Twenty months after he last set foot inside The City Ground, Billy Davies is back in charge of Nottingham Forest.
A season of upheaval took another twist this week when the 48-year-old Scot was given the opportunity to manage the club for a second time by chairman Fawaz Al-Hasawi. It sets the seal on a quite remarkable comeback for Davies, who returns to Forest ready to complete what he calls “unfinished business.”
Since he was sacked by the club’s previous hierarchy in June 2011, his name has been mentioned every time the Forest managerial hot seat has been vacant, which has happened on many occasions in that time as Reds fans will testify. Davies was given his marching orders despite leading Forest to two consecutive Championship play-off finals and his dismissal came as a shock to many. On the field he was relatively successful, even if he fell just short in taking the club back to the Premier League.
However, his abrasive personality became too much for the board. Davies’ outspoken manner saw him criticise the powers-that-be for not bringing in more players to help achieve promotion. He also had a habit of attracting headlines onto himself to deflect pressure away from the team, but this was his management style. Like Marmite, you either love him or you hate him.
His them-against-us mentality he instilled into his players and his passionate persona endeared him to large sections of the Forest support, who are delighted to see him return. His achievements during his previous spell as boss are another reason why his re-appointment has gone down well.
He took over at the City Ground in January 2009, inheriting a young Forest side which was struggling to adapt to Championship life following promotion from League One the season before. He saved Forest from relegation and immediately transformed the club’s fortunes, guiding them to third place the following season before losing a pulsating play-off semi-final to Blackpool.
The following year he took Forest into the play-offs again, where they were beaten by eventual winners Swansea City in another dramatic semi-final. During his tenure Forest went 36 games unbeaten at home across an 18-month period and were firmly established as one of the best clubs in the division.
Davies appointment first time around was met with a mixed response as the former manager of rivals Derby County, whom he guided to promotion in 2007 and for playing a direct style of football. These fears were quickly dispelled as his Forest side played good passing football and were entertaining to watch, especially at the City Ground.
Away from home he tended to be more conservative, seeking to not lose games as opposed to win them, which led to some indifferent performances. However Forest did have some memorable away days under him, the 3-1 demolition of West Brom and 1-0 victory over Derby – the club’s first win at Pride Park – particular highlights.
Davies becomes the club’s third manager of this season and fourth of the Al-Hasawi family’s ownership, if you include the inherited Steve Cotterill, who was sacked in July 2012 a week after their takeover of the club.
Davies’ return to Nottingham was made possible following the exit of Alex McLeish after just 40 days in charge of the club. He departed on Tuesday morning by mutual consent, citing “a difference of understanding of the development strategy” as his reason.
McLeish’s exit was surprising and made headlines for all the wrong reasons. There had been rumours that he was considering his future after failing to be backed sufficiently by the club’s owners in the January transfer window. McLeish saw bids for Chris Burke and Michael Kightly fail, while a proposed move for Peterborough’s George Boyd was vetoed late on deadline day by the Forest chairman, for apparently failing an eye test.
That seemed to be the tipping point for McLeish and three days after his final match in charge, a 2-1 defeat at former club Birmingham City in which Burke ironically scored both goals, he was gone.
The Scot took over with Forest one point off the play-off places, but left with them six points adrift following just one win in his seven league matches. Even though McLeish was not a popular choice for manager when he replaced the sacked Sean O’Driscoll, his exit made Forest look like a circus with managers coming and going at an alarming rate.
Davies was installed as the bookies’ favourite for the job on Tuesday evening and his subsequent appointment has gone a long way to appeasing many Reds supporters, who took to Twitter, forums and a local radio phone-in to show their delight at his return.
There are some who are sceptical about him coming back to the City Ground. As well as the aforementioned disagreements out with the board, he was also criticised for ignoring the club’s youth academy and not giving young players the chance to break into the first team.
