Monday, 24 November 2014

Brian Clough wouldn't have been given the chance to work his Forest miracle these days

October 28, 2014: People often ask how successful Brian Clough would have been if he were a manager in the modern era.

It’s an interesting one to ponder but a stat this week got me thinking that, frankly, if Clough The Second Coming were visited upon us, the whole thing would probably have been nipped in the bud before it even began.

Why? Well, as several people have pointed out over the weekend, his record when he first came wasn’t that great.

Old Big ‘Ead’s first 17 games brought just two wins.

I like Fawaz. His almost childlike enthusiasm for the club is infectious. However, you’d have to say that the current owner would have sacked the man whose fairytale story attracted him to Trentside based on that record.

And, to be fair, many fans would be happy with the decision. There’d have even been a #cloughout hashtag I’m sure.

I’m not judging by the way, I often find myself getting carried away by the modern obsession with rushing to judgement. It’s easy to be swept up in a sea of hype.

I’m not sure what’s to blame – maybe it’s the fact football has become such a big money business that causes owners to reach for the trigger out of panic and fans to demand value for their expensive tickets? Maybe it’s the increased media spotlight that focuses attention on short-term results and encourages rush judgements. Or maybe it’s that as a society we’re obsessed with getting what we want instantly at the touch of a button, making us all less patient.

By comparison to Clough, Pearce’s start has been very strong (W7 D7 L3) yet some still grumble. There’s plenty that needs to be improved but the side is still developing – and still coming to terms with losing the spine of Hobbs, Reid and Cohen.

This isn’t the first time Clough’s stats from the start of his era have been dragged up. It’s a common way to show how surprisingly well a new incumbent is doing. I’m not suggesting Pearce will go on to ‘do a Clough’ but it’s a handy way of proving that a few draws and defeats early on should not lead to a rushed judgement.

It’s also timely to reflect on the figures as Leeds United bring the curtain down on the reign of Darko Milanic after a 12-days-shorter-than-Cloughie 32 days.

Football is barmy. I don’t blame anyone in particular for getting taken in by the madness but when reacting to the next defeat or bad run, I’m going to promise myself I’ll linger on the sobering thought that, in this strange era, Clough wouldn’t have had chance to work his miracle.

Article first appeared on Seat Pitch here:

Psycho returned but it was all about another left footed talisman

August 12, 2014: It was all about Him. The man with the magnificent left foot. The fans’ favourite who left but then came back to the fold. The man who dominated the opening day of the season.

The new manager? No, I’m talking about Andy Reid.

Yes, Pearce was always going to take the headlines from his first game back in the City Ground hot seat – and his raucous reception was a brilliant way to kick off a season – but, once the dust settled, the on-pitch matters were all about our mercurial Irish talisman.

Everything came through Reid as he helped put his former charges to the sword.

At times in the first-half he appeared to have the ball on a string – with it barely spending time apart from that magic wand of a left foot.

Yes, he may be ‘all left foot’, but what a left foot! Reid has such control of this footballing magic wand that he’s able to play ‘right footed’ passes with a dextrous bend of his ankle.

He relished having wingers to spray balls out to, and eager strikers with energy and movement to interchange with. At times it gave hope that we have shed off the pedestrian plodding attack that held us back in the last campaign.

It’s no coincidence that it was his rasping shot that helped to break the deadlock on the 25th minute, the effort coming off the post to gift Michail Antonio a debut goal.

I read a pundit’s verdict of Reid last season that suggested that if had he ever had the chance to play in Italy he would’ve been coached into a top-drawer playmaker.

It’d be churlish to say ‘Andrea Pirlo’ – but it’s the classy playmaker role in that sort of mould that he’s made his own now at this level as he’s migrated from the wing play of his early days.

Almost as impressive as his passes and pirouettes were his tackles. This was a tenacious display in which he did the ‘ugly’ stuff pretty well – even throwing in a momentum-checking foul in for good measure. Hardly something to wax lyrical about I know but how many times have you been sitting in the stands tearing your hair out as our midfield does a more-than-passable statue impression as an opposition player runs through unchecked?

Yes, we don’t want Michael Brown levels of fouling – but unless you are streetwise in the Championship you’ll be bullied into submission by even the most average of outfits; as we’ve learned the hard way under Calderwood and McClaren.

Even as our attacking threat faded away in the second-half Reid kept chasing, tackling, twisting, turning and passing – ensuring that we didn’t sleepwalk into letting Jose Riga’s side back into the game.

In one sense Pearce can rest easy that his team talks can come down to four words. ‘Give it to Reid’. But he’ll be mindful of the fact that the opposition could boil theirs down to the even-more-succinct ‘Stop Reid’.

That’s where you’d like to think that the creative burden can be shared a little by the currently-injured duo of Lansbury and Vaughan.

You’d also like to hope that the likes of Burke – who scored a superb curled second to seal the win – Antonio and Paterson can stretch teams on the flanks to the extent that they will struggle to crowd out the middle of the park. Effective wide men also give Reid the perfect outlet if he gets the ball in tight midfield areas.

Reid’s partner in crime for this curtain raiser was Chris Cohen. He returned after so long at left-back that it was something of a surprise to see him in his previous position.

In a way though the spell at left-back – and he may well return there if circumstances dictate – could have improved him as a midfielder, with his tackling and reading of the game both enhanced by taking on a defensive role.

I thought Cohen often lacked the composure on the ball to match his lung-busting energy and that meant he struggled to impose himself on games unless assisted by a McKenna-style general by his side.

This game saw him rise to the challenge – with his energy and work rate freeing up space for Reid to dictate.

Of course it’s easy to rush to a judgment after one game. Let’s not patronise Blackpool. They may have been hastily put together after a tough summer but the side contained quality and promise in the likes of Orlandi and Delfouneso.

But it is fair to say we will have tougher tests ahead. Whether the midfield has enough defensive toughness remains to be seen, while Pearce is also sadly yet to be able field his first-choice defence as last season’s injury woes hang over to the new era.

Mancienne looked good although had little to do save for mopping up a couple of the stand-in Fox’s positional mishaps.

When it came to new signings, the strike force also showed flashes of promise. Assombalonga looks to be the sort of forward who is not happy if even five minutes of a game goes by without him getting a shot away – as is befitting of a hungry big-money signing.

Fryatt, so long a player on the Forest radar, displayed a clever touch and will surely relish playing with Reid once the two develop an understanding.

All this must have offered cheer to the smartly-suited Psycho, who really looked to be relishing his return to Trentside.

I once saw him crouched like a cricket slip-fielder, looking as though he fancied running on and defending a set-piece himself. Towards the end of the game he was so keen to grasp the ball that he nearly took it off a Blackpool player while it was still on the field and in play.

He’s lucky not to have had to sign a player with the passion, desire and sheer class of Reid.

Let’s hope he can continue to get the best out of him.

Article first appeared on Seat Pitch here:

Monday, 2 June 2014

No need to push the City Ground reset button again

Well, that was an almightily balls up wasn't it? 2013/14 is a season heading straight for the bin marked 'waste of time'...or is it? Is there a crumb of comfort to be rescued from the wreckage? As it happens, not just a crumb but hopefully much more than that (a slice?!).

It started off ok, probably more brightly that your average Billy season, and even featuring an impressive 3-0 win over a Bolton Wanderers side that this writer laughably thought would challenge.

Then, after the obligatory home defeat on the birthday of yours truly to Reading (cheers lads, still not quite as bad as the 0-4 reverse to Leeds a couple of seasons ago), Billy's boys went up a gear and powered through a 16-game unbeaten league and cup run.

At that point a tilt at the title still looked a little way off, but the race for second place wasn't too fanciful and a play-off spot was surely on the horizon.

And then it happened. The meltdown of Shakespearean proportions befell Trentside, eventually sweeping away Billy 'Macbeth' Davies and his team amid an ever-fractious environment.

Gary Brazil laudably brought in some calm - and a couple of kids - and there was a glimmer of false hope just to ensure we couldn't properly relax as the season finished. But, if we're honest, it was never going to be our season after a bizarre month-and-a-bit stretching from the cup defeat at Sheffield United on February 16 (we would've been a home game vs Charlton away from Wembley) to the pathetic display down the road on March 22.

The end of the Davies era has been, rightly, dissected from all angles - with the laughing stock press conferences (my highlight being when he once posed his very own question to himself and then answered with a 'no comment'), the clashes with photographers and 'legal advice' not to discuss his own team's performance following games while he served a touchline ban all mulled over. Billy's own bland 'it is what it is' mantra became a tongue-in-cheek catchphrase among the fans, a bit of dark humour from the masses to rail against the Davies dictatorship.

If we're honest, all or most of that trouble was looming large in the sidelines even when things were going well. It just took 8 games without a win - particularly the painful sheep dip showing - to convince Fawaz that it was time to part ways.

It could, of course, be argued that it was injuries that cost us really. Add Reid, Wilson, Cohen, Hobbs, Lansbury, Lichaj into the side in March and we would, surely, have done better - especially with Reid's magic wand of a left foot to conjure something from nothing.

But can injuries be purely put down to bad luck? The sheer volume of those on the treatment table at least causes you to question if more could not have been done to a- keep the players fit and b-not sign players that were unfit.

Bad luck or bad management - we might never know on the injury score but the alarming slide meant Davies' demise proved inevitable.

So that's it - wash our hands with the whole episode, etch the Natalie Jackson interviews from our memory, forget the 'unfinished business' hashtag and start again?

Well, maybe not. Two years ago we were still facing the prospect of attracting an owner. We'd had the failed McClaren experiment and the watch-through-your-fingers Cotterill rescue to endure. When Fawaz bought the club and appointed Sean O'Driscoll we had barely a month to piece together a back four without a defender on the books. With that much upheaval you're always going to struggle to succeed.

This time it should be different. The last two years as a whole were a mess. Although backed with money, SOD was sacked after precious little time to put a side together, McLeish was just a terrible mistake and then came the rise and fall of BD round two. But, if we set aside the managerial merry-go-round, the basics of a team/squad have emerged from those ashes.

Stuart Pearce (*resists the temptation to pause blogging for a Psycho fist pump*) should come in on July 1 with much less to do transfer wise than either of the last two pre-season incumbents. Why? Well, when fit, there's no reason why the following nine players can't be part of a Pearce line-up come August: Darlow, Lichaj, Cohen, Hobbs, Wilson, Reid, Lansbury, Vaughan, Paterson.

Add to that:

Lascelles - perhaps harshly missed off that list but bound to be needed given the injury record of messrs Hobbs and Wilson

Fox - who is better than he showed here last season - especially given his background from dead ball situations

Halford - maligned by some but does have a good touch and football brain, if not a preferred position. In some ways the 'perfect sub' since he can cover for anyone else

Mackie - a hard worker who just lacks finesse

de Vries - an able deputy at this level

Osborn - looks a natural 'Forest midfielder' and really took to first team action when thrown in under Brazil

McLaughlin - also stepped in towards the end of the season, looks a little raw but will hopefully benefit from the experience and could push for a place on the bench

Then there's players we may be 'stuck with' and have to find some use for...

Majewski - has proved himself to be pretty unreliable over the years, performs in fits and starts but goes missing too often and makes mistakes that leave you tearing your hair out

Cox - a huge disappointment in the Garibaldi Red. Has shown very very occasional flashes of the talent he possesses but looks far behind the player he showed himself to be at Swindon and West Brom. Maybe a Pearce sized boot up the posterior could get something out of the Irishman?

I'd move Henderson, Harding and Collins towards the exit door if possible - all have proven to be below the quality needed for the top end of the table and are surely no better than what Brazil might be able to prepare for us from the academy.

Pearce wants a smaller squad apparently so that probably only leaves 3/4 berths to fill. Of those nine starters mentioned you could either see that 'core' as two banks of four that simply need two strikers to round it off or as a creative midfield that needs a tackler behind it and striker in front, or a natural 433 that needs a striker and another attacking winger.

In essence I'd like to see that core of nine being adapted to be play as all three of those formations. Pearce's shopping list should definitely have a tackler on it to free up Reid, Lansbury and Vaughan to run games, with Paterson just off a front man. Too often we pushed Vaughan and Reid very deep to paper over the fact there was little or no 'screening' for the back four. That can only be to the detriment of players whose talents lie elsewhere. The others used in this role - Moussi, Greening and Jara - have all been moved on.

The shopping list should also, most obviously, have strikers on it. Yes, maybe one that can peel wide as a modern winger-cum-striker but absolutely top of the list should be an out-and-out goalscorer. Forget the departing Miller and Derbyshire, the deteriorating Henderson or the mis-firing Cox, this needs to be a proper 20-goal figurehead. Reid, Lansbury and Paterson managed 29 goals between them in a stop-start season, a proper striker on top of that would make us an altogether more deadly prospect.

I'm sure Pearce knows this of course but it is worth reflecting on the fact that, despite everything that has gone on, if we sort our fitness out we are just three or four players away from having a pretty good side - maybe just two from the starting 11. Yes strikers occupy probably the hardest, and certainly most expensive, of positions to fill but we've got (and had) plenty of time to look and it's refreshing to think that what we require isn't a massive rebuilding job, it's a sensible 'building on what we've got' job.

All that may not be the sexy 'clear them all out and start again' territory that excites some but, as we've seen, that sort of thing doesn't bring overnight success. Everyone praises Leicester for building a side and developing over time. If we utilise the decent core of players that I think we have then there's absolutely no reason to think we can't look back and consider these last two years as being ones in which we've 'built' towards our long-term goal.

Of course, it isn't all about players. But you do feel that Pearce and his staff should bring the leadership, enthusiasm and calm to the dugout that should help to move his side in the right direction. If he's scouted sensibly then let's hope he can get those couple of players in early, get a decent, injury-free pre-season under our collective belts and then definitely ensure we haven't been wasting our time for two turbulent years.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Psycho? Bring it on

I've changed my tune. You see I used to be firmly in the 'I don't want Psycho back as manager, it'd tarnish his reputation' camp. Like many, I was filled with dread at the thought of my all time favourite player being remembered for getting the boot after a tame defeat and murmurings of discontent. 

It's the sort of negative, safety first thinking that you get after watching Forest over the years. But is it not time to set that aside and be happy about the possible return of a hero? Come on then, why not...

First of all, is it not time to challenge the 'he's a terrible manager' line that is often trotted out?

Yes, he doesn't have the greatest reputation but what are we judging that on? Pearce's under-21 tenure? Well, I'll be the first to admit I was underwhelmed at what I saw from his teams at big tournaments. We looked short of imagination and real quality when it came to taking on the top teams under pressure. 

Playing devil's advocate (or Pl***'s mate if you would) for a second and you'd have to point out that Pearce's side reached a Euro final and semi final - and was badly shorn of talent at an albeit dreadful 2013 tournament in Israel. This comes on the back of failing to qualify in 2004 (under that man Pl***) and 2006. Indeed we also failed to make it to five consecutive tournaments in the 90s. And freezing on the big stage at a tournament, when actually there, is hardly a trait hampering Pearce's England U21s alone. 

What about at City? Well his tenure seems now to be part of a mere footnote in the time between the club's return to the top flight and the takeover/big money era that began under Sven. He finished lower mid table in consecutive seasons (albeit flirting with the wrong end of the table in the second). This was a City where the likes of Ag├╝ero, Negredo and Dzeko were yet to be seen, with the hopes resting instead on the likes of Vassell, Mpenza and Dickov. Was he a resounding success? No. A disaster? No.

Our job, we have to admit, is also not on the same level than either the under-21s or City. Judging Pearce from the prism of top Premier League management is different to judging him at the level we're at. You'd like to think those experiences should have taught him a fair bit and, hopefully, got him some credit and contacts with some good young players.

There's no denying that the name and character of Pearce should be a positive and unifying force for the club. Is that important? Well, in the light of the Davies era it probably is. The reaction of senior and respected figures in the media to the wee Scot's departure speaks volumes. Quite simply he had enemies. Who cares about a few hacks? Well, reputation matters, especially if Fawaz wants to extend marketing opportunities by building a 'brand'. You also worry that the public utterances of these journalists have been echoed in private by possible transfer targets and opposition clubs. We need a great deal of water to flow under Trent Bridge now to get back our good name. Pearce's appointment may well quicken the tide.

Excitement aside it may not be seen as a sensible appointment. But, then again, where have sensible appointments got us? Pl*** and Megson made sense at the time, or do I thought. Nigel Doughty was, if we're honest, almost too logical and businesslike in his picks. A man who won the most Premier League manager of the months in Kinnear, a man with a track record in discipline and getting promotion at West Brom in Megson, a former England manager in McClaren. All laudable reasons but all not long term 'fits'. And anyway if the sensible option this time is the odious Warnock then you can stick being sensible. Maybe let's try 'heart over head'?

Pearce the player ought to be an inspiration beyond the stands too. His thunderous tackles, unstoppable free kicks and marauding forward runs were pure brilliance. Those qualities made him England captain and if you're not inspired to play for someone like that then there's something wrong with you. I appreciate that in itself is simplistic and confuses managerial and footballing ability but you'd like to think that, in some way, what he did on the field mattered and mattered to more than just us.

I used to feel sad that I'd missed the glorious European days and even the 80s when cup finals and high league finishes were the norm. But then came the days of Pl*** and Megson and I realised that I was pretty lucky. I went to Wembley twice in 1992 in the last days of the Clough empire (in fact as last winners, do we still count as holders of the Zenith Data Systems trophy?!). I also got to enjoy the Frank Clark side that followed. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I feel sorry for the fans who missed out on Collymore, Roy, Cooper, Chettle, Woan, Stone, Crossley and - most definitely above all - Pearce. Frankly whatever Psycho does in the dugout will do nothing to diminish his legendary player status. He's my favourite player and why should that change? The goals, crosses, tackles etc live on in the memory regardless. 

The fact that he's a legend doesn't mean he'll automatically be a success here as a manager but it does mean he deserves our respect and support even more. Just imagine how good it'd be to have a successful 150th anniversary with Psycho leading the charge. The prospect of a fist pump to the crowd and accompanying 'Psycho' chant is almost enough alone to ease any lingering fears.

One of my favourite Pearce memories wasn't even in a Forest shirt, or indeed an England one. It came at Maine Road on March 30 2002. Pearce was captain, of course, of Kevin Keegan's free scoring side that roared to promotion in the last season for Man City at their old ground. We, on the other hand, were a little timid and yet to find the passing verve that Paul Hart managed in his second season. Hart deployed Marlon Harewood on the right wing, directly up against Pearce. He was, predictably, too strong, clever and classy for poor-old Marlon, who barely had a kick. We lost 3-0 to a Darren Huckerby hat trick and, with the game a lost cause for the most part, the travelling Trickies cheered on Psycho. Pearce didn't flinch. Ever the pro he remained focused on the task in hand, albeit one that seemed a little too easy. With his name still echoing around the away end come full time he headed off with the rest of his teammates, satisfied at a job well done. And that was that. Except it wasn't. Business done for the day, Pearce trotted back out over to us, gave us an old school fist pump, chucked his shirt in the crowd and revelled in the raucous 'Psycho, Psycho, Psycho' chant. A class act and an icon. To twist a Billyism, he is what he is.

Am I dreaming? Probably. But, hell, barring another George Boyd-esque u turn it looks like it is about to happen. Let's enjoy the ride. Psycho is, after all, our leader.