Why Nottingham Forest fans are cautious about Cotterill
Last night’s news that Frank Clark is to take over as chairman of Nottingham Forest with immediate effect was understandably greeted with concurrent waves of excitement, relief and optimism from supporters of the club. After the often fumbling stewardship of Nigel Doughty, here was a dyed-in-the-wool Forest man ready to take on the challenge of restoring the Reds to, if not their former European glories, then at least a well-run, open and honest football club that makes sensible decisions about its on-field activities. The accompanying headlines mentioning Steve Cotterill as a prospective manager for Clark to work with were less welcome. Why?
Well, Cotterill is probably a “safe” appointment – someone who got Forest’s near-neighbours Notts County over the promotion line after the maelstrom of the Munto Finance era, before overseeing a similarly calm response on the pitch to the chaotic recent history at Portsmouth. But he doesn’t come across as a Nottingham Forest manager. He still isn’t one yet either, but are Forest fans right to be concerned that he might soon be?
Forest’s European Cup-winning captain John McGovern supports Cotterill’s claims, telling BBC Radio Nottingham recently: “He’s got enough experience now to do a good job anywhere. He’s capable of providing the kind of motivation needed to help the players.” It sounds like the bare minimum for any football manager really, doesn’t it? McGovern also referred to Cotterill as “one of those younger managers who has a lot going for him”. All things being relative, Cotterill is at least younger than McGovern – the Portsmouth manager is 47, fourteen years McGovern’s junior – but it is still an odd label to give a man who is sixteen years older than Karl Robinson, another name prominent on the list of potential candidates earlier in the process.
Cotterill has also picked up something of a reputation for the kind of football that supporters have grown less accustomed to seeing in the Championship. It is lazily tagged as a division you need to scrap to get out of, but all the evidence points to attractive, footballing sides being more than well-equipped to get promoted. Cotterill’s Portsmouth side put noses out of joint all over the country last season as they scrapped their way to 16th place. There was clearly some good football along the way, but there also seemed to be an uncompromising approach with a dash of sportsmanship thrown in.
Some might say that Forest supporters are in no position to quibble over the style of football their side plays for the remainder of the season as long as Steve McClaren’s successor drags them away from the trap door. But the season is still young and there is plenty of time for Forest to rise into the upper reaches of the table. Also fresh in the minds of Forest fans is the uneasy truce of the Billy Davies years, during which an acceptable amount of exciting football was balanced by the Scot’s encouragement of referee-baiting. This always sat awkwardly with the traditions of the club and a quick return to those days seems like a wasted opportunity.
Cotterill’s CV also contains a bright early patch at Cheltenham Town, an uninspiring spell at Burnley, a short period of moonlighting as Leicester City’s defensive coach and brief stays at Stoke City (as manager) and Sunderland (as assistant to Howard Wilkinson). His Stoke connection in particular stood out to many opposition supporters last season as something that made sense in the face of percentage football and overly robust challenges. Parallels with Forest’s former manager Gary Megson – another Stoke coaching luminary – may be nagging away at some. Above all, though, it is the brevity of so many of these jobs that must be cause for concern among Forest supporters. Since leaving Cheltenham nearly ten years ago, only a shoulder-shrugging three-year stop at Burnley hints at Cotterill’s willingness to hang around at a place of employment.
It is rare that two similar managers are appointed in quick succession. If one man fails and falls quickly on his sword, the next to come along is often a polar opposite. It can be a simplistic approach but it is also understandable. When media-friendly managers struggle, fans suddenly refuse to believe that anyone like Ian Holloway has ever been successful and point to the need for a boss who will stay out of the media spotlight. If a dour type fails, charisma is the number one characteristic on the must-have list when thinking about his successor. In Forest’s case, the failure of McClaren – his tired, stressed face mirroring his demeanour during England’s 3-2 defeat at home to Croatia – saw many fans call for a younger man to replace him, one who is not a big name but who could turn into one in Robin Hood country.
Steve Cotterill is three years younger than McClaren and is certainly not a big name when his status is compared with that of a former England manager. It is also difficult to imagine Forest in the Premier League in five years with Cotterill beaming proudly from the City Ground dugout, but far stranger things have happened. We will wait and see whether the Portsmouth manager will indeed swap the south coast for the river Trent, but Forest fans can be forgiven for greeting the prospect with extreme caution.