Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A Good Start

Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty damn happy with the season so far. It’s been a dramatic shift in mood since March, when I sat in the pub wanting to cry into my steak and chips as Derby demolished us and the bar staff laughed at me.

A lot of that shift has to do with the man in the dugout; we are no longer hostage to Davies’ one man war against anyone who looks at him funny and the painfully inconsistent performances that characterised both his spells in charge. Instead we have Stuart Pearce at the helm, a man who is so iconic to Forest fans that fans of my generation and younger who never got to see him play in the Garibaldi in person are raised to understand that he is THE legendary player.

His track record in management is not the most illustrious (if he was available Martin O’Neill would be the former Forest player I’d most want in charge on that basis), but his commitment to the club and affinity with the fans is hard to underestimate. The noise when he walked out at a full City Ground before the Blackpool game was up there with the most incredible atmosphere’s I’ve ever been a part of, genuinely rivalling the dramatic promotion from league one on the final day of the 2007-2008 season. He’s a man who captained the club for the best part of a decade, scored 92 goals from left back and famously said he’d rather go on the dole than manage Derby.

He’s also a man who prides himself on honesty and humility, a quality present in his interviews since taking over the job. This was highlighted in the wake of the sales of Darlow and Lascelles to Newcastle (they’ve since been loaned back and now the dust has settled it looks like a good bit of business for the club). Pearce was scheduled to answer fan’s questions for an hour on BBC radio Nottingham that evening. Some managers would have made excuses and declined to show up for the interview, others might have turned up but answered very guardedly, giving away little and leaving the fans nervous and uncertain. Davies and managers of his ilk might have come out with an ill-considered attack on Fawaz that would have doomed the relationship.

Instead Pearce answered questions honestly for the entire hour, explaining what had happened from his perspective, expressing disappointment with how the deal was handled, but making great efforts to reaffirm his commitment to the club and otherwise strong relationship with the chairman. It was such a refreshing experience after the paranoia and aggression that characterised so much of Davies’ interactions with fans and the media, to hear Pearce come out and answer questions openly and calmly. How he handled it certainly left room for the details of the deal to become clear and Fawaz’s to explain his side of the story, which seems to have allowed both to move on and continue a promising relationship between them.

The passion that earned him the nickname Psycho is still there, bubbling under the surface (as an unfortunate linesman at Hillsborough found out the hard way after a dodgy offside decision), but for all the joy it brings to see Pearce’s iconic clenched fist punch the air after a goal, it’s the calmness with which he has handled his return to the club that is encouraging. Hopefully that controlled passion will rub off on the players.

Pearce’s interview brings me onto the other man central to Forest’s strong start to the season, Fawaz Al Hasawi, chairman and owner of the club since 2012. It’s not been a smooth road between then and now; there’ve been numerous incidents, before the Lascelles/Darlow incident, that have been indicative of the fact that this is his first experience of running a football club. The harsh sacking of Sean O’Driscoll with Forest in the play off positions at Christmas 2012, the seemingly doomed from the start hiring of McLeish and then his eagerness to support Davies allowing him to create a toxic atmosphere around the club were all misjudgements in my eyes, but made with good intentions.

This latest incident, with the full details available now, is suggestive of a man understandably used to being the final decision man when it comes to the business, a situation that is more complicated in football because of the importance of the manager. There needed to be better communication between him and Pearce, something that will hopefully be helped in the future by the appointment of the experienced Paul Faulkner as Chief Executive.

One thing that has been clear from the start, even amidst his worst decisions, is the good intentions of Fawaz. He is clearly passionate about the club and his interactions with the fans show a desire not just to be an effective chairman but a popular one as well; someone who keeps the fans informed and is one of them rather than a straight forward moneyman. At several games last year the City Ground reverberated to chants of “We love you Fawaz, we do”, not the kind of chant many chairmen get to enjoy.

He has backed each of his managers in the transfer market, breaking the club’s previous record fee to sign Britt Assombalonga (whose 4 goals in August suggest that could prove to be a wise investment) and building a squad that can truly challenge for promotion to the Premiership. This is the first year I can remember that I spent August transfer deadline day genuinely believing we didn’t need any signings. It looks likely that in the near future we might have to consider something like a change to the stadium name in order to attract the big money sponsorship deals that can help us meet FFP restrictions, but I’m reasonably confident that Fawaz won’t consider doing anything like Tan has done at Cardiff or Alam plans at Hull. It would be out of character from what he’s shown us so far.

So we’ve got good people in charge that are passionate about getting Forest out of the Championship and are loved by fans. But good intentions and popularity don’t win football matches, we’re unbeaten because the players have fed off the optimism around the club and delivered a series of passionate, disciplined and frequently entertaining displays. The most promising thing perhaps is that we’ve made it through August unbeaten despite never playing to our full potential for 90 minutes. The first half against Blackpool was strong, as was the second against Reading. We showed a spine and fight against Bournemouth and Sheffield Wednesday that saw us come away from two tough away trips with 6 points when we could easily had 2 or less.

Another element of our start that has pleased me is the nature of most of our goals. Last season, partly due to the lack of in-form strikers, we relied heavily on goals from the midfield trio of Lansbury, Reid and Paterson, which though entertaining and frequently spectacular, highlighted a weakness in the set up. This season the majority of our goals have come from wingers or wing backs getting near the box and whipping in a dangerous cross for a striker or midfielder to tap in. It’s a pleasingly straight forward, almost old fashioned, approach and its reaping great rewards so far. We still have the same potential for wonder goals but the partnership of Assombalonga and Fryatt looks like it has the potential to be a reliable source of goals throughout the season, something we clearly lacked previously. It’s incredible to me that Paterson can’t get into the first 11, considering he was arguably the best player of last season, but Antonio and Burke have started so well it’s hard to argue with Pearce’s selections so far.

We also look like we’re getting gradually more solid at the back as players come back from injury. On the displays so far, my first choice back four would be (from left to right), Cohen, Hobbs, Mancienne and Lichaj, but the fact we have strong cover in each of those positions is encouraging after so many seasons where we seemed to be constantly running out of square pegs.

After the international break we play Derby at home, looking to confirm our promotion potential and maybe get a little bit of revenge on our fiercest rivals. It’ll be a close game and our toughest test so far, but hopefully we will go into it with a fully fit squad, something we rarely had last season. We’ve also got an exciting game against Tottenham to look forward to in the League Cup; a game where there’s no shame in losing but a good chance to build momentum with a cup shock.

All in all, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more optimistic about Forest after the first month of the season and though there will inevitably be rocky patches I’m confident we will be around the play off pack this year and who knows maybe we can sneak an automatic spot. 

It’s a strong Championship this year definitely and it’s been a dramatic opening month for a lot of clubs.

My thoughts on the start for a few other clubs

It’s getting to the point where I can’t bring myself to laugh at Leeds anymore, it just feels cruel, as the club’s fans are the victims of yet another terrible owner. The appointment of Dave Hockaday seemed bizarre when it happened and his dismissal, while arguably not a shock, only adds to the chaos at the club. They’re a big enough club that surely eventually someone fit to run the club will arrive, but for the time being it’s hard to see this being a happy season for them.

Just down the M1 it’s a different story as Wednesday, despite some takeover uncertainty, have started the season looking stable and threatening. I’m sure a lot of Wednesday fans felt frustrated they didn’t get anything out of the game against us at the weekend and on the basis of what I saw I imagine very few clubs will get an easy game at Hillsborough this year. Nuhiu looks more dangerous than last year and Stuart Gray has them well organised.

Watford have made a great start on the pitch, but manager Sanino’s sudden departure suggests that behind the scenes not everything is going so well. They’ve held onto Troy Deeney which is important and the appointment of Oscar Garcia is a solid, if not exciting choice. If the new manager can settle in reasonably quickly and there’s no more backroom drama, then they have a good chance for at least the play offs.

My pre-season favourites for promotion of Wigan, Derby and Norwich, are all starting to show some real form while Rotherham, Brentford and Wolves have proven they won’t be pushovers to go back down.

Fulham have started poorly and Magath needs to turn things round quickly or he’ll be out of a job, but I can’t see them going down. Similarly Ipswich will improve over the season, McCarthy’s a good boss at this level. I doubt Millwall will keep pace with the play off pack over the course of the season, but plenty would have said that about Holloway’s Blackpool, so who knows. Jose Riga’s Blackpool are a different question entirely and I’d be amazed if he’s still in the post by Christmas.

So from my perspective it’s been a great start and I’m feeling positive about the season, but the beauty/nerve shredding cruelty of both this league has a tendency to make anyone who puts too much faith in predictions look very stupid indeed.