Make no bones about it, Nottingham Forest are stuck in a relegation battle. Sitting third bottom of the Championship after an embarrassing 3-0 home reversal to league leaders Southampton on Saturday, Steve Cotterill’s side are beginning to look destined for the drop.
After going seven games without scoring a goal, losing six and drawing one of them, Marcus Tudgay brought ten barren hours of football to an end when he gave Forest the lead at Portman Road, five minutes into the Bank Holiday Monday encounter with fellow strugglers Ipswich Town. His goal gave the team the confidence they needed as Garath McCleary’s fine solo strike and a second from Tudgay saw Forest depart Suffolk with all three points. The 3-1 scoreline was more than welcome and seemed as if things would begin to improve in the New Year.
A 0-0 draw followed at the City Ground against Leicester City in the FA Cup, which was a decent result against local rivals, although it does mean the two will do battle again at the King Power Stadium this week. In both games manager Cotterill opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, using two holding midfielders, three attacking midfielders and Tudgay as the frontman. The formation gave Forest some defensive solidity with Jonathan Greening and George Boateng shielding the back four against Ipswich, which allowed the attacking players to do what they do best without fear of leaving the team exposed.
Andy Reid has been Forest’s best player of late, creating all three goals at Ipswich and two great goalscoring opportunities against Leicester. However Cotterill abandoned the successful formation against Southampton, reverting back to a 4-4-2 and dropping the in-form Reid to select Marlon Harewood as Tudgay’s strike partner. When Cotterill first took on the Forest job an orthodox 4-4-2 seemed to be his best option, however the team’s improved performances in a different system have proved otherwise.
The classic phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ was pretty apt on Saturday as Forest found themselves overran, out-passed and out-thought in the midfield as Nigel Adkins’ Saints strolled to victory. Without Reid in the team creativity was lacking, and Lewis McGugan was shunted out to the left hand side, where he put in a rather lethargic display.
Southampton’s opening goal seemed to sum up Forest’s season, as Marlon Harewood missed a good opportunity at one end, before the visitors broke up the other and scored when the ball fell to Guly do Prado from close range, who finished clinically. Forest had their moments but were largely outplayed by Southampton, even more so when the home side were reduced to ten men four minutes into the second half.
Reds captain Luke Chambers was harshly adjudged to have elbowed David Connolly in the head when challenging for an aerial ball. Connolly made a meal of the situation as he fell to the floor, as the Southampton players and coaching staff bayed for action to be taken, which did Chambers no favours. Connolly was certainly sprightly soon after when he doubled the visitors’ lead, before a long range drive from Morgan Schneiderlin made it 3-0, which led to thousands of Forest fans walking out with eleven minutes still to play.
It was another lacklustre display from Forest, who have not scored at home since November 19th. The mood amongst the support is changing as they witness gutless performances, many losing patience as shown by the mass exodus before the final whistle on Saturday. A relegation mentality is setting in at the City Ground and it is not nice to see.
The players are feeling the brunt of the fans’ anger but so too is Steve Cotterill. He made a tactical error on Saturday which handed the initiative to Southampton right from the off, and after a bright start to his Forest reign, the performances are getting worse and so too is the football. On Saturday the Reds resorted to hoofing aimless long balls upfield, which ended up giving possession back to Southampton time and again.
In his post-match interview Cotterill couldn’t provide any answers for the poor performance. When asked if the squad is good enough to keep Forest in the division, he said ‘I don’t know, I do not know the answer to that’. Not the most convincing response given the circumstances, but Cotterill one again lamented the imbalance of his squad, with the defensive cover due to be stretched even further now Chambers faces a three-match suspension.
Cotterill’s ability to wheel and deal in the transfer market has not yet surfaced since the transfer window opened at the beginning of January, with striker Marlon Harewood the only player arriving thus far on a free transfer. Harewood starts a second spell at the City Ground, where he began his career in 1999. At 32 years of age he brings some experience to the front line along with a big, physical presence, but he won’t be the man who fires home the goals at a prolific rate to steer Forest clear of trouble.
Sheffield United midfielder Nick Montgomery is a player who has reportedly been interesting Forest, along with several other Championship clubs. However there are at least four central midfielders already on the books, so strengthening the defence should remain the priority. Chambers’ suspension, coupled with injuries to Wes Morgan and Brendan Moloney leaves the Reds short on defensive cover, with Guy Moussi expected to fill in at centre-back for the cup replay against Leicester.
For Forest to do business in this transfer window, funds will have to be made available by moving some players on. Two bids for full-back Chris Gunter have been rejected, but it remains to be seen whether any interest will be shown in other members of the squad. On current form, few of them are hardly putting themselves in the shop window.
It is the time of year when rumours surrounding players and managers surface and the latest involving Forest could be interesting. The much-maligned Chief Executive Mark Arthur may be leaving to rejoin Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club while Steve Cotterill could be out of the door soon, with Billy Davies to return as manager due to Arthur’s exit. This sounds almost too good to be true and for that reason, it probably is.
However if things do not improve on the field, will Cotterill be the one who pays the price? He is still the manager of Forest so perhaps it is unfair to speculate on whether he will walk away from the job or be sacked – while he is the boss he should be backed by the fans. The team have gradually gone downhill since the positive impact he made upon taking the job and it looks as if some of the players have lost their desire to fight for the cause and win football matches.
Cotterill is regarded as a nice guy with an upbeat, cheerful personality who has built a reputation for motivating players to get the best out of them. However as the team’s performances have steadily worsened in recent weeks, particularly at home, the buck must stop with the manager. The vast majority of this Forest squad took the club into the Championship play-offs for two seasons running and it is Cotterill’s responsibility to get them performing consistently. He has come into a very difficult job, given everything which has happened at the City Ground earlier this season, but if there is no progress on the pitch, questions will be asked of him.
Billy Davies’ motivational style of management was coupled with a disciplined approach, which saw the Reds players produce the goods when it mattered week after week, along with building a team spirit and togetherness in a kind of ‘them against us’ mentality. It worked as Forest enjoyed success under the Scot, which makes it all the more frustrating that the same personnel who excelled with Davies at the helm now look devoid of ideas and confidence in their ability.
It would not look good if Forest had to appoint a third permanent manager this season, but talk on fan forums has brought up a name whose appointment would not go down too well with some sections of the Reds support – Neil Warnock.
Recently sacked by Queens Park Rangers, Warnock enjoyed success across the River Trent at Notts County, taking the club into the old First Division and at Sheffield United, where his Blades side defeated Forest in that unforgettable Division One play-off semi-final in 2003, before taking them into the Premier League automatically in 2006. His track record speaks for itself, with seven promotions won with six different clubs and three of those promotions coming in the second tier.
Regardless of what some may think of Warnock and his outspoken nature, he is a manager who would keep the players disciplined and focused on their jobs. Having turned around the fortunes of a floundering QPR side so quickly, he knows how to deliver results at Championship level. In the summer Steve McClaren was hired because ‘he was available,’ according to Mark Arthur at the time. Warnock is now in a similar position and there could be an opportunity for Forest to make a move if it becomes clear things are not improving on the pitch.
Of course this is all speculation and nothing is certain. In the wake of Forest’s plight, some fans have been hoping to see ex-manager Billy Davies make a romantic return to the Reds, but given the manner of his exit in July last year, that is highly unlikely.
With Nottingham Forest very much in a relegation dogfight, it is going to be a very difficult few months between now and the end of the season. There is enough quality within the squad to pull away from the bottom three, but it is time for the players to perform. Unless things change and fast, I fear the club will begin next season in League One rather than the Championship.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis