Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Forest Player of the Season 'curse' and the future for Ben Osborn

I'm worried for Ben Osborn. No, not because of the Twitter trolls. Those fans should, by rights, have been silenced by his fully deserved - and fan-voted - Player of the Season award. The sometimes-silent majority have spoken and Ben should take heart from the fact that we do truly appreciate his efforts during a chaotic period at the club.

My concern is that the Player of the Season award at Forest is becoming a little like the Manager of the Month crown or the board's 'vote of confidence'.

That bad? Here's what happened next to the last 11 winners of the award:

2007: Grant Holt

After bagging 18 goals in the 2006/07 play-off push, Holt seemed to fall out with manager Colin Calderwood and was shunted out on to the wing where he, perhaps predictability, failed to flourish. He netted just three times and was loaned out in March 2008 before being sold in the June.

2008: Julian Bennett

Bennett had been an inspiration during the successful League One promotion campaign - culminating in 'that goal' against Yeovil - so it was a huge blow to lose him to injury after just four games in the following season. When he did come back he suffered a collarbone injury that kept him out for six weeks and then eventually succumbed to a knee injury on Boxing Day that ended his season.

2009: Chris Cohen

The recently-retired Cohen wasn't struck by the 'curse' in 2009/10 - although play-off heartache was to come at the end of the season. Chris' bad luck was to follow later.

2010: Lee Camp

Again, Camp thrived after winning his Player of the Season title. He kept 12 clean sheets and narrowly missed out on becoming the first player to retain the title, finishing second to Luke Chambers.

2011 Luke Chambers

Chambers was appointed captain by new boss Steve McClaren but failed to hit the heights of the previous campaign. He scored no goals - compared to six the season before - and, along with the whole team, struggled for form. Eventually left at the end of the season.

2012 Garath McCleary

Having been a key factor in saving us from relegation under Steve Cotterill - scoring nine goals in the process - Garath left for Reading in the summer.

2013 Chris Cohen

Cohen suffered the second major injury of his career in November 2013, ruling him out for the rest of the season.

2014 Andy Reid

A ten-goal campaign earned him his second Player of the Season crown - ten years after the first. Reid and Cohen had then formed a promising midfield combination during a superb start under Stuart Pearce before both were injured in the same game - at home to Derby in September 2014. Reid wasn't seen again for nearly a year after.

2015 Michail Antonio

Michail's 15 goals and 12 assists were a joy to watch in 2014/15 (I'd put him in my best post-Premier League XI as a result) but he left to join West Ham by the end of the subsequent summer transfer window.

2016 Dorus De Vries

The former Wolves stopper played just one game of the 2016/17 season, leaving to join Celtic. His experience and calming influence have been missed since.

2017 Eric Lichaj

The popular American international only made half as many appearances in 2017/18. Despite memorable moments - such as a stunning goal against Arsenal - he twice found himself behind Tendayi Darikwa in the pecking order.

So, that's three major injuries, three immediate departures and three - to a greater or lesser extent - losses of form for those winners.

It's probably a reflection of the club's chronic inability to find any real form of stability in recent years. Players who are key one season have either been sold, replaced or misused, meaning we've rarely had a solid, consistent core that has worked together for a few seasons to become a coherent and successful team.

The future for Ben Osborn

Will the same fate befall Ben Osborn? It's hard to say. In some respects - and this isn't meant as harshly as it sounds - he won this season's crown by default. There were very few other players to feature in both the Warburton and Karanka sides. That is, of course, testament to his hard work and talent (he's impressed far too many managers to be dismissed now) but also reflects his versatility.

As the below Tweet shows, Ben has found himself in no less than seven positions during the course of the season.

His flexibility makes him a great squad player and perhaps it's fitting that he takes the crown at the same time as Chris Cohen - a man who filled a similar number of positions in his time - bows out.

However, he'll be acutely aware of the fact that the manager is surely about to embark on another shopping spree. The additions from the January window and those to come in the summer might well mean that we have new recruits to fill all of those seven positions that Ben has filled.

Ben Osborn isn't a player to shirk a challenge. New managers, new positions, new playing styles and tactics, Twitter trolls, relegation battles, off field chaos - he's seen it all in his time in the Garibaldi. The Player of the Season crown is a fitting reminder that he has overcome all of that to earn and keep a place in the side. In light of the lack of a consistent, experienced backbone, the likes of Osborn have been the heart of the club and he's been the poster boy for the Academy core that has kept us afloat. Yes, he isn't perfect but lesser players would have wilted.

The next challenge - to forge a role in a Karanka side that has to challenge for the top six - might be the toughest yet. If he can do that, he'll need to defy the gloomy history for recent Player of the Season winners too. Over to you, Ben.

Friday, 27 April 2018

'Only' pride to play for? Rubbish

In football, it's often said that there's 'only pride left to play for'. That cliché has certainly been applied to Forest ever since relegation was mathematically impossible (and before for some brave souls).

Yet that cliché is rubbish for two reasons. Firstly, 'only pride' implies that pride alone is a poor reward. That completely ignores the fact that, outside of the rarified world of the Champions League superpower clubs, wins are not exactly a throwaway joy that happen every week. I certainly haven't become blasé about Forest winning matches and every victory is worth cherishing. On top of that, every game matters from the perspective of the individuals on the pitch - their personal stories, milestones and careers - as well as those in the stands. Every match is someone's first, someone's 'one for the season', someone's 'big game' because of a personal rivalry or just their escape from the humdrum of work. If people are being paid to play and people are paying to watch then of course it matters and there's also a sense of professionalism and duty in carrying on when others in the table continue to fight out the promotion and relegation races.

Ben Brereton prepares to finally end a club record goal scoring drought with a penalty against Ipswich Town.

Secondly, and importantly in the context of Forest's current ambitions, seasons don't happen in a vacuum. The way you finish one season can set the tone for the start of the next. You may be thinking that there are 'two games left to the end of the season' but Aitor Karanka is more likely to be thinking that he's got 20-25 games to whip us into shape so that we're challenging at the top end of the table come Christmas. That may seem ridiculous, but you can't ignore the fact that the owners will want to see drastic progress on the pitch next season and - rightly or wrongly - will expect a promotion challenge at least. In the grand scheme of things, there aren't a huge amount of games to transform us from bottom third strugglers to top third challengers and there's no time to lose in doing the work required to get there.

In that respect, this end of season spell should prove invaluable for the Spaniard. He's had a long time to assess the relative merits of both the existing playing staff and his first batch of new signings. These games should have given him chance to think about how he wants to play and who fits into his plans and where.

If that is the case then it will mark a big change from previous seasons. The five years of Fawaz all saw seasons fizzle out at the end - all with different managers in charge from the men who sent out a side on the opening day.

I wrote two years ago about the end of campaign flops for Seat Pitch. To update the list, we've now seen:
  • 2012/13: One win and four draws in the last eight games as Billy Davies' initial run of one draw and six wins came to a crashing halt.
  • 2013/14: Two wins in the last 16 games as Billy was sacked and Gary Brazil was left holding the baby for the incoming Stuart Pearce.
  • 2014/15: No wins in the last eight games as Dougie Freedman's honeymoon period fizzled out.
  • 2015/16: Three wins, and just 12 goals, in the last 15 games as the Freedman reign ended and Paul Williams stepped in.
  • 2016/17: Four wins - and nine defeats - in the last 16 games as we left it until a nail-biting last day of the season to stay up on goal difference.
  • 2017/18: Four wins from the last 16 games as we've limped past last season's points total with two games to spare.
Yet the stats only tell part of the story. It's not just the poor results that have been disappointing in these end-of-season slumps, it's been the fact that much of this time has been wasted. The club has been all-too-happy to let things drift and wait to press the reset button yet again, often going through the motions while fielding loanees that stand no chance of returning.

The challenge for the current ownership and management is to shake us out of the current cycle of underperformance. By making the games at the end of this season count - in that we can take away some useful lessons for next season - we can make a start towards the overall goal. 

The fact that Karanka will still want to make drastic changes to his playing staff is pretty clear. However, the more changes required, the harder it will be to knit it all together. You'd like to think that he's established a few of the building blocks for his side. If Ben Watson's leadership, Liam Bridcutt's dynamism, Joe Lolley's mazy wing play, Matty Cash's boundless energy and Tobias Figueiredo's solid defending all feed into the team next season then it'll be easier to hit the ground running. The whole squad will be used to his shape and tactics by now too.

Beating Barnsley 3-0 on a wet Tuesday night at the City Ground.