John Pemberton left Forest not long after Davies first arrived in 2009 but returned in the summer of 2012 to become Professional Development Coach, working with the club’s academy prospects in the development squad and helping them bridge the gap to the first team. There have been concerns voiced by some that Davies will disband this as he did previously.
With Sean O’Driscoll in charge, it seemed as if Forest were building for the future, ingraining an ethos of passing, possession football within the club and placing emphasis on the academy to nurture the players of tomorrow. By sacking O’Driscoll and appointing McLeish, Fawaz Al-Hasawi set out his stall clearly. Building the club steadily over a number of years is not his intention now, promotion is.
It is a shame to see O’Driscoll’s progressive methods so abruptly abandoned, but if the club’s hierarchy want to see Forest in the Premier League as soon as possible, there are few better managers out there than Billy Davies to achieve that. Given all the recent events at the club, he is arguably the best man for the job at this moment at time.
The last time Davies was in charge, he was expected to deliver promotion and repeatedly requested more money to fund this. This could explain his decision back then to concentrate funds on the first-team as opposed to the youth setup.
If the Al-Hasawi’s are willing to fund the academy as they previously claimed they will, this may not even be an issue. Davies threw 19-year-old Chris Gunter into a relegation battle in 2009 and had a young Ryan Bertrand on-loan from Chelsea, playing him at left-back for the first half of the 2010-11 season, so perhaps he will give Forest’s youngsters game time if they are good enough.
There have been many changes to the playing staff since Davies was last in charge, but he will be reunited with a few familiar faces such as Dexter Blackstock, Radoslaw Majewski, Chris Cohen and Lewis McGugan, who were all mainstays of the side which achieved back-to-back play-off finishes. McGugan had his best season in a Forest shirt under Davies in 2010-11 but has struggled for consistency since, so if Davies can get him firing again he’ll have a real player on his hands once more.
The current squad at the City Ground has the potential to be even better than the one he had previously. There is a strong strikeforce plus a midfield which has competition but is light on a winger or two. Davies got the best out of defenders such as Luke Chambers and Wes Morgan during his previous spell in charge, two players who had struggled to make an impact in the Championship before his arrival. If he can do the same with the likes of Greg Halford, Danny Collins, Daniel Ayala, Dan Harding and Gonzalo Jara then there is a good defence there in the making.
There are pros and cons to weight up when it comes to Davies, but I have to admit it has been good hearing him talk so passionately about coming back to Forest and his plans for the club second time around.
His trusted coaching staff comprising assistant manager Ned Kelly, first team coach Julian Darby and goalkeeping coach Pete Williams will return, with Davies set to start work on Monday. Rob Kelly takes caretaker charge of Forest’s visit to Bristol City – now managed by one Sean O’Driscoll – on Saturday, with Davies to watch on from the stands.
Davies takes over with Forest in 11th place, six points adrift of the play-off spots with 16 games left to play. Finishing in the top six is not impossible and if he can get the team firing, there’s every chance they can go on a run and be in the promotion shake up come the end of the campaign. I would expect him to get the club climbing the table, but promotion might just be out of reach for this season.
What Forest need more than anything is stability. Hopefully Davies will be here much longer than the four men who have occupied the manager’s role since his first spell in charge. He is a strong manager who will not want the club’s owners interfering in team affairs, something which Fawaz Al-Hasawi has been accused of with his previous managers.
The Al-Hasawi’s are still relatively new to English football and have made some mistakes as they get to grips with how the game works here. Hopefully they will learn from their errors and let Davies manage for a prolonged period of time, ideally for the duration of his three-and-a-half-year deal at least.
One thing is for sure, supporting Forest with Billy Davies back as manager will not be dull. His first game in charge is a home fixture against Bolton Wanderers on February 16th and the atmosphere at The City Ground that day promises to be electric.
Whatever you think of him, you cannot deny that his re-appointment has caused a buzz among Reds fans and brought back some excitement, which has arguably been missing during his time away from the club. If his “unfinished business” drives him on to better things this time around, we Forest fans will not be complaining.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up’s Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis