Nottingham Forest’s status as a Championship club looks more perilous by the week. The Reds are sitting second bottom of the table, six points from safety with sixteen games of the season remaining and have only beaten Ipswich Town in the league since the 19th of November, picking up four measly points in the process. Few Forest supporters can remember such a tumultuous season on Trentside, which took another twist on February fourth.
The club was rocked by the tragic news that owner Nigel Doughty died suddenly at his Lincolnshire home at the age of 54. Doughty became Forest chairman in 2001, stepping down in October of last year on the same day Steve McClaren resigned as manager. The millionaire businessman stepped in when it seemed as if Forest would be heading for administration, staving off that threat, before going on to invest the best part of £100 million pounds into the club during his chairmanship.
A life-long Forest fan, Doughty’s dream was to see the Reds return to the Premier League but unfortunately it did not happen, despite some near misses. He may have made mistakes as chairman with regards to managerial appointments or the timing of his investments in the playing staff, which saw him face criticism from some sections of the Forest support, but his passion for the club could never be questioned. He was the only person to invest significant sums of money into Forest to keep the club going and for that, the fans will be forever greatful. The tributes after his death from Reds supporters and the wider football world showed just how thankful people were for his generosity as Chairman and he will be greatly missed.
Upon resiging as Chairman, Doughty pledged to fund the contracts of players signed during his chairmanship, which could see a futher £15 million of his money pumped into Forest between now and 2014. His passing has cast some doubt as to the financial future of the club, but as for now things are unclear.
What is clear is that Forest are operating under tighter financial constraints and have been since the end of last year, which has meant little investment in new players during the January transfer window. Long-serving centre back Wes Morgan – who made over 400 appearances for the Reds since making his debut in 2003 – was sold to local rivals Leicester City for £1 million, which represents good business as the defender’s contract was due to expire in the summer.
Young striker Patrick Bamford, who caught the eye thanks to prolific goalscoring form in this season’s FA Youth Cup, joined Chelsea for £1.5 million after making just two appearances for Forest. It was disappointing to see the promising 18-year-old leave as he could have been a worthy addition to the first-team squad at the City Ground, however the club could not turn down the money. Perhaps that is an indictment of where Forest find themselves now, considering in the past they could keep hold of their best young players, giving them first-team experience before selling them on.
Manager Steve Cotterill addressed an imbalanced squad before the window closed, bringing in several loanees to fill the gaps. Experienced defender Danny Higginbotham joined from Stoke City, young centre-back Scott Wooton followed from Manchester United while left-back George Elokobi and midfielder Adlene Guedioura both arrived from Wolves until the end of the season. These signings have strengthened the team and brought a freshness to the squad, which could provide an extra impetus going into the closing stages of the campaign.
However results on the pitch have not improved, with Forest winning just one of their last thirteen league games. On Saturday they hosted Watford at the City Ground, a side who have also been under threat from relegation but had pulled away from the drop zone thanks to some good form. Despite that it was a big opportunity for the Reds to get all three points and close the gap on teams above them, which was not taken as the game ended 1-1. After some poor performances in recent games Forest put in a better display and for the first time in a while resembled a team – it was a relief to get at least a point to stop the rot.
Garath McCleary’s long-range strike put the Reds in front prior to Troy Deeney levelling matters before half-time, but in the second half Forest spurned great opportunities to retake the lead. Chris Gunter, the full-back playing in a more advanced right-wing role, hit the crossbar with one close-range effort and put another two over the bar, before Robbie Findley’s awful first touch denied him the chance to go one-on-one with the goalkeeper in the final minutes and potentially score a winning goal.
Forest were left frustrated but the three debutants – Higginbotham, Wooton and Elokobi – acquitted themselves well in the back four, while Adlene Guedioura put in a commanding performance in central midfield, winning tackles, shielding the defence and also creating opportunities on the attack.
On Tuesday night the Reds travelled to the North East to face promotion chasing Middlesbrough, where the home side were expected to win given their league position, but Forest were more optimistic after their showing in the Watford match. The game was a fairly dull affair in the first half, with ‘Boro enjoying more of the possession and Forest occasionally threatening on the break, but it was the home side who took the lead just before half-time through Marvin Emnes’ deflected effort. Soon after the break, Forest fell further behind when Lukas Jutkiewicz spun Luke Chambers on the edge of the area and fired past Lee Camp for 2-0, with Reds fans fearing a capitulation.
