It will take more than Psycho to fix Forest

11 By Pete Brooksbank  |   The Ball  |   April 3, 2014  |     46

If grounds could talk, its tale would be the grandest of them all. It is no Camp Nou, no Santiago Bernabéu. You could hardly find a more inauspicious set for this Hollywood plot. Across the waters of the Trent, beyond the graffiti-spattered Lady Bay Bridge and gloomy, half-abandoned industrial units, Nottingham Forest’s giant, dirty goalpost of a Trent End is impossible to miss, standing proud alongside the boat clubs on the banks of the river.

You already know the implausible story arc: the rise from provincial obscurity, the glory, and the fall from grace; the laser-guided mind and electric ego of a managerial genius – a once-in-a-millennia talent whose abilities bordered on witchcraft – pitted against Europe’s best, against crooked officials and cheats and charlatans, Don Revie, Muhammad Ali and, perhaps most poignantly of all, his own football association.  The glory days are gone, perhaps never to return, but the stars on the shirt remain, as do the memories, and the history. Except at Forest, history doesn’t belong to the past. It is also the present and the future, the thing that will cure all the club’s ills, because times change and the world left Nottingham Forest behind years ago.

Looming over the City Ground, the once glamorous Bridgford Hotel, once frequented by players who now adorn the history books, now houses the less glitzy local council. You pay for council tax, not cocktails, there now. The ground itself, as beloved and atmospheric as it is, is cramped and outdated. Forest’s battles are now fought, not on the pitches of the European elite, but in the more mundane realms of Yeovil, Barnsley and Doncaster. None of this is new. It has been like it for decades, and no-one knows how to fix it.

How do you fix a club like Forest? It is a task which the current incumbent – Kuwaiti coolant fan Fawaz Al Hasawi – is currently making look extremely difficult indeed, leading the club on a merry dance from respected institution to faintly comic sideshow in the space of two short seasons. The last two weeks of his reign have exposed his erratic, capricious reign to brutal scrutiny. Sacking the once mildly liked and now universally loathed Billy Davies should have been a moment of celebration for the fans, but the farcical search for a new manager – which culminated today with the appointment of Stuart Pearce – and whispers of boardroom interference have conspired to leave many supporters more suspicious of the owner, and the general direction of the club, than when Davies was in charge.

The evidence suggests Al Hasawi is not a man with malign intent, nor he is prone to the kind of excessive megalomaniac behaviour that has blighted other clubs picked up by foreign investors in recent years. But he is not, it seems, the sensible, astute steward fans had hoped they were getting when the club was offloaded by the estate of the previous chairman, Nigel Doughty. Instead, they have a man who has made two disastrous managerial appointments in Billy Davies and Alex McLeish, terminated Sean O’Driscoll’s tenure prematurely, and now seems intent on obfuscating Forest’s many problems behind a veil of giddy, hopeless romanticism by bringing back a man revered in Nottingham and who came to epitomise the club in the 80s and 90s.

In this regard, it is impossible to deny that Al Hasawi has been remarkably shrewd, feeding fans populist PR scraps – invites to the boardroom, the odd online acknowledgement, handing Jon McGovern an ambassadorial role – while handling the day-to-day running of the club on a whim, a slave to impulse and what’s trending on Twitter. He is the modern day Indecisive Dave.

It is naivety, most probably, but with real and damaging consequences. His passivity and tacit complicity amidst the emphatic Billy Davies wrecking job has damaged the club beyond comprehension. Here is a man who, in purchasing Nottingham Forest, assumed responsibility for protecting the heritage of one of English football’s quirkiest institutions. He has thus far failed. His millions, pumped in with scant regard for the Football League’s Financial Fair Play regulations, have kept the club towards the top end of the Championship table but also introduced a chaotic, hand-to-mouth, day-by-day existence.

And it’s worse than that. Now Davies has been excised, a closer inspection reveals Forest to be some kind of smoke and mirrors prank. It would be easy to say it is a club in turmoil, but the thing about turmoil is it generally depends on a human element. There is no-one left at Forest. Everyone has been sacked. Billy saw to that, his unfinished business extending to settling old, personal scores with club employees, at the same time as banning the press. What is left is a barren shell; a husk. A club where the structures you commonly associate with a football club, or indeed any business, have been attacked and eroded to the point where they simply no longer exist. You can’t fix that with history.

So how do you fix a club like Forest? In some ways, it is hard to blame Al Hasawi for not knowing when he arrived. No-one left him a guide book and he has no-one left to answer the question. Nigel Doughty, a benevolent benefactor whose principal flaw was, like Al Hasawi, one of questionable decision making rather than being Peter Risdale – tried for years, and failed. But there was, behind it all, a proper club, and a vision. It was, however, a vision driven primarily by financial prudence, a laudable ambition but one which supporters, unless threatened with imminent extinction, tend to regard with extreme suspicion, if not outright contempt. Success did not come and the wrath of the terraces eventually moved from the players, to the manager to the boardroom. Defeated, Doughty retreated to the background and was in the process of off-loading the club when his heart failed – suddenly, unexpectedly, tragically – in his gym.

If Doughty could not solve it, what hope for Fawaz? He burned through the unfortunate O’Driscoll and the bizarre Alex McLeish before bringing back a man who was guaranteed to get Forest into the play-offs while antagonising pretty much everyone, except Natalie Jackson off the telly. But never mind. Bring back King Billy! said Twitter. And the chairman obeyed. It is a decision he has surely come to regret, as it wasn’t long until he was again flicking through the Football Yearbook like one might surf through an Argos catalogue, circling items you cannot afford and probably don’t actually want anyway. Roberto Di Matteo, Neil Warnock, Stuart Pearce, Roy Keane, Martin O’Neill, Nigel Clough. Nigel Clough! It never gets old, this list, as it’s always the same; Forest fans forgetting the A-Block classic “Your dad’s ashamed of you”. You can bet Nigel hasn’t forgotten that.

Ultimately, Al Hasawi has opted to gamble on Stuart Pearce and, like the appointment of Davies before him, it smacks of desperate appeasement, a nod to the club’s past – in this case, unlike Davies, a nod to the ancient past. But it also marks a dangerous moment for the chairman, because for the first time there exists a man alongside him with whom he cannot compete for the fans’ affections. If this new gamble fails to pay off, just like all the others, then Al Hasawi will find himself exposed. And it is undoubtedly a gamble, for Peace’s managerial career so far has shown little promise. For a man desperate for a return on his substantial investment, it seems strange that Al Hasawi is now entirely dependent on a man with a modest, if not totally underwhelming, managerial CV, and whose popularity will likely prove immortal, even if he should fail. But perhaps this gamble shouldn’t come as a surprise. Where once there existed a transfer acquisition panel who pondered sell-on values for each new signing, there now exists nothing but instinct; a club incapable of thinking beyond the end of the month, let alone a year, or two years, or three years, or five years from now.

Instead, Al Hasawi has abdicated his responsibilities and made an appointment that borders on cowardice. It is now incumbent on a returning hero to paper over the cracks and prop up a club set up to fail perfectly at each new obstacle, rudderless and powerless, drifting on tides no-one, least of all Al Hasawi, can predict or control. Pearce, conveniently, now exists to divert attention from the owner, to occupy the minds of those who might ask uncomfortable questions about the state of the club as it is now with more sepia-tinged memories of the club as it was then.  In appointing him, the chairman is banking on a man revered for his passion and character to ‘unite’ the club, as if that means something. It doesn’t, of course – it’s an entirely irrelevant, meaningless phrase that cannot ever compensate for the replacement of what Billy Davies destroyed as Fawaz turned a blind eye. It is unfair on Pearce. It is unfair on the fans. It is unfair on the legacy of those who turned Forest into the most extraordinary story in the history of domestic football.

For now, those fans, ex-players, pundits the local press – whose access to the club has been magically restored post-Davies – all have fat, sloppy grins on their faces. Next season, the Trent End will sing their songs about Psycho once more, and more money will be thrown at the squad. Expectations, yet again, will be high. Unless Al Hasawi wants the fourth new era of his chairmanship to turn into a uniquely painful catastrophe, he needs, as a matter of extreme urgency, to rebuild and replace and renew the club from the ground up, to re-establish what has been lost and replace it with something better than anything that has existed before, simply to bring it up to modern standards. And he needs to start that process today, because placating fans by bringing back the ghosts of seasons past will buy him only so much time.

And time, as the last two decades have shown, stands still for no club. Not even Nottingham Forest.

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Pete Brooksbank

Pete was the runner-up in the 2014 When Saturday Comes football writing competition with an article about how crap of a football fan he is. He was the writer and editor of the now defunct impsTALK site, charting the highs and lows of Boston United's ridiculous stint as a league club. He continues to write about Boston United for the Boston Standard, and was commissioned as a staff writer on a BBC Radio 4 comedy show you've almost certainly never heard of. Twitter: @petebrooksbank

Comments
  • April 3, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    J

    Ha,ha, nice one sheepy boy. Poorly written drivel, which may have been a good read by the end but got bored half way through.

  • April 3, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Paz

    I’m hopeful that Fawaz is true to his words n the sense of “learn from my mistakes”

    I don’t think there is any question that he has Forests best intentions at heart and I think getting Pearce in is a complete uturn to the way it was under BD and that is a big part of the ‘learning from mistakes’

    He has appointed Mcgovern as ambassador remember too and it seems lined up a ceo for next season also; there is also the clear evidence of working even closer with the academy and the continuity there.

    Pearce is the right man to bring all of those elements together, experience, knowledge and trust in young players and with the clubs interest at heart, not financial gain or personal interest. It will bring respect back tot he club, respect to the media, to officials, to the shirt.

    He will also be financially backed and if we are in a position of strength we will build on it, Fawaz one feels will invest if we are sitting pretty, this is something that Doughty, for all his great work, did not really do.

    There is more to being a successful club as your article suggests and also to being a good manager, he need not necessarily be the super tactician, he needs to improve players, to be a good man manager, he needs to build a strong foundation, he needs the fans on his side, he needs a chairmans support, he needs good players, he needs passion and belief… to name just a few traits.

    There are a lot of those positives now in place

  • April 3, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Timmy Pope

    Are you David Peace in disguise?

    Very cleverly take a bit of fact & turn it into a massively dramatized & erroneous piece of fiction of blockbuster proportions?

    or just write a load of bollocks…

  • April 3, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    lee

    What a load of over written tosh

  • April 3, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    mrglobeman

    what a lot of words to say aload of crap.

  • April 4, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    DarkTrain

    Did someone get a thesaurus for Christmas? Jesus Christ what a load of sensationalist crap.

    God forbid any club should try and have a soul, an identity, a personality.

    Football must be one of few industries where people are judged on statistics of their performance when they were a rookie in a particular role and practically zero credit is given when said individuals go out and gain skills and experience to improve themselves.

    Pearce has a better win %, at a higher level, than so called ‘safer’ appointments like Mackay or Clarke. He has vastly more managerial experience than the likes of the aforementioned Clarke or people like Zola or DiMatteo.

    Above all else, Pearce loves this football club the same way those on the terraces do. Not token affinity – he lives and breathes the club, it’s in his blood. If giving a guy who believes, completely believes, he has what it takes and who has the very best intentions for the football club embedded in his heart an opportunity to get us back where we belong is wrong then frankly i’m done with the whole game.

    Football is not about prats like Mourinho and his faux ‘personality’ or wasters like Rooney on £300k a week to expose us to yet more of their unfulfilled talent. It’s about hope, belief, expectation and identity.

    “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”

    Good luck Psycho and welcome home.

  • April 4, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Pete Brooksbank

    DarkTrain – Apart from the thesaurus bit I don’t disagree with much of what you say. I concur that a degree of romanticism is being lost in the modern game and this should be a nice, heart-warming return for a terrace legend. But something doesn’t feel right at the minute. Maybe it will when he arrives in July, be that at a Championship or a Premiership club, but right now I’m not convinced Fawaz made the choice for the right reasons.

