Nottingham Forest have had quite an eventful start to 2013, off the field at least. The past four weeks have seen a new manager arrive, three senior figures at the club relieved of their duties and the Reds’ first-choice goalkeeper released from his contract.
It had all been going so swimmingly since the Al-Hasawi family completed their takeover of the club last summer. They appointed the progressive Sean O’Driscoll as manager and funded the arrivals of 14 new players. They expressed their desire for the club to reach the Premier League, but were willing to give O’Driscoll the time to build a squad capable of promotion, or so it seemed.
Forest outclassed Neil Warnock’s Leeds United in a 4-2 Boxing Day victory at the City Ground to move within one point of the play-off spots in the Championship. However, a few hours after one of Forest’s best performances under O’Driscoll, the manager was sacked after just four months in the job.
This news was met with criticism from a large section of Forest supporters. O’Driscoll is well-known for getting his sides to play attractive passing football and seemed the right man for the job. Upon taking the role in July he was forced to hastily build a squad ready for the new season, with Forest having narrowly avoided relegation to League One the previous campaign.
The team had performed inconsistently during his tenure – understandably so with the number of new playing personnel added in the summer – and it was taking time for his footballing ethos to get across to the players, but it was nevertheless a shock when he was shown the door.
The following day Alex McLeish was appointed as Forest manager, a move again met with criticism from the Reds faithful. He arrived with a reputation for playing cagey, defensive football and with his recent struggle as Aston Villa manager fresh in the memory. On the surface it was hardly an appointment to inspire the fans.
However, it became clear that the Al-Hasawi’s priorities had changed over the last few months and promotion this season was now the goal. McLeish has proven success at this level, having guided Birmingham City to promotion in 2009, so for that reason it is clear to see why the Kuwaiti owners opted for the 53-year-old Scot.
His reign got off to a slow start, with a 2-2 home draw against Crystal Palace thanks to Billy Sharp’s last-minute equaliser followed by a 3-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers. A week later, Forest were embarassed in the third round of the FA Cup by League One Oldham Athletic, with the Latics running out deserved 3-2 winners.
McLeish finally picked up his first Forest win at the fourth attempt as the Reds defeated Peterborough 2-1 at the City Ground to gain some ground on the top six, but the week prior to the match had been dominated by stories surrounding the future of goalkeeper Lee Camp.
Two days before the game, it was reported that McLeish had told Camp he could leave the club amid interest from Premier League sides Reading and Norwich City. Camp had been first choice since arriving from QPR in 2009 but he was criticised for some poor performances over the last 18 months, his form becoming patchy after Forest blocked a move to Swansea City in 2010.
With Camp free to find another club, Forest were linked with moves for former England goalkeepers Paul Robinson and Robert Green, but these failed to materialise and Camp’s deputy Karl Darlow was handed his full League debut against Peterborough.
Four days after that game, it was announced that Forest Chief Executive Mark Arthur, Head of Recruitment Keith Burt and club ambassador Frank Clark had all parted company with the club.
The axing of three senior club figures in one fell swoop raised eyebrows, but perhaps this was the Al-Hasawi’s finally stamping their mark on the club. Had they made these moves straight after their takeover, they would have been criticised for ‘rocking the boat’ too soon. Having been owners for a few months, perhaps they are now in a better position to bring in their own people.
Arthur had bore the brunt of criticism from a section of Forest fans who felt he had made poor decisions in the running of the club, particularly under the chairmanship of Nigel Doughty. One famous Arthur PR blunder was the “We’re serious about promotion, are you?” campaign ahead of the 2004-05 season. It was designed to justify a rise in season ticket prices to fund a promotion push ahead of a season which ultimately ended with Forest relegated to League One.
The timing of Keith Burt’s departure was surprising. To dispose of the club’s head of recruitment right in the middle of the January transfer window seemed a hasty decision, especially when Forest had transfer deals in the pipeline.
Frank Clark’s exit was arguably the most unexpected of all. The 69-year-old has a strong association with Forest, having won the European Cup as a player with the club in 1979. He also managed the club between 1993 and 1996 and acted as Chairman following the resignation of Nigel Doughty in 2011. Clark was working in an ambassadorial role before being placed on gardening leave, with local news outlets reporting that he had been told to ‘stay away’ from the club, which if true is a harsh way to treat such a well-liked figure.
On Saturday, Forest made the short trip down the A52 for the eagerly-anticipated meeting with local rivals Derby County. A good performance saw Forest earn a 1-1 draw at Pride Park, but it could have been more.
Forest performed well for the most part, taking the lead in the first half when Chris Cohen slotted home after miskicking his inital effort on goal, but sloppy play by Simon Gillett gave the ball to Derby forward Conor Sammon, who played in Jamie Ward for the equaliser early in the second period. Forest rallied, with Billy Sharp and Dexter Blackstock both going close to finding a winner but the point was a worthy return for a good showing in a fiercely competed local derby.
One of the biggest challenges facing McLeish is to get his squad performing consistently and pick up enough points to be in the promotion shake-up come the end of the season. With 18 games remaining Forest are currently 10th in the table, five points off the play-off spots
Forest possess a talented squad, with many players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet, so if McLeish can combine good passing football with some defensive steel then he will soon win over the doubters. The team’s defensive record is by no means the worst in the Championship, but it could be better and McLeish has begun to address this by bringing in Chile international Gonzalo Jara from West Brom and re-signing Elliot Ward from Norwich, both on loans until the end of the season.
Goalkeeper Darlow has looked assured during his first two Forest starts, particularly against Derby where he was unfazed by the intimidating atmosphere. He commanded his area, came for crosses and made saves when called upon. At the age of 22, he has the time and ability to become Forest number one for many years to come and it will be interesting to see how he develops with more games under his belt.
Forest fans love to see young players come through the ranks and break into the first team, so it is encouraging to see McLeish have faith in Darlow, especially after Lee Camp was finally released from his Forest contract this week.
Some good news followed Camp’s departure, with Dexter Blackstock putting pen to paper on a new four-and-a-half-year deal. There had been speculation over the striker’s future, so it is a boost to see the fans’ favourite commit his future to Forest. The club have also completed their third signing of the transfer window, with Darius Henderson joining from Millwall for an undisclosed fee. The 31-year-old striker provides a different option up front with his strength and physical presence and Forest know about what he can do after he scored in Millwall’s 4-1 win at the City Ground earlier this season.
McLeish has said he is looking to bring in a few more new faces before the transfer window shuts at the end of the month, with Birmingham winger Chris Burke linked with a move to Forest in the past week. The team is in need of more options out wide so it remains to be seen if a new winger is brought in. Forest did sign 22-year-old wideman Stephen McLaughlin from Derry City at the start of the month, but the Irishman is currently training with the club’s development squad and is not expected to make the step up to the first team yet.
If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that Forest need no more distractions as they aim for promotion in the final three months of the season. Hopefully things behind the scenes will settle from here, allowing Alex McLeish and the players to focus on reaching the Premier League.
A bit of stability is all we’re asking for!
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up’s Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis