The mist might still be rolling in from the River Trent, as Nottingham Forest’s famous chant goes, but it is resentment rather than the elements causing a thick smog to hang over the City Ground. On Sunday, Dougie Freedman became the seventh manager to be sacked in four years – the latest lamb slaughtered. This could have been the first campaign since 2010/11 where a manager was not sacked mid-season. It was not to be.
It’s a terrible thing, falling out of love. The initial feelings of loss and emptiness are outweighed by equal parts guilt, reflection and self-loathing. You can never stop caring about your football club, but you can detest the monster they have become, despise the empty crater where a great club once stood. You can still love your club without being in love with it. The walk from Nottingham city centre, now taken far less often than it once was, has become a funeral march.
There are plenty of elite clubs who should be embarrassed by the progress of Leicester City, but smaller clubs are not immune from criticism. In July 2013, as the Al-Hasawi family celebrated a year of their ownership at the City Ground, Forest had just finished a point behind Leicester in the Championship. The contrast since is painful.
Freedman was never the answer for Forest, but that’s only because the owner is asking impossible questions of managers expected to work amidst chaos. Freedman was asked not only to roll a turd in glitter, but then sell it to an expert antique dealer. The style of football was largely uninspiring, but that only matches the mood. Former Coventry and Southampton defender Paul Williams is in charge until the end of the season having only once before been even an assistant.
Meanwhile, Forest have become a shrine to change, but crucially not progress. Some clubs may consider crisis as being stuck fast in the ground, but this is the opposite. Forest are in a state of constant flux, even times of comparative serenity viewed suspiciously as prelude for disaster, those suspicions promptly proved correct. The only thing certain is that uncertainty is just around the corner.
There is good cause for anger and sadness, but the actual emotion among many is far more damaging: Apathy. Through thick and thin, supporters have stayed loyal, stayed vocal and stayed proud. Now more and more are just staying at home. Last Tuesday’s home victory over Preston was watched by the lowest City Ground crowd for a league game in eight years, since a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers in League One.
The most generous assessment of owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi is that he has the club’s best interests at heart, but not in head. His stewardship has been baffling, a combination of impatience, a staunch refusal to delegate and a wilful ignorance of more expert advice. Forest have had multiple directors of football and currently have former Football Association executive Adrian Bevington in an advisory role. Bevington was not consulted over Freedman’s sacking. The owner doesn’t so much keep his cards close to his chest as play with his own deck.
Perhaps Al-Hasawi is blinded by a vision of him being carried aloft, receiving the adoration and adulation of the Nottingham public, but that should not be his remit. The best owners are neither seen nor heard, but have a hand in every positive aspect of a club. Al-Hasawi is the opposite.
The club’s financial dealings are the most obvious evidence for mismanagement. On Monday, Forest escaped being wound up in the High Court for the fifth time in two years after settling a tax bill, but these are becoming an increasingly common occurrence. In February 2015, Peterborough chairman Darragh ManAnthony spoke out after a club (known to be Forest) refused to pay their installment of the transfer fee for Britt Assombalonga: “There won’t be any incoming signings due to a certain Championship club failing to make an agreed large payment on player they bought from us. This same club did this to us in August and now again. It’s a disgrace and their chairman is the same.”
Finally, the spectre of Financial Fair Play has stopped Forest from buying players since December 2014 despite the club regularly insisting that rules have been adhered to. Anyone expecting the embargo to be lifted in the summer sits somewhere between optimistic and naive. Forest are like a parable for the repercussions of greed – money in the bank but not allowed to spend it. Areas of the club exempt from FFP rules, like the academy and stadium, continue to cry out for further investment.
Stories regarding the internal management within the club are just as shocking but cannot be detailed here. The result is low morale across much of the staff, meaningful (if not high-profile) departures and an ill-feeling about how this once great club is being run.
The demand from the next manager, as from the last and the five before him, will be for good results, good performances and entertaining football. Brian Clough’s adage about God wanting football to be played on the floor still rings true, even if every other aspect of his legacy has been trodden deep into the dirt.
Again, there is a complete lack of understanding of the reality. Successful football is not a cause of good morale, but a symptom. The key to sustainable, long-term success is to manage with a top-down approach, sensible decision-making feeding down through the club. Achievement on the field is a reflection of harmony off it. Forest’s owner wants instead to operate with a bottom-up strategy, where the team leads the way. It’s virtually impossible.
Until Nottingham Forest is a happy place of work, progress is unlikely. Brighton, Bournemouth and Leicester are all current examples of what can be achieved through an entire club singing from the same hymn sheet. At the City Ground, most employees haven’t even got a voice with which to sing. No club has a right to success, promotion or a certain way of playing.
The worst aspect of Al-Hasawi’s reign – other than the unfulfilled potential – is the good people who have been tarnished along the way. Frank Clark was sacked as club ambassador in January 2013, popular manager Sean O’Driscoll removed from his position with the club one point outside the play-offs. Stuart Pearce’s legacy will never be lost, but he was used as a vote winner among supporters and was never up to the task. Pearce claimed that the owner sold players against his wishes. Chief executive Paul Faulkner walked out a day after Pearce, frustrated by the restrictions placed upon him by Al-Hasawi’s aides, Lalou Tifrit and Hassan Saef.
There is also gloom to be found in the timing, such a mood engulfing the club against the backdrop of the club’s 150th anniversary, for which the club have done very little other than allowing supporters to buy a place in an ‘anniversary wall’ for between £50 and £275. Oh and three anniversary kits too, each available at £80. There is a delicious irony in fans paying to become just another brick in the wall.
Predictably, Forest are now in a no-win situation. Having loaned the club £67m, Al-Hasawi could demand it all back if he wanted to sell, making the club both an unattractive investment and an unwanted burden. A double European champion could be no more.
At its most basic level, a football club should be a social institution. Nottingham Forest is barely even doing that. Jonny Owen and Daniel Taylor combined to create I Believe In Miracles, a tribute to Forest’s golden era, but supporters are not asking for the impossible. Doing the decent thing would do.
Money is meant to make football’s world go round, but this is emphatic proof that financial strength is a facilitator, not a solution. Money can’t buy you love, and Nottingham Forest are in need of urgent care and attention. Unfortunately, as the City Ground continues to rust and peel at the edges and the off-field circus continues to play its bawdy music, I’m not even sure if love lives here anymore.