Midlands Week: Nottingham Forest & The Colourful World of Evangelos Marinakis
This time last year, all seemed set fair for Nottingham Forest. They’d risen as high as second place in the Championship in October 2019, but even though their form had dipped a little since that high they were still in a good position. Then, however, came the pandemic.. When the football stopped in the middle of March with nine matches left to play, Forest were comfortably in fifth place in the table, but by the time the game returned three months later something seemed to have gone terribly wrong at The City Ground.
Forest won two of their first three matches after the resumption of the season, but they failed to win again after this, and when they lost their last two matches of the season Swansea City pipped them to the last play-off place by one goal, on goal difference. Taking into account that Swansea had scored more goals over the season as a whole (thus winning a tie), Nottingham Forest had finished two goals short of the play-offs.
Manager Sabri Lamouchi was kept on throughout the pre-season, a busy time during which the squad was revamped, with players such as Glenn Murray, Harry Arter and Lyle Taylor joining the club. This new look squad, however, didn’t seem to gel, and by the start of October, after having started the new season with four straight defeats, Lamouchi was out of a job. His replacement, Chris Hughton, couldn’t get a tune out of this team either, at least not until the start of the new year. He won his first match in charge, at Blackburn Rovers, but only won twice more by the middle of December.
When their form turned around, though, it turned around. Forest finally kick-started their season with a home win against Sheffield Wednesday in the middle of December. This proved to be the start of a run of just two defeats in their next fifteen matches, taking the team from 22nd place in the table at the time of Hughton’s appointment to 16th, by the time of their last win. That last win, though, was on the 23rd February, and Forest since then have slumped again, taking just two points from their last five games. They’re currently in 18th place in the Championship table, one point and one place above Derby County. Both clubs have one eye over their shoulder, at the moment. They’re not in imminent danger, but they’re both definitely too close to the relegation places for comfort.
Chris Hughton is a successful manager at this level, the fifth most successful of the last 20 years, according to Transfermarkt. And spread over four clubs, two of which he’s got promoted. If he can’t get them playing at this level, no-one can. But Hughton does have to watch out, because patience doesn’t seem to be one of the defining characteristics of the club’s owner, Evangelos Marinakis. Marinakis has owned Nottingham Forest since May 2017. Three years and ten months ago. Hughton is Marinakis’s 5th manager in that time, following on from Mark Warburton, Aitor Karanka, Martin O’Neill and, of course, Sabri Lamouchi.
The son of a ship owner and Greek politician, Marinakis was the founder and chairman of Capital Maritime & Trading Corp, which is controlled by the Marinakis family and manages a mixed fleet of and 80 ships, including tankers, container ships and dry bulk carriers. He took the ownership of Olympiacos in the summer of 2010, and serves as their president, and he’s also served as the president of the Greek Super League and as vice-president of the Hellenic Football Federation.
His involvement in football has not been without controversy. He’d only been running Olympiacos for nine months, but after getting involved in a tussle with Djibril Cisse of Panathinaikos after a match in February 2011, the pair traded insults (Cisse said of Marinakis that, “The behavior of Mr Marinakis offends sports”) and the matter ended up in court. In what we’ll come to find in a common theme in his story, he was acquitted. In 2015, he was back in court. Marinakis was charged with complicity to commit acts of bribery and match manipulation, and of instigation and facilitating acts of violence. According to the prosecutor:
…the president and close collaborators of Olympiakos… approached and sought to manipulate in order to serve their interests, police officers, judges, politicians and other powerful individuals of the country, some of whom they hired in important positions in the football club following their departure from key positions they held in the public sector.
Documents from the preliminary investigation included statements by people who stated that they were subjected to ‘campaigns of intimidation’ by people associated with Olympiacos. One FIFA referee testified that he was pressured into allowing Olympiacos to fix a game in their favour, but resisted the intimidation. Elsewhere in the report, it was noted that, after Olympiacos’ defeat, a bakery owned by the same referee was first vandalised, and later firebombed by unknown attackers. Marinakis was acquitted on all charges.
But this theme of implication and acquittal seems common throughout his life. In 2014 one of his ships, the Noor 1, was intercepted in the port of Piraeus carrying 2.1 tons of heroin. Marinakis was to be charged with drug trafficking, but the judicial council of the Piraeus Lower Court ruled that the prosecutor’s order was not justified. The already jailed co-owner of Noor 1 had claimed that the vessel had in fact carried an additional ton of heroin (worth $70m) which was unloaded on Crete and trafficked to mainland Europe before the authorities managed to intercept it. He further claimed that the heroin unloaded in Crete belonged to Marinakis. The matter has not proceeded to court. At the end of September last year, this lengthy article in New Republic detailed the story. At the start of this month, meanwhile, Marinakis was busy again back in Greece when he was banned from entering the stadiums for five months after being found guilty of verbally abusing a referee, Tassos Sidiropoulos, in the aftermath of a 1-1 draw with Aris Thessaloniki last month. He was fined €30,000, with Olympiacos being fined a further €7,000 and perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his record in Greek courtrooms, the club has already indicated that it wishes to appeal this decision.
Nottingham Forest have not had a very good year since the start of the pandemic, but Marinakis offered further evidence of his charmed life when he tested positive for Coronavirus at the start of March last year. Reading news stories on the subject is a sombre reminder of how little we understood about the virus at the time, Marinakis made a full recovert. This, though, is more than can be said for Forest. Little did anyone know it at the time, but the match that the team played shortly before this announcement – a 3-0 home defeat by Millwall – would not only be the last match played at The City Ground until June, but would also turn out to be something of a portent for how the team’s form would fall off a cliff once the game returned, behind closed doors, three months later.
Last week saw the release of Forest’s last set of annual accounts and, as expected across the board in English football under the current circumstances, they didn’t contain much positive news. Forest published operating losses of £32m for 2019/20, taking their total losses to £187m (a considerable amount of which has been converted to capital, meaning that Forest currently have a manageable gross debt of £32m), with a wages to turnover ratio of 148%. Forest’s issues with spiraling wages pre-date the beginning of the pandemic – for reference, a 70% wages to turnover ration or lower is usually considered ‘healthy’ – but with this being the Championship, where normal rules of financial prudence do not seem to apply, theirs is only the 8th highest in the division.
In each of the last eleven years, though, Forest have paid out more in wages than they have generated in revenue, and with revenues having continued to atrophy over the course of this season it seems highly unlikely that the balance sheet will be any better next time around. Last year’s results were something of an improvement on the year before, but Forest have only reported a profit once since 2005, and that was entirely due to a £40m loan write-off in 2017, when the club’s ownership changed. Otherwise, the club has consistently lost money for more than a decade, including £47m under Marinakis.
But Forest are nowhere near being uniquely basketcase-like, in terms of the Championship. Their wage bill last season was only the 11th highest, so despite the disappointment of not making the play-offs, it might even be argued that the team over-achieved a little by finishing as high in the table as 7th. The overall takeaway from the annual accounts is that Forest are no worse off financially than many other Championship clubs and that they certainly seem to better run they were under previous owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi, but that both of these are pretty low bars, in the overall scheme of things.
In January, an attempt to increase revenues coming into the club resumed in the form of a £50m redevelopment of The City Ground. Work had been due to get underway last summer, starting with knocking down and rebuilding the dilapidated Peter Taylor Stand, but that was put on hold, with “delays in the planning process” being cited as the reason. Planning permission does not yet seem to have been granted, but if this is now starting to move forward, the club would come out of the redevelopment with the largest stadium in the East Midlands, with a proposed capacity of 38,000. A bigger stadium coupled with a successful team would certainly improve their chances of returning to the Premier League after a gap of what is now 22 years.
In Greece, two decades of league success have allowed Olympiacos to pull clear of the rest thanks to Champions League money, while most Greek clubs remain beset by financial difficulties. But allegations of widespread corruption and match-fixing have been rife for years, and in the past two decades there has been a common belief among rival fans that Olympiacos were favoured by authorities. Nottingham Forest supporters are, of course, perfectly entitled to not give a tu’penny damn about what happens in Greek football, but arguably the biggest conundrum the club faces at present is the question of what might happen should Marinakis’ apparently charmed life suddenly take a downward turn.
Despite the charmed life of their owner, then, Nottingham Forest are no more extraordinary in terms of their finances than many other Championship clubs. Premier League parachute payments continue to distort the finances of the division, and those who do not receive them continue to find themselves having to play financial catch-up with those who do, if they are to stay competitive. For now, Chris Hughton’s aim for the rest of this season is to keep the team from falling back towards those relegation places.
The club has a strong academy, so there is no reason why they can’t continue to produce the players whose sales have kept their balance sheets reasonably normal (by Championship standards) over the last couple of years but, while matches aren’t won on balance sheets or in the boardroom, the decisions made at the very top will ultimately have their influence on matters on the pitch, and the trigger-happy nature of Evangelos Marinakis in the past means that any downturn in form immediately renders the manager’s position vulnerable. This season was essentially a write-off for Nottingham Forest by the time Hughton arrived at the club in October, but with Marinakis running the club nothing is certain for the club’s supporters, and at the time of writing, that includes staying in the Championship, come the end of this season.