    I think quite a few people have taken this admittedly doom-laden piece as a pop at Stuart Pearce, or it just being anti-Forest because I felt like trolling them or something, probably in part because it’s about 15,000 words long and they probably give up halfway through. Fair point – I take that and the David Peace thing on the chin, although in my defence 200% isn’t a Forest blog and not everyone knows the context of the appointment.

    In fact, aside from pointing out Pearce’s average managerial record (a debate that’s going to rumble on until he actually gets games under his belt) I’m mainly arguing that for Fawaz to make this work he needs to back Stuart Pearce up properly and give him the tools he needs to succeed, which is at the very least is a functioning boardroom and a proper structure behind the scenes. You can’t bring back a terrace hero just to appease people and leave him to sort out the mess caused by Billy Davies all by himself. Someone else above commented that there’s a CEO on the way: if that’s true, that’s great, it shows Fawaz is learning (albeit very slowly). If appointing Pearce is the start of a longer process of rebuilding the club then superb – I would love nothing better than to see people telling me how wrong I was in 18 months. But if Fawaz continues to wing it like he has the last two seasons I can’t see this working. How could it? I don’t buy into the idea that just because an ex-player has ‘desire’ and ‘passion’ for his favourite club it compensates for deficiencies elsewhere – modern football doesn’t work like that anymore, and that’s something Fawaz needs to address asap.

  • April 4, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Cs

    I would like to add that your article was well written, concise and factual. An excellent read that I couldn’t have put better myself.

    I, like you, am somewhat sceptical on ‘Psycho’s’ appointment. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is a Forest legend and one of my personal heroes (I have his signed picture sitting proudly in my living room!). But you hit the nail on the head ref his managerial credentials: granted Man City weren’t the force they are now during his tenure, but his inability to progress the so called ‘Golden Generation’ of English kids, with excellent facilities, full FA backing and a 10-year contract to boot, suggests that he’s not a good manager. Furthermore, the Olympics (on home soil) was a shambles (With or without Bale).

    Fawaz, whilst passionate and the fans ‘yes man’, doesn’t have a clue. He wants success and he wants it yesterday. Why? Simple really: money. He wants to turn us into a premiership force with the minimal financial outlay, create a commercial brand in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern Countries and leg it. He can feed us the “I love Brian Clough”, “I loved them in the 70’s/80’s” blah blah blah. He can open the club doors, give U-12’s free season tickets, re-tweet fans, put a giant score board in the ground. It’s all (as you say) smoke and mirrors. He’s painting over some very large cracks without looking at how the cracks are being created in the first place. Let’s face it, the Algerians and the Saudi Goal keeper were not players any manager would’ve chosen?!

    I genuinely hope that Stuart Pearce suceeds. I’ve stuck with Forest through all they’ve thrown at us in recent years, and I’ll continue to do so. But he needs to contend with Fawaz’ inpatience, a crumbling infrastructure and most of all, his own flaws as a football manager. I wish him well.

  • April 4, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Tommy1drop

    Sheep dip alert, some little bah bah with nothing else to do other than write a load of tosh, wishful thinking, Billy boys time was up, he should never have been brought back in the first place!
    Glad he`s gone…you bet.

  • April 4, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Brian

    Brill.Well done Pete.

  • April 4, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    James Crosby

    What a lot of over articulated, negative drivel.

    Is it so wrong to seek to build on the solid history of a Football Club? Fawaz Al Hasawi has always said be bought Nottingham Forest because he respected its history and he has demonstrated that by seeking out a Manager who is indelibly at its core. A man that truly loves the Club and understands what the fans feel. A man that understands the challenge he faces and carries himself in a professional and understated but determined manner.

    Nottingham Forest seeks to demonstrate an identity shock!

    Sure they’re will be short term “Psycho” fever. Who can blame us? He achieved so much and demonstrated the qualities we need when he led Forest on the pitch for so long. A man who took those qualities onto the pitch with England also. A man that no fan of West Ham, Coventry, Newcastle or Man City could honestly say did not give their all for their shirt also. A man that managed Manchester City and England U21 with dignity under difficult circumstances.

    Well done Fawaz, you have moved on from your mistakes and welcome home Stuart Pearce.

    “Psycho, Psycho, Psycho……..!!!!”

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