Perhaps this is an apt moment to remember an old story about the last time Southampton reached the League Cup final, back in 1979, and what it says about the way the sport has changed bearing in mind their opponents that day could be described accurately as the most hungover group of players ever to walk out at Wembley.
Brian Clough always liked to keep it interesting and it turned out to be a wise move, sensing his Nottingham Forest players were a bit uptight, to decide the best form of relaxation at the hotel the night before was to order the biggest round of drinks they had ever seen and make it clear nobody was allowed to leave until they had supped the lot. Garry Birtles told me recently how he woke on the morning of the final with the skin rubbed off his knees from where, at some unspeakable hour, he had been dragged up the stairs to his room. Archie Gemmill, a 10pm‑to‑bed man, was practically kidnapped and nobody should have been too surprised when the game kicked off that Southampton ran rings round their groggy opponents in the first half.
What is not so well known is that when David Peach gave Southampton the lead Alan Ball punched John McGovern, Forest’s captain, in the kidneys on the way back to the centre circle. “This is Wembley, son,” Ball shouted. “Try to enjoy it while you’re here.” McGovern is not the aggressive type and resisted the temptation to do the same when Forest scored three times in the second half. He did, however, pinch Ball’s bottom. “This is Wembley, Alan, why don’t you start enjoying yourself?”
Forest, under Clough, had a habit of getting the last word and, in happier circumstances, there would be an obvious attraction about the idea of his son, Nigel, getting his turn at a club that could desperately do with just a hint of the old man’s peculiar, precious magic.
Equally, who could really blame Clough junior, contemplating an invitation to leave the comparative sanity of Burton Albion, if he was filled with misgivings about working for a man his father might have threatened to chuck in the River Trent? Or if he concluded that Paul Heckingbottom, the manager of Barnsley, might be on to something when he described Forest as a no-go zone for any sensible member of the profession and asked a question that summed up how far a once-proud club had fallen: “What’s the point going there with it is as it is?”
The same question applies for Clough, facing possibly the hardest decision of his professional life, if he takes into account that Forest are looking for their eighth permanent manager in four and a half years, that one of the people on that list lasted 40 days, another was so suspicious about the place he had the training ground swept for bugs (none was found) and that the club’s decline has emboldened Alan Hardy, the new owner of Notts County, to talk about matching their neighbours in terms of size. Notts, to put it into context, are three places off the bottom of the Football League and have finished ahead of Forest twice in the past 60 years. “Most people who can remember when County were a great club are dead,” Jack Dunnett, their former chairman, once said. And that was 1983.
This, however, is the story of the modern-day Forest and though it might be unorthodox to see Stan Collymore, one of the players voted into the team’s all-time XI, making it his business to extract some answers from Fawaz al‑Hasawi’s inner circle it is a pity more people in the media, or even the Football League, had not shown the same determination to shine a light through all the neglect and mismanagement.
When Brian Clough landed his coat on the peg for the first time, in January 1975, one previous manager, Dave Mackay, had warned him Forest were a lost cause and one committee member, Brian Appleby, described them as “the least progressive club in the country”. Now, 42 years on, it is effectively a one-man committee and the person in question has just appeared in one newspaper cartoon wearing a jester’s costume, sitting on a gold throne and carrying a bag marked ‘Promises’. Forest, as Clough put it all those years ago, are “in the shit”.
There is certainly a lot for Nigel to ponder bearing in mind the club where he wore the No9 shirt with such distinction have had a chief executive for only five months out of the 54 in Hasawi’s ownership and the Nottingham Evening Post recently described Forest as having a “standing appointment at the high court,” referring to all their unpaid tax bills and winding-up orders.
Other than the owner, Forest do not have any directors and there is only a sprinkling of senior staff. A club who have won more European Cups than all the teams from London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Rome put together do not even think it necessary to employ a chief scout. Hasawi has not been to a game since 20 September and the club’s press officer, Ben White, has been handling some of the responsibilities that would usually be expected of a chief executive. Otherwise the last man who held the title officially walked out in February 2015. Paul Faulkner has never been replaced and does not sound even remotely surprised when it comes to the collapsed takeover bid involving John Moores, the former owner of the San Diego Padres. On the contrary, Faulkner says he “suspected it would be hard for anyone to get a genuinely fair deal over the line with the current regime”.