Plus, if we can avoid having to sign squad players and back-up options then we can save the precious transfer kitty for strikers and expensive creative players. The owners have shown every intention of wanting to spend money in the summer, but the high price commanded by top strikers will mean that we still need to be wary of the dreaded FFP rules. Karanka should know exactly who he can utilise and where by now.

On the flip side, Karanka should have also seen enough to avoid sentimentally hanging on to players who need to be moved on. Michael Mancienne, for example, probably exemplifies the mediocrity that the club needs to move on from. Mark Warburton's failure to fix a defence that was so obviously leaky was a costly error (although perhaps he was preoccupied with filling the goalscoring void left by the departing Assombalonga?). 

So, against Bristol City and Bolton - just as in the 3-0 win against Barnsley - there's both pride to play for and the medium to long term future. There's no 'only' about either of those things and by taking both factors as motivation we can hopefully sow the seeds to avoid a seventh successive slump at the end of next season.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Chatting about the ups and downs of being a Forest fan

What's it like being a Forest fan? I don't know about you but fans of other clubs do occasionally try to find out more about the strange comings and goings at the City Ground. It might be out of intrigue, sympathy, politeness, morbid curiosity or, probably, all of the above.

Still, it's difficult to explain isn't it? I struggle to understand what's going on most of the time - part disaster film, part soap opera, occasional sporting contest - let alone explain it to others.

However, I've attempted to do just that in an interview with my friend and former colleague John Baker. John is one of a couple of long-suffering Coventry City fans that I know and, to be honest, their struggles do often offer a healthy sense of perspective for matters on Trentside. I think most fans are hoping that SISU can clear off and let the Sky Blues go back to being a properly functioning club again, preferably before leaving them homeless.

In the first part of our chat we discuss what it was like being a Forest fan 20 years ago, what is the best Forest fans could ever hope for and whether I'd rather see Forest in the Premier League or England win the World Cup (and a grim Megson away day in Milton Keynes):

In part two we chat over the lowest I've ever felt at a game, players and clubs I dislike, the pros and cons of Twitter and the nearly-but-not-quite Gareth Bale loan.

In part three I try to sum up Cloughie (senior and junior), Collymore, Savage and a few more characters in one word, ponder what it would be like to be a fan of a Premier League giant and crap football memorabilia.

Hopefully I didn't completely mess up 'going into bat' for Forest fans - it was certainly fun to go through a few old memories and, of course, to dig out the well worn 2002/03 shirt (which has Reid 20 on the back).

John is hoping to speak to fans from all sorts of different clubs to tap into their hopes, fears and memories. You can check out his YouTube channel here (his rant at Arsenal fans certainly attracted some 'interesting' responses).

Friday, 16 February 2018

Karanka needs ruthlessness and results

Never mind words, we're starting to see what the Marinakis regime will be like in practice. The sacking of Mark Warburton after a month of poor form with the team in 14th was followed by the sanctioning of ten new signings in the January transfer window. The team, you feel, now needs to show the sort of ruthlessness on the pitch that the club has shown off it.

That certainly wasn't the case in Saturday's horror show against Hull. The 2-0 defeat to the previously-toothless Tigers left open the very real threat of a relegation battle. The last ten games have now yielded a pitiful five points - repeat that in the next ten and there's no doubt that we'll be in a mess.

It was baffling - but so very Forest - that we'd signed so many new players and were still watching the same old rubbish, not least at the back. Every new manager comes into the club and learns the hard way that Danny Fox can no longer cope at left back, it seems, while we merely have to be subjected to the same painful lessons as they play out in front of us. Michael Mancienne isn't a player I particularly rate but, my position notwithstanding, he is clearly woefully out of form and ill-suited to the role of captain. After Hull's first goal you could see several of their players geeing each other up but there were no such signs of encouragement on our side, from the captain or anyone else. Joe Worrall, too, is a young player who looks like he might need some time out of the firing line to fine tune a few things, with a worrying tendency to make mistakes creeping into his game.

In fairness to the defence, it can hardly have been easy for them. From Freedman's emphasis on defensive solidity to the gung-ho days of Philippe Montanier and the short passing mantra of Mark Warburton, these players have borne the brunt of dramatic changes in style in recent seasons. Now again, half way through a season, we're expecting them to adapt to another manager and yet another way of playing.

