Conversations with Steve Wright (Nottingham Forest)
Saturday brought the shattering news of the death of Nigel Doughty, owner of Nottingham Forest. In our latest conversation piece, we talk to Steve Wright of the website Mist Rolling in from the Trent about the past few years at the City Ground and the atmosphere of turmoil that has enveloped the club. Our discussions started prior to the weekend and we extend our condolences to the family of Nigel Doughty.
LR: In mid-December, Steve Cotterill stated that Forest might have to bring more players in before selling them in order to preserve the club’s Championship status but, having finished in the play offs last year, shouldn’t the squad be good enough to achieve this as it is? Cotterill’s initial honeymoon period appears to be well and truly over — how do you assess his first months at the City Ground?
SW: The short answer to your question is yes, of course this squad, which remains largely the same as last year’s, should be far too good to get relegated this year. Sadly it is never so simple in the real world and there are a number of reasons why they could easily defy that assertion.
The most obvious one is the level of disruption that the club has gone through since falling at the playoff semi-final stage for the second consecutive season. I have to admit that, despite his relative success at the club, I did feel that parting company with Billy Davies was inevitable and readers of my blog will know why I felt like that. As ever though the club handled the change incredibly badly and there lies the root of our problems. The club’s leadership at boardroom level has been poor in this area of first team management.
Of course going way back to the fairy tale successes of Brian Clough the board didn’t really need any grand vision. Clough was in charge and everyone else just fell into line. When it came to parting with the great man the boardroom proved itself as clueless as any since with the way it handled his ‘retirement’ so we can hardly claim that a lack of leadership is a new thing on Trentside. For 18 years Clough provided the vision and we knew what Forest under him stood for but his total dominance of the club made his departure all the more difficult to cope with.
We are now 18 years further on and instead of one manager in that time we have had 10 permanent [sic] appointments and a further 6 temporary ones. Of those permanent managers, 8 have been appointed in the 12 years since Nigel Doughty first became involved. Not only is that a ridiculous number of managers for such a short period of time but each appointment has appeared to be in conflict with the previous one so there has been no sense of continuity or core values.
That is not to say that there has not been good as well in the way that the club has been run. Avoiding administration was obviously massive, not only for the club but all of those people and businesses who were tied to it financially. The continuation and development of the academy has also been particularly pleasing as it was seriously threatened prior to Doughty’s investment but became a key part of his plans — although not always considered by managerial appointments such as the transfer market focused Billy Davies. Likewise, the training facilities have been considerably improved, but the choice of managers and their high rate of turnover has been an area of deep concern.
Clearly the news of Doughty’s death has brought a tragic end to his time in charge. It is devastating news because whatever anyone thinks of his performance as Chairman, he was a genuine Forest fan who loved this club.
We obviously started this conversation before the news and what I have said about the lack of vision at the club remains absolutely true. I do not feel inclined to dwell on it though given what has happened. I really hope that people will remember Doughty as one of us, part of the Forest family, a fan who as the Left Lion put it just wanted to do the right thing for his club.
LR: How has the general lack of strategic planning and vision manifested itself? And do you see examples from elsewhere that point the way forward?
SW: I am a great believer in football clubs having a wider vision and some clear values which supporters can buy into. Most teams will not deliver if their only goal is to win something — whether that be trophies or promotion. There are only so many places up for grabs and it is impossible to guarantee success, just look at the Manchester teams — one claiming to be the biggest club in the world and the other the richest — and how they have fared in Europe this season.
I’ve been interested watching the situation at Lewes FC, a club that has clearly set its stall out to be a community club and works hard to involve local people. I think that this will become a greater imperative for league clubs in the future and they will have to work with their fans more effectively.
The lack of vision at Forest has a number of impacts. An important one is the disenfranchisement of fans but the one relevant to your question is the shock impact of change at managerial level. As I said earlier, each appointment has conflicted with the previous one in terms of management and playing styles and the implied direction of the club — Hart followed Platt and was then replaced by Kinnear; Kinnear by Megson; Megson by Calderwood; Calderwood by Davies; Davies by McClaren – and finally McClaren replaced by Cotterill.
The lack of consistency in management has meant that each new incumbent has wanted to drastically change what they have to work with, creating disruption and considerable expenditure. For me this is one of the major reasons why the club never achieved Nigel Doughty’s stated goal of gaining and retaining Premier League status.
LR: This is a convincing thesis and the ‘managerial merry go round’ (as the stars of such shows as The Sunday Supplement like to call it) will be the subject of a post we are working on later in February — how did the negative impact of this recent history impinge upon the aims and goals of Steve McLaren in particular?
SW: History is unquestionably important in understanding the present. The latest managerial moves have at times been farcical and never more so than this summer. Davies left and a snap decision appears to have been made to bring in a high profile replacement with an implied promise to have a real push for promotion.
We have all seen how the initial press conferences in which McClaren and Chief Executive Mark Arthur proclaimed their shared ambition and excitement quickly turned sour, but not before new players had been brought in on substantial salaries and existing players had been disturbed by a dramatic change in approach to training and tactics. Then another big shock in funding and management style was forced through with Doughty resigning and Cotterill arriving.
Who you blame for all of that will probably depend on your respective opinions of McClaren, Davies, the players, Doughty and Arthur but in reality the club was once again trying to usher in a fundamental change without any idea of what it was doing. The same mistake that has through repetition created a destabilised club over the past 12 years has sent a team from the top end of the table to the bottom and left the club reeling in its own lack of identity.
In the end the club broke its wage structure to try to meet McClaren’s ambition and now faces a situation where old players are disenchanted, new ones are paid far in excess of their contribution and a third manager in a matter of months is trying to sort it all out. McClaren feels he was not appropriately backed but the club went beyond its means to try to back him. It was a mismatch and as Doughty later admitted a poor decision for him and for McClaren.
LR: Which players have particularly suffered due to the culture of regime change?
SW: As you said at the start of this conversation, the players were good enough last season but they are struggling to perform to that level now. Lee Camp, although still playing well at times, is a shadow of his former self, appearing to have retreated into his shell having previously been a dominant presence on the pitch, organising the defence and rallying the fans. There was talk of a Premier League move in the summer and when that failed to materialise there wasn’t even room for a morale boosting new contract.
Luke Chambers was Player of the Season last year but was dazed and confused by McClaren’s desire to give his players freedom to think rather than follow strict instructions. Other established players such as Paul Anderson, key to providing width to the team, have been hampered by injury whilst new signings have had no time to settle with all the chaos around the City Ground.
The team have also missed the presence of both their former manager and captain. Davies and Paul McKenna (before his move to Hull) may have been annoying at times but they stirred things up, cajoled players, fans and referees and kept the team playing a high pressing game. The squad clearly enjoyed that approach and played up to it and struggled to understand the more aloof McClaren with his slower, more considered game.
Where does that leave Steve Cotterill? Well I can see why he wants to bring in some players of his own and understand why he thinks offloading what he has may be difficult. His better players are mostly coming to the end of their contracts whilst the newer members of his squad are on restrictive contracts when it comes to enticing other clubs to take them. It will be no easy task to re-configure a squad that is dreadfully unbalanced with a host of strikers and central midfield players and little width or depth in defence.
LR: This January, the club made a dramatic move in bringing Sean O’Driscoll in to supplement Cotterill. Do you think the latter’s prospects are now acutely compromised?
SW: I am indeed struggling to be convinced that he is the man to rebuild this broken club. His past record is uninspiring and there is nothing to suggest that he is the man to refocus Forest on player development rather than “stellar” signings.
It remains comparatively early days and we will perhaps not really understand what his plans for the club are until a couple of transfer windows have passed and we see who goes, who arrives and which, if any, of the academy side step up. Cotterill will not be helped either by having to work with an inherited coaching team, a repeat of the situation when Joe Kinnear was appointed without being allowed to call upon his right hand man Mick Harford – a typically half arsed approach from the club.
The honeymoon is definitely over (again more on this later) and although all of that history is not his fault, fans will not tolerate a continuation of the current poor run of results. The culture at Forest has become one in which managers have to win fans over, there is little inherent support. Again that stems from the past, the disgraceful Bridgford Consortium which tried to capitalise on the post-Clough chaos to profit from the club and bred suspicion amongst fans that was then entrenched by an uneasy relationship with Doughty’s public frontman Mark Arthur, but it impacts any new manager. He has been unlucky to some extent in some games but another relegation will be very hard to take.
If I was going to be honest about Cotterill he strikes me as a nicer but less effective version of Billy Davies. I really do not see him as the man to take this club forwards and I am surprised that he is sat on a three and a half year contract. We are looking to Frank Clark now for leadership, as a trusted and well liked Forest man and he is right behind his manager, so we have to trust him at the moment even if it feels a little uncomfortable. Difficult times lie ahead of that I am sure but they will only be made more difficult if the fans are negative.
LR: It’s hard to disagree. Forest are famously the club that was ‘too good to go down’ in the Clough years but few would assert this now — from this vantage point, the club looks very vulnerable and it’s not as if they are unfamiliar with third tier football either. Given your very pertinent fears that more money might be wasted on players and your lack of trust in Cotterill to build a side in a sensible way, which players have been linked with moves to the City Ground and in which positions do you think the manager will try to strengthen? Marcus Tudgay is currently top scoring with a miserable total of 6 goals — is there a striker you feel that could be brought in that could make a difference?
SW: In the short term we need a boost and to be fair to the club they have achieved a reasonably successful January transfer window in difficult circumstances.
We have lost Wes Morgan, a very popular defender and a decent player at this level, but the £1 million fee represents a good deal given that his contract was due to expire in the summer and he had made clear his desire to take up Leicester’s reportedly very generous offer. In addition, young striker Patrick Bamford has moved to Chelsea, which is a great shame given his potential but again a good deal for the club as he was determined to leave and had rejected contract offers from Forest.
This has allowed the club to bring in three loan players in defenders Danny Higginbotham and Scott Wootton and midfielder Adlene Guedioura. Hopefully these new players can bring some new energy and momentum to the team to spark some life into our battle against relegation.
Beyond that, I agree that we look weak in terms of goalscorers but we do have a lot of players who play that position! We have Miller injured at the moment and Blackstock coming back from a year out with injury. These two look the most likely but having said that Miller is rumoured to be the highest paid player at the club so realistically we should be looking to move him on — though his injury record and general lack of goals could make that difficult.
Otherwise we have Tudgay, who is hard working and will score some goals, Derbyshire, who is yet to settle but also doesn’t look outstanding, Findley, who has done well at times but looked awful at others, and McGoldrick, who is again rumoured to be a high earner and although a talented player seems to be one that no manager can work out how to use up to now.
In the summer the big decisions will need to be around how we build a squad that is both sustainable and competitive. Other clubs have shown that it can be done and hopefully we can do the same, but we need to start looking lower down the leagues rather than targeting players with Premier League wages as we did this past summer.
It will also mean that we need to maximise the value of players we have, which in turn means selling them at peak value and standing firm when players refuse terms. The key for me is to be honest with everyone about how much we value them and how much we can afford to pay them. Swansea strike me as a club that has managed to do both of these things — developing players so that they can step up to new levels (many of their players have come through the leagues) and also not being held to ransom by the likes of Britton and Pratley.
It can be done and Forest have seen the likes of Chambers, Lynch and McCleary step up to new levels as well as bringing Morgan and McGugan through the youth ranks and selling Perch, another academy product, for a good fee to Newcastle.
It doesn’t mean that the club has to lack ambition or compromise on the style of football just because they shift the focus in terms of players. I’ve mentioned Swansea and Norwich, both of whom got promoted with a real all-out attacking approach and lower down the leagues I have been impressed with Martin Ling’s Torquay United, who play a very entertaining 4-2-3-1 formation despite the myth that you cannot play football in the lower leagues.
Without knowing the relative wages of players it is difficult to know who we should try to keep and who we should try to move on. Camp is a very good keeper but we also have to find a way to ensure he keeps his mojo, he wants to play at a higher level and if we get a decent bid we might have to accept. If we can afford him and keep him happy though, he is a key figure. Beyond this, Smith is on notice and just waiting for his contract to expire and we have good young keepers but with no experience.
Defensively, we still do not have a recognised left back, which is frankly amazing given how long the position has been a problem. Gunter, Chambers, and Lynch are all decent Championship players, although I wonder what the wages of a Welsh international signed from Tottenham are whilst Chambers and Lynch are coming to the end of their current deals, and we have well thought of young players in Lascelles and Freeman who will surely step into the squad during this restructuring process.
In midfield we have lots centrally, although the best one Chris Cohen is injured and we have little width beyond Anderson and McCleary, both of whom are prone to time on the treatment table. Reid, Boateng and Greening have done little to impress so far and although Reid and Greening have had good moments, wages for those two must be an issue. Moussi is capable of being brilliant and dreadful in the space of the week and McGugan and Majewski are frustratingly inconsistent as creative forces in the team.
Longer term whatever the division it is clear that we are set for a period of enormous upheaval as we try to restructure the wage bill. Somehow the club needs to reach out to its fans to ensure that they stick with them through the uncertainty. My feeling is that many fans are ready to walk away unless there is a real effort to keep them.
LR: So what of the appointment of O’Driscoll? It sounded like a fighting performance at West Ham recently but with despised rivals Leicester sniffing around Wes Morgan and the club trailing forth-bottom Ipswich by four points, the situation has gotten more parlous by the week. Can he be the miracle worker we expect him to be? And will be replace Cotterill at some point?
SW: The arrival of O’Driscoll is the most positive thing to happen at Forest for a long time and most fans have responded positively to it. To be honest he was on many people’s shortlist for the post when Davies was appointed, never mind in the summer. His core values are completely in line with the football I associate with Forest and he is also used to having to develop his own players rather than buy in finished products.
Can he be a miracle worker? Well probably not because the things we’ve been reading about him — especially the terrific piece on your site from Glen Wilson over at Viva Rovers — suggests he needs time to bed in his philosophy, but for me personally that is not the point. This is a guy who can get the club back on track and playing the sort of football we want to watch.
Any legacy from Billy Davies has been destroyed and the goal now is to get re-established in the Championship, playing good football and with a sustainable financial position. For me Sean O’Driscoll is a manager who can deliver that, but he may need some time to get us there. I would happily be patient with him because I can believe in what he would be doing — which is not so much the case with Cotterill.
Will he replace Cotterill? Many fans would like him to and you never know but it is worth remembering that our Chairman headed up the League Manager’s Association for a long time and their mantra was always that manager’s must be given time, so a sacking seems unlikely.
Most of the time I would share the LMA’s viewpoint and we all know that stability has been sadly missing at Forest. We need to hope that O’Driscoll will influence the playing style of the team but he is not going to take full charge because the club is committed to Cotterill. At the moment this is causing more tension with fans, which I can understand given our recent record. My honest opinion is that I would prefer O’Driscoll but cannot bear anymore bile, abuse or protests and desperately want some unity and stability.
LR: Given you general dissatisfaction with how the club has been run, does the kind of model you mentioned earlier in this interview and exhibited at Lewes become increasingly attractive to you? How so far can fans take more of a role in running of their club? And is such a scenario feasible at the City Ground?
SW: This is a big question really. I have a great deal of respect for the likes of Lewes FC and the people that are involved there. Similarly, I love the way that AFC Wimbledon have worked their way back into league football. It is their stories that make me think that I would like to be involved in running a football club in some way, but there are numerous barriers, especially when you start to consider clubs at a higher level.
In all honesty I do not want just any old fan trying to run our club, you need professional people in charge and just having a rabble trying to come to some sort of agreement on what to do is frightening. There may be a way that fans could have some sort of ownership role though whilst electing a professional board. You would need an appropriate governance system as fans tend to jump to protest and change with incredible speed but there might be a way.
In light of the events of the weekend and the death of Nigel Doughty I would call on all fans to reflect on how our owner was treated by fans. This was a man who may have had questionable success in his headline objectives but was absolutely committed, personally and financially, to Nottingham Forest and yet he faced a terrifying level of personal abuse that demonstrates how football fans can at times behave wholly inappropriately.
I am not playing a blame game here or taking a holier than thou attitude, I just think that we all need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Doughty was not the only one to face this behaviour Steve Cotterill and Mark Arthur remain at the club and are treated similarly at times by some fans. Whatever personal opinions of their skills and achievements this needs to stop and fans need to put football into its proper context. If fans want any part in the club they should be standing up against this sort of behaviour and demanding mutual respect across the board.
Frank Clark is now the Chairman and he has vast experience and knowledge of the game. At the moment I cannot think of anyone better to lead our club, he is steeped in its history, is universally respected throughout football and has a sensible outlook on what needs to be done and how long it will take.
Could the fans have some sort of owner/member structure however that allows them to be involved in the ownership, funding and direction of travel of the club without some sort of free for all in which the loudest voices — so often the most misguided and ill considered — rule?
It is something that I would like the club to consider as we move into a period of great uncertainty and if it was put out as a possible future then I am sure that people would come forward with relevant skills and a desire to build a model that could work. At the moment though we need first to give Nigel Doughty’s family time with their personal grief and then see what they would like to do and how as fans we can respond.
To be totally honest Doughty’s death has been a real shock to the system and first and foremost I just hope that it can be a catalyst for a change in atmosphere at the club, a means for uniting everyone who cares about Forest. For too long there has been in-fighting and factions and if any good can come from a man’s death let it be an end to all of that.