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 The ground itself, as beloved and atmospheric as it is, is cramped and outdated.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.