It'd perhaps be impatient to expect all of the new signings to be match fit and ready to go, but it did still feel odd not to see more of them against Hull. Karanka and the board were clearly concerned enough by the quality of the squad to make drastic changes in January, but the team selection didn't seem to reflect this. I can't help thinking that the introduction of Ben Watson or Lee Tomlin, for example, might have helped to signal the change in mentality and attitude that we badly need. As Karanka himself said, when Hull's goal went in we were a beaten side. The fact that that goal came after nine minutes - and that Hull are a poor side - said everything you need to know about Forest's lack of confidence and poor powers of recovery.

Whether the selection was wrong or not, however, Saturday's game was worrying. Managing one shot on target all game (it's now only five on target in our last three and no goals at home in the last five) showed a lack of fight. Had we bombarded the opposition's goal in the second half and lost 2-1, say, we might at least have had something to cling to. The team also looked a mess. What exactly was the plan going forward? Who was going to score the goals we needed? Out of form top scorer Kieran Dowell did not look at home on the left. Under Warburton, the criticism was that we lacked a plan B to change games when we were losing. On Saturday we didn't appear to have even a plan A.

Aitor Karanka has a big job on his hands to turn this around. He has the pedigree to suggest he can do the job - and he's been backed in the transfer market too. We have to hope that, given time, Karanka's ideas and his new personnel can deliver the results needed to avoid getting sucked into a basement battle. The January window certainly saw players come in in a greater volume and quality than seen in previous years.

It could be argued, of course, that signing ten new players is, in itself, an alarming sign. No club should need quite such drastic surgery mid way through a season, certainly not if things are going well. However, the signing spree did see us snap some quality players several of which - Ben Watson, Joe Lolley, Jack Colback - have experience of promotion to the Premier League. On face value, the glut of midfield additions flies in the face of the fact that we can't currently score goals and we're shipping them at an alarming rate at the other end of the pitch. Midfield changes can, of course, screen the back four better and help to create more chances and it has to be hoped that Karanka can find a formula that does both of those things. He'll have to be ruthless - that word again - and that might mean leaving out talented academy graduates, an out of form Dowell, some of his own new signings or even a combination of all three.

We've often argued that a manager will need two or three transfer windows to truly shape his squad. Maybe the owners have heard this and sought to deliver two or three windows worth of signings for Karanka in one go? I certainly think they'll be expecting to see some results between now and the end of the season. Rightly or wrongly, does anyone think they'll be happy to hobble on, scrape 15/16 points and limp to safety? I actually think they believed that switching Warburton for Karanka left open the outside chance of a play-off push. If that was the case, we're all seeing how deluded that was now.

While you'd like to think it's not a case of 'top six or out' this season for Karanka, I still fear he'll need to show real signs of progress if he's to continue going forward. If that sounds daft, it's because football is daft. The owners want a promotion challenge next season, that much is now clear.

The immediate priority is, however, to stop the rot. Games against Hull, Burton, Reading and QPR had looked like an opportunity to pick up some points - now they look like games that could drag us into the dogfight if we're not careful. With ten new players in the bag, it'll take Karanka a long time before he knows his best 11 but he needs to find a formation and combination to work from; one that can tough out the odd draw. Burton might well be bad at home, but Hull were in horrible form away too and no-one should be in any doubt of Forest's magical ability to breathe life into an out-of-form opposition.

Friday, 19 January 2018

A history of failure: Nottingham Forest and the January transfer window

The January transfer window is rubbish isn't it? It's full of pompous Premier League clubs and their telephone number transfer fees, dull and never ending 'sagas' involving spoiled and sulking superstars, 'Sky Sources' and Twitter timelines full of desperately unfunny try-hards.

Yet, on top of that, there's the fact that we're just plain rubbish at it. Time and time again, Forest have failed to secure the players they need, with the club more often than not finding itself torn between transfer strategies or in the midst of managerial turmoil at this time of year.

Indeed, arguably, we're here again. Having just sacked Mark Warburton, lost director of football Frank McParland and appointed Aitor Karanka, we're playing catch up. I'm hopeful that Karanka has just enough time - and the backing - to sneak one or two in the door in the next week or two but I'm not getting carried away.

So, while we patiently wait to see if Karanka can have any success, here's a sobering look at the last ten Januarys and our transfer activity (or lack thereof) to serve as a reminder/warning/therapy:


Transfers in: Luke Chambers
Loans in: David Prutton
Transfers out: Neil Harris, Ross Gardner, Nicky Southall, Danny Cullip
Loans out: Nicky Eaden

Verdict: I remember being completely baffled by the departure of Nicky Southall. With 35 games in all competitions and seven goals to his name, we surely wouldn't just let him leave to Gillingham on a free without lining up a replacement, right? Wrong. The move unnecessarily weakened the squad - with the later loan of James Henry failing to fill his shoes - as we headed for a play-off disaster. Prutton's return was tarnished by his red card in that play-off defeat to Yeovil.


Transfers in: Garath McCleary
Transfers out: Scott Dobie, Neil Lennon

Verdict: No-one was sad to see either Scott Dobie or Neil Lennon depart from the City Ground but the raw talent of Garath McCleary - plucked from non-league Bromley - wasn't the injection of talent we needed for a promotion push. Luckily Brett Ormerod's later loan move would give us some impetus and help us to force our way to second.


Verdict: There was no transfer movement in the January of 2009. Billy Davies had just been appointed and dipped into the loan market in March, with the likes of Chris Gunter and Dexter Blackstock helping the Scot's successful survival bid. Still, the lack of January additions left the risk of relegation hanging over us.


Transfers out: Arron Davies
Loans out: Matt Thornhill, Brendan Moloney

Verdict: Loanee Nick Shorey returned to parent club Aston Villa at the end of January, with no permanent additions made to Billy Davies' play-off bound side. It felt like a missed opportunity - and a situation that wasn't helped when George Boyd later arrived on loan despite apparently not being wanted by Davies.


Transfers in: Marcus Tudgay
Loans in: Paul Konchesky
Transfers out: Matt Thornhill
Loans out: Joe Garner

Verdict: Marcus Tudgay had earned his permanent move after helping us to smash the Sheep 5-2 but the arrival of the Sheffield Wednesday striker and another left back loanee in Paul Konchesky wasn't enough to help Davies' side go beyond the play offs.


Transfers in: Marlon Harewood
Loans in: Adlene Guedioura, Danny Higginbotham, Scott Wootton
Transfers out: Wes Morgan, Patrick Bamford
Loans out: Kieron Freeman

Verdict: This was a transfer window tinged with sadness. Club stalwart Wes Morgan and up and coming star Patrick Bamford were sacrificed to help fund the signings needed to secure short term survival as a new owner was sought. We'd gone from needing to find the missing piece of the puzzle 12 months earlier to being desperate for fresh legs to stay up after the ill-fated Steve McClaren expermined. Still, events of the January window were put into perspective  by the tragic death of Nigel Doughty in February.


Transfers in: Stephen McLaughlin, Khaled Al Rashidi, Darius Henderson
Loans in: Gonzalo Jara, Elliott Ward (extension to previous loan)
Transfers out: Robbie Findley, Lee Camp, Brendan Moloney
Loans out: Karl Darlow, David McGoldrick, Matt Derbyshire

Verdict: Alex McLeish had been drafted in just before the January window opened - and didn't last long once it had shut. This window is infamous for didn't happen rather than what did - with the farcical failure to complete the capture of George Boyd at the eleventh hour apparently put down to a failed eye test. Little did we know but it was to set the tone for the 'Fawaz era'.


Transfers in: Rafik Djebbour, Jack Hobbs
Loans in: Danny Fox, Kevin Gomis, David Vaughan (extension to previous loan)
Transfers out: Khaled Al Rashidi
Loans out: Ishmael Miller

Verdict: Billy Davies was back with 'unfinished business' but I'm not sure Rafik Djebbour or Kevin Gomis were top of his list of targets. The club was bullied into paying a transfer fee for an unfit Jack Hobbs by Hull and, amazingly, Khaled Al Rashidi drifted off the books without making an impact in 12 months. Billy was heading for a meltdown - and the sack - by the end of March.


Loans in: Todd Kane, Gary Gardner
Loans out: Dan Harding, Louis Lang

Verdict: Fawaz's free-spending finally came back to bite, landing us with a transfer embargo before the 2015 January window opened. Stuart Pearce, having spent a decent amount of money in the summer, was restricted to the loan captures of Todd Kane and Gary Gardner as he struggled to regain his early season momentum. Gardner, at least, was an excellent addition.


Loans in: Bojan Jokic, Gary Gardner

Verdict: Embargo still in place, Dougie Freedman went down a well-trodden path - taking a left back on loan and returning to Villa for Gary Gardner. Sadly, Gardner could never quite live up to the promise of his first spell and Freedman was soon sacked despite never having the chance to operate outside of a transfer embargo.


