With fifteen minutes to play at The City Ground yesterday afternoon, Nottingham Forest were leading Birmingham City by a single goal and, while it hadn’t been a vintage performance by any stretch of the imagination, it seemed as though this time Steve McClaren’s team would, at the fifth attempt, register their first home league win of the season at the fifth attempt. It only took thirteen minutes for the mirage to disappear, and three Birmingham goals in the last quarter of an hour of the match were enough to do for Nottingham Forest’s afternoon, Steve McClaren and, in a double-whammy which really sets this particular managerial departure apart from most, Nigel Doughty as the chairman of the club.
The result left Nottingham Forest tottering a single place and a single point above the relegation places in the Championship, and with supporters protesting in and around the ground at the end of the match, the rumours didn’t take long to start circulating that McClaren wasn’t long for the world. The resignation of Doughty was arguably more of a surprise, though, and all the more so for admission that the appointment of McClaren being a misjudgement. He has been the chairman of the club for the last ten years and remains its main financial benefactor but, while the official line remains that he will continue to support the club financially, there will certainly be some that will be wondering this morning whether he has fallen out of love with the club, and what the ramifications of this eventuality might look like.
First of all, though, it is worth asking the question of why Steve McClaren failed at the club, and why this failure was so absolute. He was only in the job for a grand total of one hundred and twelve days, having (some might say sensibly, considering the reputation of the British press in going after former England managers when given the chance) opted to rebuild his reputation abroad rather than take on another job in this country. His achievement in winning the Eredivisie in the Netherlands with FC Twente cannot be understated – apart from AZ in 1981 and 2009, no club other than PSV, Ajax or Feyenoord had been crowned the champions of the country since AFC Door Wilskracht Sterk in 1964. His subsequent time in Germany with Wolfsburg was less successful (and leaving Twente so soon after winning the title there may have been a misjudgement) and he only lasted eight months there, but there were times during his spell in the Netherlands during which the press in this country seemed more interested in the accent that he spoke with than discussing his managerial strengths and weaknesses.
At Nottingham Forest, though, McClaren took on a club that feels as if it is starting to become completely unmanageable. Regardless of the protests regarding his position at the club yesterday, there is a melancholic air hanging over the club this morning. There weren’t that many Forest supporters that were that upset when Billy Davies left the club during the summer. Something in Davies’ demeanour never seems likely to win him that many friends, wherever he goes. Whilst McClaren might have underperformed during his time in charge at Nottingham Forest, though, there can be little question that, with Doughty having also left his position and the recent resignation of David Pleat from his part-time role with the club as a consultant, that there are wider issues which need to be resolved at The City Ground than the manager of the first team could ever be expected to deal with.
Whether the resignation of Doughty is enough to break the cycle of under-achievement there or not is open to question. Over the decade of his involvement with the club, the reputation of Nottingham Forest has been partially revived, although it is worth remembering that he was starting from a low base and the club slumped into League One before starting to get its act together. The constant rumbling of discontent in the background at the club, however, hints at a broader institutional problem in the management of the club which spreads beyond what has or hasn’t been happening on the training ground.
The preferred replacement for McClaren seems, at the moment, to be Martin O’Neill, but while this might be the choice of the romantic – O’Neill was, of course, a central part of the great Forest team of the late 1970s and his managerial style has often felt as if it has, to say the very least, more than a hint of a debt to Brian Clough about it – whether he would fit into the current structure of the club is a different matter altogether, especially when we consider the nature of his departure from Aston Villa last year. How, we can reasonably ask, would O’Neill react to a tightening of the purse strings that would seem more likely than not with Doughty’s resignation as the clubs chairman? The counter to this argument might be, however, to say that perhaps a strong managerial figure being given free reign to mould a team capable of hauling its way back up the Championship table, but the realpolitik of twenty-first football finance us that someone would have to pay for it. Would Nigel Doughty be prepared to fund it?
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this whole saga for Forest supporters is that the perception of the Championship over the last couple if years has been wide open and there for the taking for those that can get it right. Norwich City and Swansea City both took advantage of this last season and both now seem to be making a more reasonable jog of holding their own in the Premier League than many would have expected before the start of the season. How long this state of affairs will last, however, is open to question, when we consider the vast increase in parachute payments for clubs relegated from the Premier League. This is a window of opportunity that may well slam shut over the next couple of years or so, and Forest may well come to rue not taking advantage of it. The good news for the club, however, is that if they get their next managerial appointment right, with less than a quarter of the Championship season gone, on this division it is still not too late to push for a play-offs. Stranger things, as those from the East Midlands city that was, for two years, the home of the European Cup, have happened.
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