Familiar story for flailing Forest - Interview
Friday, 26th Apr 2019 09:20 by Clive Whittingham
Once again, a summer of many signings and huge optimism has given way to a season of inconsistent form and managerial change at Nottingham Forest. Jack McCormick takes us through it.
Another season that started with such optimism, and then just petered out, how would you assess the Nottingham Forest 2018/19 campaign?
I’m sure I’ve started almost every one of these interviews over the past few seasons with “where do I start”. What a surprise that this time is no different. It’s been a massive disappointment, considering the way things started—the record season ticket sales; the record signings; the general feel-good factor around the place. But that’s all been undermined by chronic inconsistency on the pitch – we’ve not strung together two wins since August – and yet another change in manager.
Yes, there’s been a change of manager since we last spoke, Aitor Karanka seemed to be a dead man walking for weeks, but things haven’t really improved since he left – what did you make of his time in charge and his sacking? Justified?
The club would have you believe he walked—much like he did at Middlesbrough. I was pretty happy with him and, if it was indeed a sacking, I’d struggle to justify it. We were inconsistent but flirting with the playoffs, which was a far cry from the past few campaigns, and he’d built a decent squad that was playing some nice football. Some say his position was made difficult by a new director of football; others say he threw his toys out of the pram after being denied even more money to buy even more players. Both equally plausible, but either way losing Karanka has completely derailed our season and once again we find ourselves facing a complete summer overhaul.
Martin O’Neill felt a little bit like our Ian Holloway appointment – big connection with the club, but not an option any other club would have gone for. How’s he done so far? Will he still be there next season, I’d seen some noise around his position prior to the weekend win against Boro?
Ignoring for a moment the Karanka situation and how disappointed many, many fans were with how that played out, I did think O’Neill was a really positive, exciting appointment. Not only is he loved by fans for his exploits at the club in our heyday, he’s one of the most decorated managers in the Championship and (I think I’m right in saying) the most successful coach we’ve been able to attract since Clough. Add in Roy Keane who, let’s not forget, did a fantastic job getting Sunderland promoted from this league a few years ago, and there was plenty to feel good about.
But it’s not quite gone to plan. He didn’t really manage to hit the ground running – bar a couple of promising performances early on, including being absolutely robbed at the Hawthorns by that cheating scoundrel Dwight Gayle – and our playoff push petered out alarmingly quickly. Performances dropped significantly as he struggled to get to grips with the squad and experimented with line-ups and formations—something he didn’t really have time for but pushed on with regardless.
That failure to capitalise on what was a relatively decent position, four points off the playoffs, and a number of really rubbish, abject performances, has cast a huge shadow over the appointment. There is a noisy minority on (you guessed it) Twitter already calling for his head and calling him a dinosaur—mainly because he’s left record signing Joao Carvalho out of the starting 11 in almost every game, citing his need to adapt to the physicality of the Championship.
But I don’t buy any rubbish about him being out of touch and old-fashioned because he sees virtue in hard work and commitment, and the importance of forwards and flair players tackling back. Just look at Pep Guardiola and his complete transformation of Raheem Sterling into one of the best players in the world at the moment—one of Sterling’s hallmarks is his non-stop harrying of defenders and you’ll often see him making tackles in a full-back position. But Guardiola’s a genius and O’Neill’s a dinosaur, of course.
That’s an extreme comparison to draw, I know, and his case wasn’t helped by Carvalho starting and completely running the show on Saturday as we beat Boro 3-0 (did I mention our little number ten is a magician?). But what’s to say that’s not a result of the work Martin and Roy have done with him on the training ground?
Of course, football fans will always think they know best, and social media has given a platform to people who would otherwise be vomiting their nonsense into the Wetherspoons urinals on most Saturday evenings. But here we are. I’m sure I’ll get dog’s abuse for daring to defend the bloke, but isn’t there a teeny, tiny possibility that the source of all our problems is not the current manager but the fact we haven’t given a single man a full season in charge for a decade?
I would love to see him here next season, given a decent shot at making things work. He deserves the opportunity, not just given his history with the club the fact he’s only been here three months. And the entire fanbase, whether they like it or not, deserves the chance to see what a little bit of stability could do.
Why hasn’t this team been able to compete for the play-offs this season? Where are the weak links?
Inconsistency. Whether under Karanka or O’Neill, we have been a complete Jekyll and Hyde side for the entire season. It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why this is happening, because it’s not one specific player or group of players having dodgy games. Anyway, you’ll probably see it for yourself—after our best performance of the season on Saturday, I wouldn’t put it past us turning in our worst at Loftus Road.
Player of the season candidates?
It has to be Joe Lolley. He has been an absolute revelation. I wasn’t his biggest fan last season and generally thought he lacked end product, but he’s had an incredible year—you could fill the entire goal of the season competition with his efforts, for starters. He’s also completed the most dribbles in the league by a mile—the ball just seems to stick to him. I would be very surprised if we’re not trying to beat away some sizeable offers for him from teams like Norwich in the summer.
Honourable mention to Lewis Grabban, who for a long time looked like being our first 20-goal-a-seaon man in bloody ages, but has had a few injuries and has lost his scoring touch in recent months.
Jack Robinson copped it a bit at your place in December, how’s he done overall in his first season with you?
Really well. We’ve had a chronic lack of left-backs at Forest for as long as I can remember and he’s plugged the gap admirably, as well as filling in well at centre-half when required. I think the occasion – not to mention his pre-match interview – got the better of him last time around. He was given the captain’s armband against Boro and is highly thought of by most.
Any financial/FFP consequences of not getting promoted this year, given last summer’s enormous intake of players?
I think we’ve probably got one more summer spending spree in us before FFP rears its ugly head. We’ve sold enough players in recent years to help fund it, but if we don’t go up next year we could be in trouble.
How’s your latest mental owner? Are we expecting another big summer spend to try and crack promotion next year?
Ruthless. Which is probably why Karanka left in January—there are whispers that the goalposts of the ‘challenging for the playoffs’ target for the season were pretty quickly shifted to ‘promotion or the sack’.
There’s the potential to sell one of our assets to fund a few signings – Lolley in particular – but I think that would be a big mistake. We’d be better off shipping out the hangers on to free up the wage bill. If O’Neill is still around, I’d expect the owner to back him with as many signings as he feels he needs to finally get us out of this league. Hopefully another exciting summer of ins and outs, but it could be our final crack before FFP bites again.
The Twitter @jack_mccormick, @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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