Transfers in: Zach Clough, Gboly Ariyibi
Loans in: Aaron Tshibola, Joao Teixeira, Ross McCormack
Transfers out: Henri Lansbury
Loans out: Tyler Walker, Jorge Grant

Verdict: With an American takeover shelved and Gary Brazil installed on January 14 until the end of the season, this window was Fawaz's final folly. Tshibola and McCormack were unfit, Teixeira was never even seen - making it baffling that we'd bothered to break him out of a season long loan to Wolves -  and Ariyibi is still yet to be used. Clough burst into the team amid high hopes, but his form and fitness faded and he has struggled to get back into the side this season (risking becoming another Jamie Paterson).

In some respects just looking through the January windows says a lot about the club in the last decade or so. From a struggle to find the missing pieces of the promotion puzzle, through to the 'quantity not quality' profligacy under Fawaz and the subsequent embargo it caused, these windows show a club that has drifted along with little sense of strategy.

In this context, we shouldn't expect too much this January. A quality central defender would be top of my list (preferably someone who can act as a leader) and if that's all we can get it'd be better than some of the disastrous Januarys we've seen in previous years. The long term aim for the club should be to avoid a similar series of disappointments and disasters from now on. Perhaps then we could learn not to dread this wretched month.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Over to you, Aitor Karanka

How was it for you? The annual spin on the managerial merry-go-round comes round with as much certainty as a Goose Fair ride these days, this time leading to Aitor Karanka taking Mark Warburton's place in the City Ground hotseat.

I'd made it clear that I thought Mark Warburton deserved more time to complete the work he'd started, but that wasn't to be. We'll probably never know exactly what caused the club to part company with the former Brentford man. Was it a fallout over transfer targets, concerns over the playing style and team selection, the poor form in recent games, the fact that we were too far off the play offs or a combination of the above? Yet the fact he was given the push after the defeat to Sunderland - and the identity of the man who has replaced him - might well tell us a lot about what the owners are thinking.

I wrote in my last post about Nicholas Randall's open letter to the fans in the summer yet it felt like axing Warburton - described as the 'perfect fit' for the club - marked a change of approach from that vision. Or, at the very least, it brought into question the talk of the precious commodity of time and the need to be realistic in our ambitions as the club emerged from intensive care.

While I think it'd be wrong to state that no progress was made under Warburton, there was clearly a debate as to how much progress we were making under him. The answer to that question really depends on your expectations. The fact that Warburton has joined the long list of ex Nottingham Forest managers (imagine a meeting of that disparate group? What would Joe Kinnear and Billy Davies talk about?!) suggests that the new ownership wants promotion a lot quicker than I first thought.

Personally, I think it'd be crazy to expect Karanka to pull off an unlikely push at the top six this season (surely a dangerous overestimation of the quality of the squad) but I sense the regime would be disappointed not to see the club among the challengers this time next year. The former Boro boss has half of this transfer window and the summer to take the foundations laid by Warburton (and the academy) and build a challenge. It's a big ask, but it is one he managed in similar circumstances in the North East, where he took his charges to the play-off final in his first full campaign.

If the club has shown itself to be ambitious - and ruthless - in making this move, the fact that the hierarchy was able to persuade Karanka to come to Nottingham is impressive. The Spaniard is said to have turned down a number of opportunities to return to football management since he departed the Riverside. Indeed, it's thought Birmingham failed to offer the resources and assurances needed to secure his signature. Given that he's a man who has bided his time, you'd like to hope that the club must've presented an attractive and ambitious vision to attract him. Neither he nor his backroom team have been shy about talking of promotion upon arrival at the club. It'll certainly be interesting to see what sort of budget he has available given that the FFP constraints still make their presence felt.

In many respects, Karanka seems an ideal appointment. It avoided the head vs heart sentimentality of signing up an ex player and sidestepped the risk of an unknown manager (although I'd be open to snapping up a lower league manager on the up personally). If the Greeks - or anyone else for that matter - care about these things, he's a Champions League winning player in his Real Madrid days with a pedigree that deserves respect. As a coach, he's young and fresh while, at the same time, has invaluable experience with Middlesbrough and a promotion on his CV. He's certainly a lot less polarising than many of the names on the bookies' list and seems to still attract affection from many Boro fans. You'd also like to think he'll only tweak the style and shape Warburton favoured, avoiding the need for a long and expensive tactical overhaul.

Of course, he isn't perfect. There remains a question mark about his falling out with the Boro hierarchy for starters. Yet the other major criticism - that he was overly defensive - seems churlish. Firstly, we're desperate for defensive solidity after a season and a half of leaking goals far too readily. Secondly, this suggestion applies most clearly to the caution Boro' demonstrated in the top flight, where they failed to score enough goals to retain their Premier League status. Frankly, we're a long way off the luxury of worrying about that.

We have to hope that Karanka is smart enough to be able to quickly weigh up what's he's inherited. The Arsenal game - still scarcely believable - demonstrated the breadth of young talent coming through the ranks. These players need to be nurtured, not replaced with journeymen signings - something that short termist thinking has caused in the past. The need for greater strength and quality, especially in defence, should hopefully also be apparent as the clock ticks away on the January window. No-one wants to see a repeat of the shambles of last January's transfer window (has anyone found Joao Teixeira yet?).

Those journalists with close contact to the new regime have certainly argued that the Warburton era will end up being written off as a false start for the Marinakis era and, with hindsight, will prove the right move. Without evidence to the contrary myself I'm keen to retain an open - and sceptical - mind. I like the look of Karanka, but I've learned not to get too attached to managers over recent years. You never can quite tell if a boss will be able to replicate their success in another club either. Gary Megson, now rightly maligned by Forest fans, arrived having done a job at West Brom that we'd have loved him to repeat on Trentside. It'd be wholly unfair to tar anyone, least alone a brand new manager, with the Megson brush, but his memory serves as a warning not to get too carried away.

Still, I am happy that we've recruited a good manager. That's only part of the puzzle but it is a big one. The next step should be to appoint a Director of Football to replace Frank McParland. It would certainly be a lot healthier if the person filling this berth isn't as closely linked to the man in the dugout this time.

Aitor Karanka seems clear about the challenge and the expectation ahead. He now needs the support to deliver. I don't know about you, but I'd quite like it if the merry-go-round ended its annual visit to the City Ground from now on.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Still on the road to recovery from intensive care

Intensive care. I can't help but keep thinking back to those two carefully chosen words, offered up by incoming Forest chairman Nicholas Randall to describe the club he was coming to.

In fact, the QC's open letter to fans in June is probably the most important document issued by the club in years. Reading it back now, halfway into the new regime's first season, the whole of this passage also stood out:
"Although we believe in aiming high, we also need to be realistic. The league table does not lie and, whether we like it or not, the club only just escaped relegation this season. To use the medical analogy the club is in intensive care. It is our job to ensure that we nurse the club back to health. It is rare in life for anything of value to come easily. So although we are all excited about the prospects for the club, we must make sure that each step taken is based on strong foundations. Furthermore, as with any journey in life, there will be mistakes made and some setbacks are also inevitable. We will no doubt stumble and occasionally fall, but we promise you that we will keep getting up again until the job is done."
This paragraph is pretty much the prism through which the whole season can be viewed and accurately outlines some of what we've seen since.

So, how are we getting on? Well, while Randall has been quiet since, you'd assume he'd have a slightly sunnier outlook for the club's medical condition.

Off the field, we feel like a proper club again. The commercial and marketing team has worked well, with smart offers and effective communication playing their part in helping to fill the City Ground. The efforts to reach out to fans and the community are also important and noteworthy. The change has been marked - and we've seen pretty much everything we called for in the chaotic mess of the Fawaz era be introduced by way of structure. The foundations Randall mentions have certainly been laid - we have to hope that they prove themselves to be strong when tested.

Am I wrong to still be a little worried about the allegations that persist around Evangelos Marinakis?  Clearly he should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, but there's a nagging concern that it isn't good for the club for him to be under question.

Yet off the field matters are, thankfully after the last couple of years, not primarily the cause of debate.

Results and points have, for me at least, been largely positive. After 24 games of last season we were five places lower in the table and five points worse off. In the calendar year to date, our league results read: P46 W17 D5 L24. Replicate that across 2016/17 and we'd finish with 56 points and in last season's table that would have been enough to finish 16th - again five points and five places better off. Given the steady downward trend under Fawaz, that's not to be sniffed at (and 16th in this division is our average league position this century).

Of course, football isn't about stats alone. Look beyond the numbers and it's fair to say that the team has shown flashes of real style. The QPR game was a joy to watch and, when it clicks, the larger City Ground crowds are treated to some exciting passing football - the sort of play we've often yearned for while under 'pragmatic' bosses such as Megson or Freedman.

Most of the signings made have been positive too. Instead of splurging money on the likes of Nicklas Bendtner, we've invested in younger, hungrier players with the capacity to improve (with the exception of the smart signing of Daryl Murphy to part-fill the Assombalonga void).

We've also continued to promote our academy stars. In some respects, the team has the feel of the early days of Paul Hart and we have to hope it bears similar results as the young players learn how to succeed in the tough environment of the Championship.

Yet, you'd be foolish to suggest everything that we've seen has been positive. The team loses far too many games and is, undoubtedly, in the midst of a sticky patch. Both within individual games - and within the season - they need to show the strength of character to get themselves out of a hole.

In many games, the team can fall flat - with matches such as Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday at home petering out into tame defeats. The first goal is too significant, confidence a fragile commodity and ruthlessness lacking. All are predictable with a young side but all need work going forward.

The defence - and the protection is receives - is also a concern. We're on course to ship even more goals than last season's 72 at the current rate (one stat that doesn't point to progress). Conceding that many goals is always likely to undermine whatever you're doing at the other end. The biggest failure in the summer was the inability to significantly strengthen in this weak area. Mark Warburton and Frank McParland had seen what we were like last term and ought really to have acted. Of course they may have been outbid by some of the freer spending members of the division (the likes of Birmingham perhaps) and they may have been constrained by the still-significant straitjacket of FFP, but it'd be nice to see a defensive reinforcement or two come through the door in the next month.

It also feels like there's perhaps a lack of leadership on the field, with captain Michael Mancienne seemingly not the figure we need to rally the troops. I appreciate that not every side can have a Stuart Pearce but a stronger leader, in whichever mould, would be welcome.

Yet, while it's fair to raise these concerns I do feel that these are all 'growing pains' associated with the work needed to bring the club out of intensive care. These are the mistakes, setbacks and stumbles that Randall predicted. I personally feel we've shown enough potential and progress to suggest that these things can be overcome in time. Anyone who expected a top six challenge this season must have been smoking something potent.

But you only need to go on Twitter after a game to see that there are some who don't feel this way. Sadly, some of the level of debate after a game is childish. There are those who, whether they'd admit it or not, appear to wish they had Fawaz back. That way they could have their public mardy and be heard again. Maybe they became addicted to the knee-jerk soap opera off the field and miss their fix of drama? Opposition fans must read some of the posts and laugh.

There are clearly some who don't like Mark Warburton. I feel that might partly be down to his character. He's not a charismatic talker in press conferences and, for some it seems, that matters. If he could joke, bluff or divert his way through an interview in the style of a Holloway or Warnock you feel some might be placated. Most managers spout the odd bit of rubbish, but those who do it with a twinkle in the eye or through a catchy soundbite seem to get away with it more. As it is, people hang on Warburton's every word and become unusually irritated by the odd bit of jargon or management speak.

There are those who feel the style of play is foolish too. I feel he's certainly chosen a brave way to play - and definitely not the easiest path to success - but the potential for exciting, dynamic, stylish football is there. Get better at it - as Warburton's Brentford did - and we could be on to something special. As Randall put it: "It's rare in life for anything of value to come easily."

It's also worth bearing in mind the esteem with which the manager is held by the ownership. Randall's letter explicitly stated that the regime wanted to encourage a passing game and praised the manager for his work to move towards this. It promised him time and stressed: "We believe that in Mark Warburton we have not just a good fit but the perfect fit for the role of manager of the club."

If Warburton were to leave - something which is hopefully fanciful in the current moment - you feel that the regime would want another manager like him. The style of play and approach to transfers is here to stay, regardless of the man in the dugout. The FFP question still looms too - with the club clearly wanting to unearth bargain players who can grow in stature and, in turn, value. A chequebook manager wouldn't fit the bill here in the post-Fawaz era.

Much has improved since the 'intensive care' letter. We have, for me at least, shown a decent level of progress out of the ashes of a relegation battle and the sale of a star striker. But, you don't step straight out of intensive care and start running a marathon. The road to recovery is going to require more hard work and more patience.