The key word there is “anyone”. Red Bull was attracted to the idea last year. A consortium from Canada was interested whereas Evangelos Marinakis, the notorious owner of Olympiakos, was so far down the line he was responsible for transfers and Philippe Montanier’s appointment as manager, according to Hasawi – and it was not out of the question for members of staff to take booming phone calls straight from his office in Athens. “My hands were tied,” Hasawi says. But have you ever heard of another club where the prospective owner, rather than the actual one, called the shots for months on end?
Other buyers will no doubt emerge but they will not find it easy when, amid all the high sensitivity and confidentiality clauses, Moores felt compelled at one stage to explain the complications of trying to conduct due diligence at the City Ground, noting how his legal team “found the record‑keeping to be rather modest, at best, and we had to do a lot of painful work to understand their financial situation”. So much pain, indeed, that Lalou Tifrit, who went by the title of Forest’s head of finance and liked to boast that Arsène Wenger wanted to appoint him at Arsenal, is no longer at the club.
Hasawi now says he is willing to put a proper structure in place and wants supporters to give him the benefit of the doubt, again. Yet he has also conceded that Forest, under new ownership, would have been “more professional”. Trevor Birch, a vastly experienced chief executive, had been lined up. Trevor Watkins, a sports lawyer and former Bournemouth chairman, had been identified as the conduit between San Diego and Nottingham. Paul Mitchell, who is on gardening leave after resigning as Tottenham Hotspur’s head of recruitment, was on his way as sporting director and an approach had been made to Gary Rowett to become the new manager.
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? And here’s the other thing: Moore and his business partner, Charles Noell, also wanted to go ahead with plans to replace the oldest stand with a two-tier structure that would have swept round to the Trent End, increasing capacity to 35,000, as well as creating a mini Wembley Way featuring restaurants, bars and a fans’ plaza up to the old Rushcliffe Borough Council offices – which would have been turned into a five-star hotel.
Those plans, shown to this correspondent last summer, are contained in a 90-page document that has been held in storage in the club’s offices for some time. Instead, visit the City Ground these days and that shiny, photogenic stadium is starting to look grubby and old. Players and staff are routinely paid late, transfer embargoes have been enforced, protests are being arranged and managers not only have to deal with a tricky owner but also Hassan Saef, the man he employs as his eyes and ears. Apart from the obvious emotional pull – and it might come as a jolt to realise the original “nice young man” is actually now 50 – can anyone really blame Clough for wondering whether this might be the best, or worst, decision he ever makes?
One of the reasons why the takeover collapsed – and the Americans are certainly not blameless – is because Moore and Noell wanted the current owner to foot the bill for preparatory work on the part of the ground that was earmarked for development. That stand, incidentally, was renamed in 2015 in honour of Peter Taylor, Clough’s assistant during the glory years – the following week it was realised the new sign was the wrong shade of red. More recently, the club have been encouraged to create the “Miracle Gates” at the front of the ground. Nigel might need one himself.
Foxes’ fading fortunes put Ranieri on edge
That was a nice line from Alan Smith in his letter to Private Eye responding to the suggestion he may no longer be writing for the Daily Telegraph because Leicester City, one of his former clubs, had lost their way since winning the Premier League.
“You claim in edition 1435 (Street of Shame, p8) that I was ditched by the Telegraph because I had outlived my usefulness now my old club Leicester City is struggling again after winning the league,” Smith noted. “I have to point out, however, that of the 20 years I wrote for the paper Leicester had been pretty crap for the first 19, barring a successful spell in the late ’90s. How I survived all those fallow years must therefore be classed a mystery.”
Unfortunately for Leicester, reverting to type might still have its casualties and, however unappealing you or I may find the idea, it is tempting to suspect that if nothing improves the club’s Thai owners might start giving serious thought to Claudio Ranieri’s position. Let’s hope not, though. Even by the standards of modern football it would be disheartening, in the extreme, to find out the sport really is that ungrateful.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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