Forest Fire… Yet Again
Another year, another manager. Whoever is chosen to replace Aitor Karanka as the new manager of Nottingham Forest will be the club’s ninth in six years, a stark statistic which demonstrates on itself the turbulent nature of the way in which the club has run itself over that period of time. The departure of Karanka from The City Ground was simultaneously completely out of the blue and no surprise whatsoever. On the one hand, the club had felt more settled over the first half of this season than it has done in some time. Crowds are up season, ticket sales are up, and the team sits in ninth place in the Championship, four points off the play-off places. With almost half a season to go, there’s clearly still all to play for, and it’s difficult to see that this new round of upheaval will do the club any good whatsoever, with the first evidence of the damage that such rashness can do coming in the form of a two-nil defeat at struggling Reading, a performance which also featured two Forest red cards.
But all of this new found optimism was reckoning without the trigger-happy nature of the modern football club owner. When Evangelos Marinakis purchased the club in the summer of 2016, he was largely feted for who he wasn’t rather than who he was. The ownership of Fawaz Al Hasawi had been pretty much a complete disaster, with the only silver lining for supporters being that at least the club didn’t find itself back in League One or in administration. Last season was the transitional season. Financial Fair Play regulations had to be met, and the mess that the new owner had inherited needed to be swept away. Karanka was appointed and had been considered to be doing a reasonable job. The team only finished the season in seventeenth place in the table, but relegation was averted with a only half an eye glancing back over their shoulders, while supporters had a glimpse of the team’s potential in winning away at Newcastle United in the League Cup and at home against Arsenal in the FA Cup. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but such had been the extent of the depths to which the club had plummeted under Al Hawasi that it felt like something that could be built upon.
This summer, with the club looking fairly stable, Forest went big in the transfer market, spending £23m on new players in the pursuit of a return to the Premier League for the first time since 1999. For a club that has previously twice been the champions of the whole of Europe, that feels like a long time to be away, and whilst “expectation” feels like too strong a word to describe the feeling amongst the support, there was a belief that a revamped team with a popular manager had the potential to push forward towards the top end of the table. More than 22,000 season tickets were sold. For all of that, though, the first half of the season has felt like a case of two steps forward one step back. For every performance like the thrilling one seen at The City Ground a couple of weeks ago, when they put Leeds United to the sword and beat them by four goals to two, there has been something less savoury, such as a defeat at Millwall or a drab goalless draw against a misfiring Stoke City team.
Those who might have been concerned at what type of football might have been played by a team managed by a man who took Middlesbrough into the Premier League whilst barely raising many heart rates outside of Teesside can hardly claim that Aitor Karanka’s team hasn’t entertained, either. At the end of November, for example, they drew five-all at Aston Villa despite playing a quarter of the game with ten players following the sending off of Pereira Figueiredo. And whilst throwing away a three-nil lead lead away to then-league leaders Norwich City on Boxing Day might have been disappointing, it certainly wasn’t boring. And it’s important to remember that whilst yes, football supporters do want success, they also tend to want to be entertained as well, and can be quite forgiving of a team that is entertaining, even if it doesn’t win every single week.
The problems at the club this season, however, seem to have come about behind the scenes. Karanka was reportedly extremely unhappy at the appointments of sporting director Jose Anigo and director of football Kyriakos Dourekas being made without consulting him (if there’s one thing we can say about all football managers, it’s that being a control freak is part of the required skill set), and Karanka was reportedly enraged when Anigo pitched up in the dug-out during Forest’s recent match against Derby County. With relations between the manager having been been strained for some time, the manager might quite well be forgiven for wondering who was actually managing the team, especially with rumours of further interference from above circulating. Karanka, it might be argued, has a reputation for being somewhat combustible. Even when his Middlesbrough team was sailing towards promotion to the Premier League three years ago, he unexpectedly left the training ground after an argument, leaving coach Steve Agnew in charge for one match before returning. Small wonder, then, that he was so unhappy with the way in which working relationships had been affected over the course of the first half of this season.
Evangelos Marinakis, of course, has a history of his own. As the owner of Okympiakos in Greece, he was responsible for the departure of eighteen managers over the course of eight and a half years owning that club. As such, we might also reasonably consider him to be something of a combustible character too, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that going toe to toe with Aitor Karanka was always likely to end this way. There is, however, a further small issue that feels as though it might need to be addressed. It has been reported that no small part of his decisions over the course of this season have been influenced by his insistence that his club must be challenging for promotion this season. After the season of stabilisation, it has been suggested, he expected his team to push towards the top of the table this season and this, in a division as competitive and unpredictable as the Football League Championship, feels a little like expecting too much from a notoriously unpredictable division.
Forest spent heavily last summer. There is no doubt that Karanka was backed. Having said all of that, though, to expect anything very much from the Championship feels like a basic lack of understanding of the foibles of this particular division. At the end of last season, three relatively established Premier League clubs – Swansea City, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City – were relegated. Each of them will receive a considerably greater amount of money in parachute payments alone than Forest could from the Championship’s television contract. On top of that, there are other names, such as Derby County, Middlesbrough, Leeds United and Aston Villa, for example, are all big clubs in their own right. Aston Villa have been European champions before, whilst Leeds once reached a European Cup final. To compete amongst these clubs can be done, but this a a difficult division, which requires forty-six matches of attritional struggle, and all with only two automatic promotion places at the end of the month season. To demand it seems at best optimistic, to say the least.
Slavisa Jokanovic currently leads the betting to replace Karanka at The City Ground, as the man who took Fulham from nowhere into the Premier League last season, he would appear to be a solid choice. But there will be distraction, and the jury is out on whether the new incumbent will have to make do and mend with what he has at his disposal or not, despite the fact that the January transfer window is open for just a further three weeks. And whoever takes the job will have a sporting director and a director of football, whether he likes it or not. Such is the very nature of this division that it’s extremely difficult to consider this season a wasted opportunity for Nottingham Forest, especially while there is still a decent chance of the team making the play-offs over the course of the second half of this season. Having said that, though, the talk of interference on managerial affairs is not something that we would ordinarily associate with a club that is being run in a healthy way. It is to be hoped that the club doesn’t revert to the worst traits of the Fawaz Al Hasawi years. This May marks the fortieth anniversary of the night that the club became the champions of Europe for the first time. The club may never scale those heights again but, with careful management, the Premier League isn’t an unachievable aim for a club the size of Nottingham Forest. The question facing the club now is that of whether the club’s management, from Evangelos Marinakis down to whoever the replacement for Aitor Karanka turns out to be, are capable of not acting like bulls in a china shop in terms of their management of this important institution.