefully be lasting changes which give us a club to be proud of once again. Along the way there will be lots of decisions – some good, some not so good. Some we’ll agree with, some we won’t. Some will pay off, some will backfire. That is football. We should share our opinions and views but we don’t have the gift of hindsight before the event. The positivity at the start of the season was something to behold. Let’s not panic, learn from the past, stick together and see how it pans out.