Nottingham Forest are back in the Premier League for the first time in 24 years, but what do they need to do to stay there?
If you wanted a parable for how the fortunes of a football club can change over the course of time, you could do far worse than to look at the 1998/99 Premier League season. The top two in the table were Manchester United and Arsenal; United finished that season with a record-breaking treble and Arsenal had done the double the year before. They finished the 2021/22 season in fifth and sixth place in the table, having lost a combined 25 games.
If anything, the changes at the bottom of the table were even greater. Each of the bottom six at the end of that season – Nottingham Forest, Blackburn Rovers, Charlton Athletic, Southampton, Wimbledon and Coventry City – has spent at least some time in League One since, while only one played Premier League football during the 2021/22 season. Coventry went as low as League Two. What happened to Wimbledon is a whole other story.
Southampton will, of course, now be joined by Nottingham Forest, who are back in the Premier League for the first time since the end of the 1998/99 season. First came the victory and then came the celebrations. But now, as the bunting comes down and ice packs are applied to sore heads, the real work is about to start. Having got back into the Premier League after such a long time away, the next task is to stay there.
It’s not going to be easy, but it is achievable. Over the last 20 years, the average finishing place of the Championship play-off winner in their first season back has been 16.3. Only one club has finished in the top half of the table in their first season back. West Ham finished ninth in 2006 and 10th in 2013. Subtract West Ham from the equation and it falls to 17th, only just above the relegation places.
Brentford finished 13th last season, a spot of sunshine which had seen five play-off winners relegated in the previous seven years, and there seem obvious lessons that Forest can take from their season. The most glaring lesson is that, while momentum can take you so far, you need a plan. Brentford are a club with a strategy and who carried an aura of sangfroid while all around them were losing their heads during the 2021/22 season.
All three of the clubs relegated from the Premier League last season changed their manager. One did it twice, and then once more for good luck as soon as the season ended. Brentford didn’t. Indeed, all bar one of the clubs that finished below Brentford did. This doesn’t mean that not sacking your manager is a panacea for a club’s ills. Rather, it means that a club with a plan has the confidence to stick with that plan, even when it looks like it might be cracking.
Just as importantly, Forest might take the lesson that sticking with a plan doesn’t have to mean inflexibility. Brentford changed the way they played in the second half of the season, and those changes were enough to see them to safety with room to spare. And the other lesson that Forest can take – and one which, from the state of the two penalty decisions that went their way against Huddersfield, you’d expect them to already know – is that serendipity can reap big dividends.
The circumstances that led to Christian Eriksen signing for Brentford are something that we all hope to never witness again, but there’s also no question that Brentford wouldn’t have been able to secure the services of a player of his calibre under any other. Eriksen’s performances dragged Brentford from a rut in which they’d found themselves. It wasn’t single-handed – the whole team stepped back up to the plate when push came to shove – but his arrival acted as a catalyst which seemed to bring the best out in their other players.
That spark, which doesn’t have to come in a glamour position (consider, for example, the similarly energising effect that Kieran Trippier had upon Newcastle United upon his arrival in January), is important. Brentford found theirs last season – and in Ivan Toney, Brian Mbeumo and Christian Nørgaard, amongst others, they weren’t lacking – and Forest had theirs during the 2021/22 season. Djed Spence was on a year-long loan from Middlesbrough which the club needs to make permanent. The same goes for Keinan Davis and Aston Villa, while there has been talk of Morgan Gibbs-White signing from Wolves.
There is an obvious motivation for their loaned-in players to remain at The City Ground and that is a recognition of the extent to which head coach Steve Cooper has improved them over the course of the season. All players want to get to the highest level they can, and there are plenty of examples of rudderless clubs at which players deteriorate. Staying at a club with a coach who has taken the time to get to know them, where they have the goodwill of the fans for having achieved what they have already achieved, and where further improvement may be possible, starts to sound like an attractive deal.
Owner Evangelos Marinakis has promised money to fund all of this, but Marinakis has found himself the subject of unwelcome headlines in the press regarding the possibility of re-examining criminal cases in he was exonerated in Greece. According to the Daily Mail, ‘the Premier League are making their test more stringent as they seek to head off the threat of an independent regulator’, and that they intend to flex their muscle through establishing ‘if there is evidence of Marinakis having been involved in behaviour abroad which would have resulted in a conviction in the UK’.
Ah, so now the Premier League wants to start looking more seriously at the owners of their clubs. There are three big problems with this suggestion. Firstly, Marinakis – for better or for worse – passed the EFL’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test, and has not met any of its disqualifying conditions. He also meets the conditions of the Premier League’s current test. Secondly, this is an extremely non-standard procedure, although it is within the rules of the Premier League that he may be disqualified if:
‘in the reasonable opinion of the Board, he has engaged in conduct outside the United Kingdom that would constitute an offence of the sort described in Rules F.1.5.2 or F.1.5.3 [the normal disqualifying rules], if such conduct had taken place in the United Kingdom, whether or not such conduct resulted in a Conviction.’
Were they to reach such a decision and were that decision to endanger the wellbeing of that club (Marinakis would be likely be given time to divest his shareholding in the club), this would be a considerable concern. But changing the rules without giving careful consideration to the possibility of unintended consequences could come to cause considerable problems for the league itself, further down the line.
And thirdly, is this action going to be retrospective too? Talking about ‘strengthening the test by including areas such as human rights and ethical considerations’ is all very well, but will all Premier League club owners be considered under this new, enhanced level of scrutiny? Or are they deemed to be fine because…they got in on time? Of course, having an independent regulator with clearly defined and significantly enhanced rules may rid the governance of football of this sort of question, so thanks for the reminder, Mr Masters.
If some of the things that Marinakis hasn’t been convicted of are sufficient for this sort of review, why do the Saudis escape scrutiny (beyond the obvious ‘they’re not one and the same’ whitewash, obviously)? Is, say, being acquitted of various offences in Greece worse than being part of the same decision-making group that murdered a journalist and then hacked his body to pieces with a bonesaw? That’s not meant as a rhetorical question, by the way, which is kind of the point. Considering that this would be completely unprecedented territory, and even though the Premier League are covered by their rules, it does still feel as though they may be making this up as they go along.
But perhaps this isn’t the time of year for portents of doom. The head coach is excellent and has had a clearly transformative effect upon both the team and the club. The team ended the season as the Championship’s second-highest scorers behind Fulham. This is a young and entertaining team with plenty of promise, and with players who seem capable of going further. And regardless, there is already evidence that they may be able to hold their own, having beaten both Arsenal and Leicester City in last season’s FA Cup, before going on to give Liverpool a harder time than many who played them in the Premier League. Forest have a lot of work to do, but they have the coach, an outstanding team and the forward momentum too. And 24 years to make up for.