The Strange Case Of The Nottingham Forest Takeover
When Nottingham Forest were acquired by the Al Hasawi family in 2012 following the sudden and unexpected death of Nigel Doughty, dissenting voices were quickly hushed. Under the ownership of of the ultra-wealthy Kuwaiti family, Forest would be returned to their former glories, the sun would shine over the River Trent, and the doubts and financial insecurities of the past would become nothing more than distant memories. Reality, however, has an unfortunate way of interrupting dreams, however, and any remaining Forest supporters who had remained in denial over Fawaz – the arm of the family charged with the task of shaking this sleeping giant awake – have surely been on the end of their own rude awakening this week, following the release of extraordinary details of his apparent demands to a new group that is seeking to buy the club.
First of all, however, a very quick review of his four and a half years in charge of the club. Following his family’s takeover of the club in July 2012, it looked as though there was a chance that Nottingham Forest might be able to put a difficult period, which had lasted for more than a decade, behind it. Although Forest had only finished the previous season narrowly above the Football League Championship relegation places, in the first season following the family’s arrival at the club the team ended the season in a creditable eighth place in the table and would have finished higher had it not been for a home defeat on the last day of the season at home to Leicester City. Since then, however, pickings have been slim, with eleventh, fourteenth and sixteenth placed finishes in the table demonstrating nominally diminishing returns on a year-by-year basis.
Fawaz Al Hasawi took over as chairman from his cousin Omar in the middle of December 2012. The club had, on the day after completion of the takeover the previous July, replaced manager Steve Cotterill with Sean O’Driscoll, but few were expecting the same fate to befall O’Driscoll. Less than two weeks after the change of chairman, however, came another change of manager, with Alex McLeish arriving at The City Ground the day after O’Driscoll’s departure from the club, but he in turn lasted just six weeks before being replaced by Billy Davies. At least Davies lasted some time in the position – a little more than a year – before being replaced amid reports of a breakdown in the relationship between the manager and the chairman. The current incumbent, Paul Williams, has been in the job for seven months. He is the sixth manager that the club has had since the family took control of the club.
Meanwhile, other matters emerged into the public sphere which cast significant doubts over the competence of those running the club. Winding up orders came and went, whilst a transfer embargo was put in place over breaches of financial rules. When Billy Davies left the club in March 2014, it was widely reported that Neil Warnock rejected the chance to take over as Nottingham Forest manager because of concerns that there would be too much interference in team affairs from the owners. The chairman, as they always do, denied the reports. When the end of last season came around, it was widely reported in the media – including here, on this site – that the local council had been forced to reduce the capacity of The City Ground to zero because the club had no safety certificate holder. This situation was rectified before the start of this season, but such were the council’s reservations that they cut the capacity of the ground for a couple of weeks by 20%.
And then Evangelos Marinakis arrived on the scene. On the one hand, Marinakis fitted the bill. He is extremely rich, and extremely experienced in running a successful football club. On the other, however… the taint of corruption – and possibly worse – has followed Marinakis around for much of the last few seasons, and despite the fact that he has deflected many of the charges brought against him in relation to corruption scandals in Greek football – he is the owner of Olympiacos, champions of Greece for eighteen of the last twenty seasons – he still had five serious charges, including threatening to blow up a bakery owned by a referee, hanging over his head. There wasn’t enormous reason to believe that Forest wouldn’t have been leaping from a flying pan to a fire by trading Al Hasawi for Marinakis.
For all the bluster, though, this particular takeover now seems to be on the back burner. It’s not that there hasn’t been other interest in the club. A Canadian group was interested in taking over the club earlier this year, and it had been rumoured that heart-rate-accelerating drink Red Bull had been looking at the possibility of making Nottingham the base of the UK operations for the continuing push of their tentacles into world club football. The current front-runner take take the club over is an American consortium led by John Jay Moores, the former owner of the Major League Baseball franchise San Diego Padres. Talks have been at an advanced stage with Moores, who was previously linked with Everton and Swansea City, but there is every possibility that even these talks might risk stalling if what has been said in the newspapers over the last couple of days is anything to go by. Earlier this week the Guardian reported that Al Hawasi has some clauses for any potential new buyer that, in terms of the sale of a business, are striking as being somewhat, well, unusual. These may be summarised as follows:
- A sale price of £50m for 80% of shares in the club as well as being allowed to stay at the City Ground with a condition written into the agreement that he no longer makes any financial contributions to the club.
- A guarantee of 20% of the club’s future profits.
- A salary starting at £480,000 a year, to increase to £1.08m if Forest were to be promoted into the Premier League.
- A promotion bonus of £480,000 and, should Forest stay in the top division following promotion, a further payment amounting to a further year’s salary.
- Payment of the total that players earn in bonuses.
It didn’t take long, of course, for a statement to be issued by the chairman of the club denying the allegations made in the Guardian’s article:
I am aware of reports recently published in the Guardian newspaper regarding investment in the club. I can confirm that the information published was inaccurate and my solicitors have confirmed that there has been no communication between them and the newspaper. The terms of any potential investment deal are, and will remain, confidential and the club will not be making any comment in relation to this issue. The matter has now been passed to my legal team, as such it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.
The details of Al Hasawi’s alleged demands from any takeover are, of course, extraordinary. To expect to stay on as a minority shareholder in the club following its sale seems like something that few serious buyers would be terribly excited about, and the amounts of money detailed above demonstrate a sense of entitlement that will anger many, who have seen little but gradual decline at Nottingham Forest over the course of the time during which he has been overseeing the club’s management. Sliding from being capable of making the play-offs in the division to looking over their shoulders at those below them in the table whilst a transfer embargo hamstrung the club’s attempts to break the ever decreasing circle into which it has spun was emphatically not the deal offered to supporters when the family took ownership of the club in the first place.
But there was more to the Guardian’s report than just Al Hasawi’s curious post-sale demands. It also feels reasonable to raise an eyebrow at the extent of the discontent amongst the club’s players being reported, in particular at reports of players not being paid on time – and not only was this not for the first time, but came following a reported promise from the club that this would not happen again – and at reports that the position is causing such discontent amongst players that they were considering refusing to train for the club. It is common within football clubs for the players to be the first priority to be paid, before anything else is taken into consideration. If these allegations are true and players have not been paid on time, that raises serious questions regarding Nottingham Forest’s current financial position. It is noted that these issues are not addressed by the statement quoted above.
So, this is where Nottingham Forest are now. Manager Philippe Montanier is now being described as being “under pressure”, even though none of the above is anything to do with him. Indeed, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that, firstly, Montanier can’t possibly be the cause of the ongoing underlying issues that considerably predate his appointment as the club’s manager, and that, secondly, if the players are currently off their game, the most likely reason for this is the behind the scenes shenanigans outlined above. Perhaps if the sense of uncertainty that has hung over the club for the last three or four years or so was lifted, Montanier would have a decent chance of getting Nottingham Forest into a position in which it could challenge for a place in the Premier League. As things stand, there is little to suggest that the club has much to look forward this winter apart from a war of attrition to remain in the Championship. Perhaps this will come to change under new ownership. Whether new owners will be possible if the allegations made in the Guardian this week are substantial, however, is very much open to question.
It could, perhaps, be difficult to understand how starstruck those who have come into English football below the Premier League might be by the idea of reaching the promised land. For those of us who have spent our whole lives in the company of English football, the fact of the connections between its leagues and divisions is second nature. For those who haven’t, however, the Premier League, with its sprinkling of stardust and, of course, the bucket loads of money must resemble a glowing pot of gold sitting on the top of a mountain in the middle distance. And, for those like Fawaz Al Hasawi, who have failed to get close to it, the sight of the success of others may well be galling. It seems entirely plausible that this desperation could be what is leading to so much eccentric behaviour in the Championship and League One. All that we know with a reasonable degree of certainty is that there has to be some form of explanation for why this sort of eccentricity and downright bad management seems to be so commonplace in the Football League at the moment.
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