A period of turmoil in the history of one of Englands oldest clubs which began with the untimely death of the man that had previously rescued it from the brink of extinction, Nigel Doughty, moved towards a new beginning this week with the announcement that Nottingham Forest – twice champions of Europe in an altogether more innocent age – had been bought out by a family from Kuwait. Within forty-eight hours, the manager that steered the club just clear of the Championship relegation zone has been sacked and a scheduled tour of North America has been called off as the club seeks to regroup with just weeks left before the start of the new season. Yet in amongst this story lurk some fascinating questions. What are the plans of the new owners for the future of the club? Who will be the new manager and can he haul the club up from its nineteenth place finish in the league table last season? And what does this take-over say about potential future trends in the Premier League?
The three men at the heart of the deal are Fawaz, Abdulaziz and Omar Al-Hasawi, who reportedly made their fortunes in the refrigeration and air conditioning business. Most reports describe them as being somewhere between “wealthy” and “mega-rich” but, uncommonly for newspapers and websites – which usually froth at the mouth at the prospect of being able to identify a new football club owner and ascribe a net worth to them, even if that net worth has been worked out on the back of a cigarette packet – the press tone regarding their actual wealth has been rather coy. None of this is to suggest that the Al-Hasawi family is anything like the very nearly if not very actually non-existent Ali Abdullah Al Faraj, who had a bizarre period as the apparent owner of Portsmouth for four months the end of 2009 and the start of 2010, or Munto Finance, the definitely non-existent vehicle for convicted fraudster to try and extract vast amounts of money via Notts County. It should, however, serve as a reminder that few people seem to know precisely how wealthy these new owners are or exactly how much money they can or will be prepared to invest in the club.
The good news for Nottingham Forest supporters is that the Al-Hasawi family have a history of investing in football and sporting clubs. In a BBC interview with the Kuwaiti sports journalist Mohammed Said last week, Said stated that “They are a very famous family in Kuwait and very rich” and that “Fawaz Al-Hasawi is very loyal to all the players and I think he will do a lot for Nottingham Forest.” Fawaz recently stepped down as the President of the Kuwait City-based Qadsia Sporting Club, who have won the last four consecutive Kuwaiti Premier League championships. His departure from the club comes with Qadsia ranked by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics in position number two hundred and eighteen in the world – above such luminaries as Espanyol, Sunderland and Dinamo Moscow – and as regular competitors in the Asian Football Confederations Champions League. It seems reasonable to surmise that this family has a proven track record of being successful at a football club in the past and that, as supporters of too many English clubs will already be ruefully aware, is a good start. One comment in Saids interview did give pause for thought, though:
I don’t know why it is Nottingham Forest. I think it’s an investment deal because Nottingham Forest was a very good football team in the 80s and not now.
There’s little in the second half of that statement with which anybody reasonable could disagree. We can only speculate as to the reason why Forest specifically was chosen, but the website Sport360 recently stated that the family had been looking for an English club to buy for a few weeks, and it has been reported elsewhere that the family were specifically looking at Championship clubs. There is, of course, a reason why clubs in this division might make such good investment opportunities at the moment. With a new Premier League television contract kicking in twelve months from now that is worth 70% more than the previous one, a window of extraordinary opportunity exists this season for three clubs from this division to share in a financial bonanza through getting promoted next May. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that clubs in English footballs second tier are – as we have recently seen this summer, albeit in a somewhat unhappier light, at Cardiff City – looking like considerably better investment opportunities for outsiders looking for a route into the global market appeal of the Premier League. This is all supposition, of course, but it hardly seems beyond the realms of possibility.
One man that won’t be sharing in this brave new world at The City Ground is the now former Forest manager Steve Cotterill, who lasted about as short an amount of time as possible in his position before being unceremoniously dumped by the new owners this morning. Cotterill skilfully played the loan market last season in order to steer the club away from a drop into League One, but rumours that the Al-Hasawi family wanted to bring in their own man had already begun before the announcement of the finalisation of the take-over had even been confirmed. Early rumours that Harry Redknapp might be a shoo-in to replace Cotterill have proved, so far, to be groundless (although with Redknapp we should probably take little for granted), and the fact that the current bookmakers’ favourites for the job are Mick McCarthy and Alex McLeish – both managers whose stock fell dramatically last season at the wrong end of the Premier League table – might well end up tempering the wilder hopes of some Forest supporters.
We have noted on this site before that no-one should be suspicious of foreign football club owners because they are foreign. That would be ridiculous. After all, Ken Bates is English. They should, however, be judged on their behaviour and the way that they treat the custodianship that they have taken on in choosing to get involved with the game in this country. It is too soon to make anything like a definitive judgment regarding the ultimate motives of the Al-Hasawi family with regard to Nottingham Forest Football Club but, with the club having been formed in 1865, it is part of our shared football landscape and heritage. As such, supporters of the club would be best advised to remain vigilant for any signs of irregularity, as should supporters of all clubs when new owners buy into their clubs. It is not “disloyalty” or “pessimism” to do so – it is merely recognising that failures of diligence on the part of supporters (who are perhaps better-placed than anybody else to spot warning signs) have been costly before and the ultimate loyalty of the supporters of any football club should be to the club itself rather than to any particular set of owners. We may all find out a little more about the new owners of Nottingham Forest at their first press conference, which is to be held at The City Ground on Saturday lunchtime. It promises to be an interesting season for a club with former glories to reclaim, and it is now up to the owners to now prove that they are worthy successors to Nigel Doughty.
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