Friday, 27 January 2017

The Clough dilemma: Fans and Nigel both torn over job approach

Nigel Clough has got a dilemma this weekend. Does he ask for permission to have talks with Forest, a job he's apparently long fancied a crack at? Or does he stick by Burton Albion and try to finish the job of keeping the Brewers in the second tier?

Yet, he's not the only one with a dilemma. Many Forest fans seem torn over whether or not they want him to take charge of the club. How will we feel in either scenario.

Nigel Clough on the touchline at the City Ground
(Photo: Diego Sideburns, Flickr)
It's a tough one isn't it? First of all, I'm a huge fan of Nigel Clough. Even if you set aside his family name, this is a man who is our second best scorer of all time. He is a genuine Forest legend and deserves our total respect. The 'non-league Nigel' stuff thrown about in the heat of the battle when he was Derby manager must be consigned to the past.

Some people felt a little let down by his behaviour as Derby boss but that's probably more a reaction to the fact that we didn't like seeing 'our number nine' show passion with a ruddy ram on his jacket. Paul Severn summed it up the rivalry for Seat Pitch back in 2013:
Clough displayed the same fierce will to win as Derby manager and the fixture took a more explosive context, rather than a thaw that might have been expected with a Forest favourite managing Derby. Billy Davies was keen to pay back Derby for his sacking and Clough was in no mood to surrender easy points. After a number of ugly derby-day incidents, Clough’s popularity amongst Forest fans plummeted. Perhaps the feeling was mutual. And what made things worse was that Clough proved rather adept at beating Forest. And it hurt.
Given what we've seen of Billy Davies it is perhaps no wonder that he relished taking the man on and beating him so much.

Whether that rivalry upset you or not, it's over now and it's time to move on. The reception he got when he returned at Burton Albion was heartwarming and if you doubt what the club means to the man then just watch him talk about his time at Forest:

Yet, does that all mean we should leave things as they are? It would be a shame if taking charge of the club somehow diminished or damaged the reputation he deserves. Worse still, it'd be a crying shame if he was only being approached to be manager to deflect attention away from the owner.

Nigel deserves better than to be ringmaster of the Fawaz circus and Fawaz doesn't deserve to get off the hook so easily. There's no doubt that the focus would certainly move away from the ownership if the Clough family legacy were to be continued on Trentside. It would, after all, make for a 'good story'.

Then there's the question of Nigel's managerial credentials, which some feel are modest.

While it's fair to say Nigel might not have had the greatest success in his time in the dugout, he is someone who has experience of operating in the second tier on a shoestring budget, both at Derby and Burton. At Derby, he stabilised the club after the disastrous Paul Jewell era and probably set the foundations in place for a period of promotion challenges that followed. His Burton side is competitive and isn't out of the race for survival.

He took Sheffield United to two cup semi finals, although failed to get them back to the Championship. A Blades fan I trust said they did become 'terrible' toward the end of his reign and said that his signings he made were poor...although did at least prefer him to his successor Nigel Adkins.

A mixed bag then, but you have to remember the market we're in. The likes of Gary Rowett don't want to work for Fawaz and he's greatly damaged the reputation of the club. If Nigel didn't have such a strong link to the club then there wouldn't even be a dilemma to resolve.

Nigel is experienced and would be able to steady the ship. As much as I respect Gary Brazil and Jack Lester, a 20-game stint would be an awful long caretaker spell. Personally, and I know not everyone feels the same, I'd feel a little less nervous about relegation if we had a more established manager at the helm. I've advocated Kenny Jackett as a calm, sensible, stable figure to lead us to safety - Nigel could fit that bill. We do, after all, need to stay in this league if we're going to be able to attract a buyer and get shut of Fawaz.

There'd certainly be no danger of Clough not understanding the club and its odd combination of history, yearning for a style and expectation of results. Indeed, this is a man who had to live with being the 'manager's son' for his entire Forest playing career so he's already learned to live with that 'Brian Clough legacy pressure' in a way that the club hasn't. At the soap opera that is Nottingham Forest, a Clough return seems like an obvious plot development.

