Nottingham Forest: Stagnation On Trentside
The forthcoming round of international friendly matches may have been scheduled for just about the worst weekend possible – is there anybody who actually wanted to sacrifice an Easter weekend of league matches in order to create some space for the lethargic round of matches that will take place instead? – but at least a few days off will give supporters a chance to catch their breath before the end of season run-in. It’s tight at the top and bottom of the Premier League and all three divisions of the Football League, so a greater than normal number of supporters will this season be agonising over league tables whilst working out permutations with their hearts in their mouths.
Spare a thought, though, for the mediocre, those for whom this season is already over, for whom the last few league matches before the summer break are already confirmed as being little more than a series of exhibition matches. Nottingham Forest are one such club. Forest jettisoned manager Dougie Freedman a week ago on Sunday. Freedman was the sixth manager to be sacked by the club in the last four years, a figure which may suggest some degree of excitement at The City Ground over the course of that period of time, but the reality of the club’s season is that nothing could have been further truth. Excitement has not been very high on the agenda for Nottingham Forest supporters this season.
The bare statistics speak for themselves. With nine games of the season left to play, Forest sit in fifteenth place in the table. Nine points above the relegation zone is just about a comfortable enough buffer to ensure that the club won’t get sucked into a relegation battle for this season, at least. Just too good to be considered in trouble at the foot of the table but nowhere near being able to challenge for a place in the play-offs, this year’s Nottingham Forest team hasn’t even been able to achieve its meagre return with a great deal of elan. Their thirty-eight matches so far this season have seen the team score just thirty-four goals (the joint second least in the division) whilst conceding thirty-six – an average of less than two goals per match. The cups offered little more succour for those in search of entertainment. Those who bothered with it at all did at least see seven goals from their League Cup First Round match against League One Walsall. Unfortunately, however, the visitors scored four of these goals. The FA Cup brought a one-nil home win against Queens Park Rangers and a one-nil home defeat against Watford. So it goes.
This feeling of the club being a short hop from a state of fully fledged crisis without actually being in it is reflected off the pitch, as well. Nottingham Forest have been under a transfer embargo since December 2014 over breaches of Financial Fair Play rules and a failure to pay Peterborough United installments due for striker Britt Assombalonga, who was signed in August 2014 but has only recently showed signs of being able to return to playing for the club after missing thirteen months with a horrendous knee injury. Two winding up orders have been issued against the club over the non-payment of tax by HMRC since January of this year. Owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi remains insistent that the embargo will finally be lifted this summer, but such is the mood of gloom around The City Ground there don’t seem to be many who are taking this claim at face value. “We’ll see it when we believe it” seems to be the prevailing opinion on this subject.
The club’s infrastructure is also in need of a degree of investment. The Main Stand at The City Ground opened for business in 1965 and is, to say the very least, showing its age. Meanwhile, plans for the club to relocate completely were dependent upon something that was never going to happen – England hosting the 2018 World Cup finals – there are no plans on the table to rebuild the Main Stand at present, and it seems unlikely that there will be while the club remains outside of the Premier League. Similarly, the club’s youth academy has been underwhelming in recent years. One might suggest that a lengthy period of time during which the club was under a transfer embargo might be an ideal time to invest a little more money in such a project, but this has not happened either.
The crowds are still turning out at The City Ground, but even these have begun to dwindle this season. Nottingham Forest’s average home attendances over the course of a season have only dipped under the twenty thousand mark twice over the course of the last quarter of a century, and one of those occasions was while the club was in League One. This season, however, they seem likely to do so again. Crowds are down by four thousand on this time last year, even though the team is only one place lower in the table than the position in which it completed last season. Some have ascribed this to high ticket prices, some to Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s ownership of the club, and others to a more general sense of apathy that has been hanging over the club at the moment. The answer is probably a combination of all three of these factors, but the result is the same nevertheless – a sense that the colour is draining from the cheeks of this football club.
Fawaz Al-Hasawi has put a lot of money into Nottingham Forest over the last four years, and this means that the club’s destiny ultimately rests in his hands. A feeling of perpetual managerial flux coupled with off-field stagnation and uninspiring football on the pitch, however, leads to the distinct impression that a return to the Premier League, a division that the club has not been a part of since 1999, feels as far away as ever. Appointing a manager with a view to keeping them in place for longer than a few months, getting that transfer embargo lifted once and for all, putting some money into the club’s youth system and – at the very, very least – giving the Main Stand a lick of paint might yet bring some life back to Nottingham Forest, lending it a sense of urgency and direction that it has noticeably been missing over the course of the last few seasons rather than the sense of aimlessness that seems to characterise it at the moment.
This is a club that is justifiably proud of its history, of becoming the champions of England in 1978 and going on to twice be the champions of the whole of Europe over the following two seasons. Perhaps a return to those days is too much of a tall order for anybody to expect, but whatever future direction Nottingham Forest does end up taking will be determined by the actions of the man who purchased it, presumably with no intentions whatsoever of it looking like this several years down the line. With the right amount of prudence and care, Nottingham Forest can rediscover its raison d’etre. But an increasing number of the club’s supporters seem fully justified in asking the question of whether the man currently in charge of it has the wherewithal to bring this about. Without more joined up thinking than Fawaz Al-Hasawi has displayed during his tenure in charge at The City Ground over the last four years, it becomes difficult to see where a return to happier times will come from for this particular club.
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