Forest fought back and halved the score when Joel Lynch headed home substitute Andy Reid’s free-kick, before Kevin Thomson was sent off for the hosts after a second bookable offence, to give Forest hope. Guedioura, putting in another encouraging performance, then hit the bar with a thumping 30 yard drive which bounced off the crossbar to safety. That was the closest Steve Cotterill’s side came to equalising as Middlesbrough held on for a 2-1 win, despite late Forest pressure, but a lack of creativity proved their downfall once more. In reality a 2-0 deficit was always going to be difficult to overcome as Forest left themselves with a lot to do.
Manager Steve Cotterill, when questioned by local radio after the final whistle, surprised many Reds fans when mustering the response “If we hadn’t conceded two goals, we would have won.” In stating the glaringly obvious he seemed at a loss in finding a way to explain the result and how to turn around his side’s fortunes. He has been heavily criticised in recent times and it is not difficult to see why.
Cotterill was hired in October with the remit of getting results. Encouraging wins against Middlesbrough, Blackpool and Reading early on in his tenure provided a good start, but since then things have gone downhill. He has won just 5 of his 22 games in charge and there have been little signs of improvement on the pitch. He did inherit a tough job, working with little money and the previous manager’s backroom staff, but there is still enough quality in this Forest squad to be comfortably in mid-table. The players have to take some stick for lacklustre performances, but the buck stops with the manager.
The quality of football on show since Cotterill arrived on Trentside has gradually got worse, to the point where Forest are playing a direct game, lumping the ball forward to big frontmen in a primitive style of football which is terrible to watch. Radio Teeside reported on Tuesday via their pitchside correspondent that Cotterill lambasted Luke Chambers for passing the ball along the floor rather than hoof it into the corners, which says it all really. A direct style is fine if it gets results, but that is not happening.
Creative players such as Radoslaw Majewski and Lewis McGugan have been frozen out of the team, while Andy Reid – who has created five of the Reds’ last nine goals – is brought on for the last twenty minutes of games in the hope he will make something happen. The manager’s tactics have come under scrutiny also, after changing a winning 4-2-3-1 formation at Ipswich earlier this year to an ineffective version of 4-4-2 ahead of the visit of Southampton, where Forest were soundly beaten.
Against Watford and Middlesbrough, Cotterill opted for 4-4-2 which included Chris Gunter on the right of midfield, central defender Scott Wooton at right-back with captain Chambers remaining at centre-back, despite his poor form for much of this season. Joel Lynch is more deserving of a starting berth, having been Forest’s most impressive defender thus far, so his omission was surprising. Gunter missed several goalscoring opportunities in the Watford match, but he cannot be criticised too harshly as he is a right-back being played out of position.
Prior to the visit of Watford Cotterill spoke of his happiness at being able to bring in some of his own players, so he could no longer put “square pegs in round holes” which in effect is what he has continued to do.
Forest fans are disillusioned and losing faith in the team and the club as a whole. They are calling for Steve Cotterill to leave but with chairman Frank Clark a previous vice-chairman of the League Managers’ Association, perhaps he is unwilling to pull the trigger just yet. It is never good to see a club chop and change managers, but the lack of progress and direction under Cotterill means something must be done.
Cotterill was handed a three-and-a-half year contract when arriving from Portsmouth, which seems a staggering decision now. It means that compensation could be costly should he be sacked, but many supporters on Twitter and Forest’s LTLF Forum have suggested there is someone already at the club who is ready to take Cotterill’s place – Sean O’Driscoll.
He was brought in as first team coach last month and has a reputation for getting his teams to play attractive, pass-and-move football, which would suit the current Forest squad as they played that way under Billy Davies and, to a certain extent, Steve McClaren. A popular move would be to place Cotterill on gardening leave and give O’Driscoll the manager’s job until the end of the season at least.
Forest could find themselves in a slightly better position on Friday as Cotterill’s former club Portsmouth are expected to be docked ten points after going into administration again – which would place them below the Reds in the table. However fellow strugglers Coventry City overtook Forest into 22nd on Tuesday night and they visit the City Ground on Saturday in what is arguably the biggest game of the season – a relegation six-pointer if ever there was one.
If Forest were to lose, they would be staring League One in the face and the manager’s job would surely be under threat. Billy Davies saved the club from relegation in 2009 with a squad which was probably weaker than the current one and Cotterill is running out of excuses for his side’s plight. Forest have scored six goals in thirteen league games and out of the 72 Football League clubs, Forest are 71st on current form, which is a damning statistic.
The club needs support at this difficult time of course, but after witnessing a host of abject performances with no signs of improvement, who can blame the fans for becoming disillusioned and wondering what is happening to their team? There are sixteen games remaining to save Nottingham Forest’s season – for the good of the club a change may be what is needed to sort out this mess.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis