Football Cities: Nottingham
The sixth part of our Football Cities series sees long time contributor Steve Wright analyse the footballing landscape in Nottingham. As a companion piece to Steve’s post, I’d like to direct you to a recent edition of the outstanding We Are Going Up podcast in which presenters David Cameron Walker and Mark Crossley took a trip to Meadow Lane and reflect on many of the issues discussed by Steve in written form below.
Nottingham is only a small provisional city but it manages to sustain two historically significant football clubs. Maybe it would be easier for one of them if the other did not exist and the city could focus its whole footballing attention on a single point, as they do in Leeds, Newcastle and Derby, but it is because both clubs have significant individual history that it is impossible that either could secede to the other or that they could merge.
The Football League’s two oldest clubs are also its closest with Notts County’s Meadow Lane and Nottingham Forest’s City Ground standing on either bank of the River Trent = ironically it is the former that sits within the city limits whilst the latter is in Rushcliffe Borough’s territory. Though the modern fan would see Forest as the relative giant of the two, both clubs have proud histories, both have inspired others and at times both have been top of the city’s footballing pecking order.
What is frustrating at the moment is that the two Nottingham clubs also share a sense of drifting without identity. Both sets of supporters are unsettled and feel that more should be achieved and the turnover of managers on either side of the Trent in recent years has been startling; in truth embarrassing. County are struggling to come to terms with last season’s relegation to the fourth tier, Forest are in the midst of a transfer embargo for failing Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules and both have in recent times appointed and then hastily discarded club legends as their manager.
History as a Burden and an Opportunity
Notts County seemed to come alive as a club when they were asked to open Juventus’s new stadium with a friendly match on 8 September 2011. Even on the red side of the river you could feel the pride of the club as they stood shoulder to shoulder with La Vecchia Signora, but despite this brief respite somehow they seem to be mired always in bitterness rather than hope, they cling to their title as the oldest professional football club with an almost vulgar desperation. That and providing the inspiration for Juventus’s black and white stripes are great anecdotes but are hardly enough to sustain a club.
In Autumn 2012 the Nottingham Playhouse staged Diary of a Football Nobody, Bill Ivory’s adaptation of David McVay’s autobiography Steak Diana Ross. Ivory is a County fan and typical of his work the play showed the earthy, gritty qualities of life and of a football club with character and characters. It was magnificent. County are not alone in losing their way in the modern football world, which seems to have no place for the likes of McVay and the legendary Jimmy Sirrell anymore, but somehow they need to rediscover something they can believe in and be positive about before it is too late. Surely Ricardo Moniz and his 18 summer signings are not it.
It is easier for me to speak of Forest. They also need to find out what it is that truly defines them and surely their 150th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to do just that. They are not short of artistic inspiration either. Club Historian Don Wright has eloquently placed the club back into its historical narrative with his official history published this summer, whilst Danny Rhodes’ 2014 novel FAN not only put a very human face onto Forest supporters but also beautifully expressed the passion and the loss those fans have experienced following their team. Only this month the film I Believe in Miracles has been released to critical acclaim and put the all-conquering side constructed by Brian Clough and Peter Taylor back into the forefront of football’s collective consciousness.
Maybe the reality is that the club feels flat because of its lack of success relative to that of the “Miracle Men” or even Clough’s second Forest team, forged in the late 1980s without his old partner Peter Taylor. Reflecting on the past doesn’t just highlight how things have changed for Forest, it also shows how the game itself has been transformed. How can second division millionaires compare favourably when those of us of a certain age used to be able to chat to European Champions like John Robertson and Larry Lloyd in the Stage Door pub on Upper Parliament Street? Colin Barrett scored the vital second goal against Liverpool in the first round of the 1978/79 European Cup but he also decorated my living room. It’s no wonder that things don’t feel quite the same anymore.
Opposing fans continue to sing “You’re Not Famous Anymore” at us and it feels at times like we are entirely defined by what we are not anymore, rather than what we are or could be now. Perhaps there is no answer other than to force a way back into the top flight by hook or by crook, but after 15 years outside of the Premier League it seems that something more nuanced than chucking money at a conveyor belt of managers is required if the twice Champions of Europe are not to fade completely away.
Forces of Nature
Currently Forest are in a similar position to that inherited by Brian Clough in 1975. They have been in the second tier longer, they were relegated in 1972 and spent just two and a half seasons in Division Two before Clough was appointed rather than the current fifteen and counting, but the present setup has the advantage of the status imbued by Clough and Taylor’s achievements as well as the strong financial support of a wealthy owner. What they lack is inspirational leadership, something that Clough brought in spades relieving the committee of the day of the need to provide it themselves.
Forest’s best periods seem to have come from inspiring individuals. Clough ran things from top to bottom for 18 years and delivered unprecedented success. But between 1939 and 1960 it was Billy Walker who put his mark on the club for 21 years (disrupted by a war) as manager, leading it with distinction from Division 3 South to the top flight and the FA Cup. In its first years of existence there was the guidance of Walter Lymbery and the genius of Sam Widdowson, who put the club at the forefront of early football innovation. Are we simply waiting, fingers crossed, for our next force of nature?
Forest do not lack a forceful personality, they have one of those at the very top of their organisation, but they do lack an inspiring leader. The big question is whether there is room for two big personalities to co-exist. I doubt Brian Clough would have had more respect for Fawaz Al-Hasawi than he did most other chairmen and the churn of football staff in the last three years brings to mind one of his famous quotes; “If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well.”.
The other problem is how you attract that key individual to a club that for years has been going nowhere. The reality is that you probably don’t. Clubs that stand out at the moment have strong structures in place and clear visions of what they want to achieve and how to go about it. Southampton have spent money in rebuilding themselves since relegation to League One but they have also had a clear and determined vision of how to progress. Swansea have a very clearly defined personality on and off the pitch. Both clubs have been able through these stable visions ad structures to cope with changes in management and sales of key players without stalling their progress.
There have been pockets of activity suggesting that the club might start down this path but each time they have been snuffed out. Sean O’Driscoll talked of defining the DNA of a Forest player and also wanted to implement a structure for recruitment and development that would outlast himself, but he was sacked before he’d even had chance to get going. Stuart Pearce and Paul Faulkner again tried to put in place long term structures and create a sense of common identity, but short term results put paid to the former and the latter’s job became untenable when he tried to even nudge the boundaries between himself and the owner. Dougie Freedman now talks of identifying players who want to represent the club and Adrian Bevington is looking at the structures and processes, will they have more luck?
The current target for Nottingham Forest is to get to the end of the season with the same manager who started it still in charge. Dougie Freedman, whose credentials for the job were that he was “available” according to club ambassador John McGovern when he was appointed, seems to be the sort of inoffensive type to achieve that and it would be a worthy achievement too, but with pressure already mounting you wouldn’t place any bets. It feels like every summer in recent years has been yet another chance to rebuild, but if Freedman can successfully steer the club into next summer free from its embargo and still a Championship side then Forest will once again be able to look to the future. Whether it will do so with any new wisdom remains to be seen.
In the women’s game the clubs swap roles to some extent, although that situation has been artificially created. Notts County Ladies play in the Women’s Super League having been parachuted in from Lincoln, where the Lady Imps had proudly represented their own city for many years. Forest Ladies were at the time far and away the dominant side in the city, but they were overlooked for a place in the new WSL as the FA and Ray Trew, owner of both Notts County FC and the Lincoln Ladies, conspired in a franchise move to rival the creation of the widely loathed MK Dons.
Formed in 1990 by Nottingham Forest in the Community, Forest Ladies is celebrating its 25th anniversary at the same time as their parent club celebrates its 150th Anniversary. Several of the originals remain including Chair P J Andrews, Community Project Leader Lisa Dawkins and Club Secretary Fay Glover, who was presented with an award for services to grassroots football by the FA in 2013, shortly before all the club’s efforts were swept away by the same authority during the bidding process for the 2014 formation of the WSL.
Perhaps this was another case of that lack of identity costing the club. At the time leadership at Forest was blurred and erratic, maybe a more joined up and clear vision would have seen the Forest badge being worn by England internationals in the WSL. As it is, Notts County Ladies are holding their own in the top flight of women’s football finishing 5th in WSL 1 and reaching the WSL Cup final where they will meet Arsenal on 1st November. With attendances in the WSL on the rise the Magpie Ladies could end up outshining their male counterparts.
Forest Ladies ply their trade in the Women’s Premier League. Having secured their future through the hard work and dedication of players and volunteers it was great to see them in this joint anniversary year having a team photo taken at the City Ground wearing the club’s anniversary red and gold shirts. Bridges appear to be being re-built and hopefully both teams can move forwards together as part of a united Forest family.
City of Football
This year Nottingham was named Sport England’s City of Football as part of a grassroots initiative to get more people participating in the game and it seems an ideal opportunity to be bold in setting out a vision for both the professional football clubs. In the past three years Forest have wasted a great deal of money but if the owners are prepared to accept those past mistakes and move forward with a clean slate there are possibilities for a lasting legacy.
It isn’t an easy time to own a football club in the Football League, where expectations are high but income relative to the top flight is anything but. Running a club outside of the Premier League without spending large sums of money is virtually impossible and supporters expect to see owners publically lavishing funds on a competitive first team. Focusing investment and understanding what you can get in return, however, is far more important than appeasing fans who will never be satisfied. That sort of expertise is likely to come from experienced professionals rather than a wealthy hobbyist.
And so we return to structures and strategies. They may not sound exciting in comparison to the drama of a Saturday afternoon at the match but they are crucial to building a club that can sustain both success and the ongoing enthusiasm and pride of its fan-base. Notts County are led by their 10th manager since the start of the 2009/10 season, with Trew having been in charge since February 2010, whilst Dougie Freedman is Forest’s 5th “permanent” managerial appointment by Fawaz Al-Hasawi, who bought that club in July 2012. The average tenure of a Forest manager under Al-Hasawi is 31 games and Freedman has just crossed that line.
Surely those track records alongside the relative failure of their teams on the pitch suggest that something needs to change in the leadership of Nottingham’s football clubs. Whilst it has been great as a Forest fan to look back on our history there is little of that emotion, pride and joy when considering the present or the future.