Still, the biggest issue is what Nigel makes of it all. It might turn out to be a tale of two chairmen and, if it does, he'll surely stick with Ben Robinson. His stewardship of Burton has been superb and puts Fawaz to shame. Nigel has personal and emotional ties with Burton that must be every bit as strong as those he has for Forest and we'd do well not to forget all of that. Is it worth jacking all of that in to get sacked here in six months?

On the flip side of the coin is Fawaz. The man who criticised Dougie Freedman's style of play, blames Billy Davies and Stuart Pearce for a transfer embargo and is seemingly now taking responsibility for signings himself. Whether he likes it or not he's an interfering owner and someone who could put anyone off. He's showed no sign of learning a single lesson from the mess he's made of the club either, something that was abundantly clear in his interview with Natalie Jackson this week.

Of course, you could look at this another way. Clough could use the fact that the club's owner is under pressure to force him to agree to what he'd want. His dad certainly knew how to 'play' a chairman to get his own way. Fawaz, who seemed rattled in his interview, might think backing Clough would get people off his back so that he can return to the process of looking for signings. The words 'could' and 'might' are important there though.

I'm torn, therefore. I like Nigel and think he could do a job to ensure the club survives in the Championship. But the fact that I like him also means that I don't want him to be the next man to be burned by the Fawaz regime and I certainly don't want the owner to be able to hide behind a club legend and escape the spotlight.

If he decides to come, I'll be right behind him. We'd owe him nothing less than our full support. Yet, I'd also respect him for staying at Burton.

It's not an easy dilemma for anyone involved but as Tuesday looms - with the transfer window set to close and a crucial game against Rotherham to be played - this weekend has to end with a decision.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Philippe Montanier: The dead man walking who struggled with an impossible job

The history books will show that Philippe Montanier was given the sack on January 14 but, in essence, his brief reign at the City Ground really ended on August 28th.

August 27th, the day before the sale of Oliver Burke, had been a happy one. A third win of the season kept up the perfect start at home, with Leeds put to the sword. The threat of Monk's men had finally been nullified by a late and decisive blow from the ace up Philippe's smartly tailored sleeves - Burke netting for a fourth time in the season. Not only that, but the manager been given assurances that the 'Scottish Gareth Bale' would not be sold.

The sale of Oliver Burke the next day must have come as a hammer blow. Philippe had no time to spend the incoming money that, according to the boasts of the owner, had been a 'good deal'. None of us really knows whether he would have had it to spend anyway. Regardless of that, the sale undermined Philippe and set the tone. This wasn't a club on the up, aiming to challenge with bright young talent after all. It wasn't a job where you could succeed and make a difference, it was a job where you tried to prolong the sack for as long as you could.

That Montanier only finally lost his job in January is more down to the protracted takeover talks than anything else and it can't have been easy knowing that he was not the choice of either the current or future owner. No-one can blame him for sticking around to get his pay-off - that's pretty much the only perk to taking up the City Ground hotseat these days.

It feels such a shame that Philippe became just the latest in the list of managerial victims of the Fawaz regime. He cut a dashing figure on the touchline, delivered excitement on the pitch, blooded our youngsters, extolled the virtues of cheese and genuinely seemed a ruddy nice bloke. There was even a song for him, to the tune of Blondie's Denis, that deserved greater use.

Still, Philippe was the head coach in a continental-style club structure that, along with the Greek takeover, never materialised. Director of Football Pedro Pereira was soon gone, leaving the Frenchman the sole survivor of an abandoned strategy that could only have worked if we'd ever inserted the other pieces of the puzzle.

On top of all that, he must've been scratching his head at the never-ending injury saga which continues to be forgotten about amid Fawaz's circus.

That's not to say the former Real Sociedad boss was perfect, far from it. Over time, he took the bad hand he's been dealt and played it badly. He struggled to settle on a line-up, deployed players out of position and managed just two clean sheets, one in his last game. His teams weren't solid enough or good enough on the ball to dominate for long periods and suffered as a result.

Even victories left us scratching our heads at times. While Philippe can take much credit from the spirited showings in the early home games or at Villa away, say, the signs were there in all of those performances that there were many flaws in the team and squad.

None of us knows if he had any say in the transfers or whether that was the sole preserve of Pedro Pereira. The sad fact, however, is that none of the new arrivals has really worked. You could make a clear case that our best XI would not include any summer signings.

Then there were moments - such as the penalty argument between Henri Lansbury and Britt Assombalonga or Eric Lichaj switching positions with Matty Cash - in which you questioned his control over the squad. His laid-back approach probably wasn't suited to players that needed a boot up the proverbial.

Still, that criticism is harsh for a man who maintained his dignity and professionalism amid chaos. He'll at least be able to write off his failure as being a product of the conditions at a 'crisis club'.

His will be another reign defined by 'what ifs'. What if the Greeks had taken over? What if he'd been part of a proper club structure? What if he'd not had his bright young star sold against his wishes? What if he'd been able to pick from a fully fit squad?

Au revoir Philippe. No hard feelings, eh?

Saturday, 14 January 2017

What next for Forest after takeover collapse?

We've been a football club on ice for some weeks now. The Champagne has been on ice in expectation of the American takeover and talks of a protest were on ice with a sale in the pipeline. The ice melted last night and a fiery and uncertain future now surely awaits.

In some respects, the failure of the takeover should be no shock. When there's Fawaz Al-Hasawi and paperwork involved things tend not to end well, do they? Recent delays only served to make me nervous. With Forest, you always have to expect the worst don't you? Doubly so with Fawaz's Forest.

It doesn't seem like either party can be completely absolved of blame here. The Americans are said to have tried to drive the price down at the last minute and they do have form - getting close and failing to buy two other clubs. Fawaz, though, also has form in courting would-be buyers and failing to get them to agree to terms which, according to some reports, have been laughable.

Yet one thing I can't get my head around is quite why the sale was ever even close to £50 million in the first place, given the losses we regularly post. Surely only the very distant carrot of the Premier League can justify that? Maybe the Americans realised just how far away we are on and off the pitch after having time to assess the mess Fawaz has created?

Regardless, Fawaz is the one left amid the ruins and he'll now shoulder the blame. How much of his 'investment' does he really think he'll recover if we slip down the trap door and end up in League One? We're probably already worth less today as a result of the image of chaos we're projecting to the wider football world. Protests are now inevitable - starting with those hardy souls travelling to Birmingham today.

It used to be the case that I worried about protests against his regime. I feared he might just cut his losses and leave us in administration. Given his ego - and the fact he's learned nothing - it seems he wants to plough on for the time being by himself. Yet we're now left pondering whether or not administration, a 10-point deduction and near-certain relegation would be preferable to relegation anyway under Fawaz.

Even if by some miracle we stay up this season under a new boss, does anyone really think we won't slip further backwards under Fawaz in the next few years? League One beckons.

So, what are we left with in the short term? A 'dead man walking' manager, who was seemingly the choice of a long-abandoned alternative path, leading a band of bargain bin recruits, overrated and underperforming senior pros and young kids who risk being ruined by it all.

You do have to wonder how many of the players have asked their agent to hit the phones and find them a way out of the club in January. Whatever we think of the players, I can't imagine they're that enamoured by working for Fawaz for much longer.

A fire sale of Henri Lansbury, Ben Osborn, Ben Brereton, Matty Cash, Britt Assombalonga etc. could well happen, especially if Fawaz needs the money to run the club. Don't even mention the Oliver Burke money.

Then there's the manager. Philippe Montanier has been dealt a shockingly bad hand in his time at the City Ground yet, in recent weeks in particular, he hasn't played his poor hand very well. Maybe deep down he's resigned to his fate? Absolutely no-one would be surprised to see him join Steve McClaren and Alex McLeish in the list of managers sacked after games against Birmingham. A 'Sunday sacking' defines us more than anything we do on the pitch these days.

You'd have to wonder then who would be daft enough to follow him into the hotseat. Certainly not Gary Rowett, who was exactly the sort of manager we need and someone only within reach if we had been taken over. We'll no doubt end up dumping the burden on Gary Brazil and Jack Lester, distracting them from their work on the academy.

Protests, fire sales, a sacking and, in all probability, more listless displays on the pitch - grim times indeed.

Monday, 2 January 2017

In 2017 let's build a club fit for our academy graduates

This time last year I tried to prove that 2015 hadn't been all bad in a piece for In The Top One. Sadly, as we look back at 2016, I'm not sure there are many positives all to take from a pretty poor 12 months.

For 2015, I pointed to the following eight points:
  1. Beating Derby twice
  2. I Believe In Miracles
  3. The Peter Taylor Stand
  4. The 'honeymoon home wins' of the early Freedman days
  5. Reading away and *those* three goals
  6. The 150th anniversary
  7. Tyler Walker
  8. The necessary budget trimming
In the last 12 months we've lost twice to the Sheep and that 'necessary' budget trimming hasn't really laid the foundations that we hoped it would, with the club's future now on hold until a takeover can be completed. However, while the anniversary events can't happen every year, it's been good to see Forza Garibaldi, the trust and Bandy and Shinty emerge and take the baton on.

There haven't been that many highlights on the field either have there? The first win for ages at Boro was a pleasant surprise and MK Dons away - with Britt's comeback goal - ended a poor season on a good note. At home, the early season 4-3s were fun - although set a worrying precedent for the defensive frailty to come. Arsenal in the league cup sparked great interest and ended up being a chastening experience. 

Oddly, the most fun I've had this year at a game was probably at Villa away. A frenetic 2-2 with two really good goals and a cracking atmosphere in a proper ground that made for a big occasion. We didn't win but we had character and offered hope that things would get better.

Villa away

We finish 2016 with the following league record:

P46 W13 D12 L21 F56 A68

In some respects that set of results is entirely in keeping with the steady downward trend of the Fawaz era. If that were a season it'd mean 51 points and, based on last season's table, would've put us four points and four places below what we managed in 2015/16.

We kept just seven clean sheets in 2016 - and four of those were in a row within the first six games of the year as Dougie Freedman's 13-game unbeaten run came to an end. We've been far too easy to beat and, frustratingly, not that many of the teams to walk away with a point or three from the City Ground have looked that great.

Point 7 of my 2015 list was Tyler Walker. Somewhat disappointingly 'our Tyler' hasn't kicked on but the one big plus of 2016 surely has to be the performance of the academy players. The likes of Matty Cash and Joe Worrall have joined Ben Osborn as key fixtures on the first team scene and there are several more on the brink of a breakthrough. We now need a professional club with the sort of structure that can look after these players properly and continue their development. They should be the bedrock of the squad - with smart signings used to fill any gaps and add some experience. I'm fed up of signing bang average players who sit in the way of academy players that are probably better.

While the academy brought great joy in 2016, it's biggest and brightest talent was lost to us just as he threatened to break out and become a real superstar. Oliver Burke's sale to Red Bull Leipzig left a sour taste and killed much of the remaining sympathy towards the Fawaz regime while also taking the wind out of the sails of Philippe Montanier's bright start.

Which leads us to 2017. This year has to provide a new start and not just mark another in the list of false dawns. None of us should be under any illusions. Being taken over won't automatically stop us going down. The new owners will need an industrial sized Brasso to polish the turd they've been left. A lot of the work they have to do will be off the field and it might well take time to filter through. 

In 12 months time I'd like to have a club fit for our academy lads to graduate into. If so, 2017 could be the start of something better at the City Ground. The next few days need to be our 'zero hour' - marking a fresh new start where we move away from the failure of the Fawaz era. It can't come soon enough can it?

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Fawaz's tweets show he's learned nothing from four years of failure

There's an unhealthy sense of 'here we go again' when Fawaz tweets isn't there? Last night's social media missives showed, once again, that he's learned very little from four years of failure at the City Ground.

First of all came the unedifying spectacle of young Ben Brereton's contract announcement seemingly being rushed out to detract away from yet another paperwork fiasco.

That should have been a moment to rejoice - yet another academy star set to emerge from the production line. Instead it came at a time when the club was having to explain away yet another red tape cock up.

It might only be a 'formality' but the fact is that failure to provide financial paperwork to the FA has caused us to be placed in yet another transfer embargo. It might be easily solved when the takeover is complete but it really shouldn't have happened and it can't have impressed John Jay Moores and co. There's a way to bow out with dignity and professionalism and this is not it.

Worse still came in Fawaz's replies to fans. Now, you might argue that Fawaz gets a lot of unnecessary abuse on Twitter and I'm sure he does. There's no excuse for violent or abusive language directed towards anyone. To be honest, I've always felt that anyone who descends into dropping the 'c bomb' diminishes any point they might want to make. I'm no prude but there's no need.

However, right from the start Fawaz has revelled in the attention he has been able to get on social media. He's made transfer announcements and released other club news through the medium of 140 characters. He's set the tone and should've known that there would be rough to come with the smooth. It's easy to say you want to have a direct line to the fans but that does mean having to keep your cool when you don't like what you hear from them.

Last night he became defensive over a sarcastic comment about the Oliver Burke money.

The more I think about this tweet, the more I think it sums up what has gone wrong under Fawaz's leadership.

Firstly, it's hardly the language of someone who wants to be seen as a serious businessman is it? In fact, it sounds pretty petty to me.

Secondly, Fawaz has to accept that the reason why he's being ridiculed for the sale of Oliver Burke is because it looks set to be a spectacularly bad piece of business. Fawaz himself boasted about what a great deal he'd got for the prodigal winger and gave a confusing set of interviews in which he hinted that the manager would have the money to spend in January. Does anyone think we'll ever see any of that cash spent on the playing staff? If the money was, in reality, needed for FFP then we've been misled and Burke has been sacrificed to cover up Fawaz's failings. Either way, it's a mess.

Then there's the sheer hypocrisy of the question in his tweet. Do we know how much Fawaz has put into the club? Well, no actually. But, funnily enough, neither does the FA. The fact is that if Fawaz had bothered to fill out the paperwork and say how much he'd spent then we wouldn't be in an embargo and the new owner wouldn't have a mess to mop up. What awful timing to be trying to score that particular point.

Then there's the word 'invest'. A more accurate alternative would surely be 'waste'. Fawaz has poured money into inflated contracts and fees for average players and fired a succession of managers. His only plan has been to spend more to try to paper over the cracks. However much Fawaz has spent, it's said to be in the region of £100 million, the fact is that he could have got away with spending half the amount if he'd run the club properly and might well have got us to the Premier League. The sole reason he has spent quite so much is because the money he's stumped up has been used badly.

Money is necessary in the mad world of the Championship, yes, but organisation and structure are worth their weight in gold. The fact that he still sees his money as an 'investment' makes me think he hasn't learned a jot. His legacy is to leave a club with zero structure and a diminishing reputation. Some investment.

Last night he also asked fans to consider the players he had bought. Again, in a well run club he'd have provided the money needed for others to do the buying. It shouldn't have been about him and his ego. His role should have been about holding those to account who spent the money on his behalf.

It's worth adding the disclaimer that I know the person Fawaz tweeted. He's a good friend. As a result I also happen to know this person spends an awful lot of their time and money going around the country watching the mess of a club Fawaz has presided over. He's been a Forest fan longer than Fawaz and will still be here when he gets bored and clears off for good (it seems like he's clinging on to 20% for now). Frankly, given the mess Kev has watched, he's earned the right to make a sarcastic joke about the club. I'm sure there's plenty worse he could have said.

I gave Fawaz plenty of time. I still don't think he came with the intention of doing anything dodgy. I think he wanted the glory of leading us to the top flight and, frankly, I wasn't bothered if his ego trip coincided with success for the club too. But, whatever his intentions, he hasn't been up to the challenge. It really is time to go now.