Man out of time

Al Needham welcomed Steve McLaren’s appointment at Nottingham Forest, but won’t miss him now he’s gone

After the initial shock and subsequent debate across the city of Nottingham, the appointment of Steve McClaren as Forest manager in the summer made a sort of perverse sense. After all, both club and new manager had a lot to prove. For the former, the opportunity to replace the moaning, awkward Billy Davies with someone who has sat at the right hand of Alex Ferguson was an irresistible punt. For the latter, the opportunity to return to a club seething with the potential to get back to where they seemingly belonged was an obvious shortcut to expunging memories of holding an umbrella and looking helpless. As a friend pointed out: “Forest have gone from having the best manager England never had to the worst manager they did have.”

The more you looked into it, the better the deal seemed. Before England, McClaren had been a very good coach. Post-England, he won the Eredivisie with FC Twente. Yes, he made a tit of himself with the fake Dutch accent and was still seen as damaged goods. Yet it was generally accepted that Davies had taken Forest as far as he could and that failed England managers are capable of proving to people why they were considered good enough for the job in the first place. So, we all hoped he would start affecting a Notts accent: “Obviousleh, me duck, I’m dead ‘appeh ter be doing Cluffeh’s ode job.” After Sven-Göran Eriksson’s brief tenure at Notts County, it was nice to have an ex-England manager we could call our own. Message to Capello: you are one failed Euro 2012 campaign away from managing Mansfield.

McClaren walked after only 112 days. Forest had failed to win at home in five attempts and secured only eight points from a possible 30. Nigel Doughty, the owner, announced that he would step down as chairman next May, and Forest fans started to crave a boring, mid-table sort of season.

Apparently, the rot had set in before the season had even started, when it was obvious there would be very little money in the transfer pot. When it became apparent that the very glaring hole at left-back was to be filled by midfielder Chris Cohen, Marge Simpson-like growls of apprehension rolled down the Trent. Cue the pastings from West Ham and Burnley, the distinctly Sunday league encounter with Eriksson’s Leicester City that somehow finished 2-2, and a general fug of clueless rubbishness where the highlight was a ridiculously entertaining League Cup tie with Notts County that went to pennos. If drawing with County is the best you can do as a Forest manager, you really ought to leave town.

In any case, the stepping down of Doughty, co-founder of a private equity firm that bought the club for £11 million in 1999, joined the board in 2002 and pretty much saved the club from administration is the real story here. Like Davies before him, McClaren believed he was being stiffed by the machinations of Forest’s Transfer Acquisition Panel (a six-man team that brings to mind Dragons’ Den, with David Pleat in the Duncan Bannatyne role).

The general perception is that if Forest had possessed the testicular fortitude to splurge in the transfer market when they were on top, they would be in the Premier League by now. But Doughty had his fingers well and truly burned when David Platt shelled out £12m on a trio of continental signings enshrined in Forest history as “The Three Crap Italians”. Despite (or more likely because of) sinking an estimated £100m of his personal fortune into the club, Doughty is a huge supporter of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play concept, and was keen to make Forest fully compliant long before the deadline. In any case, neither of the clubs that knocked Forest out of the play-offs over the past two seasons have chucked massive amounts of cash about. Maybe the Championship really is a different beast to the top flight after all.

Since McClaren left town, ambitions have been tempered. Remaining in the Championship next season – a prospect that would have filled Forest supporters with dread last summer – is now a desirable goal.

The new manager Steve Cotterill’s experiences with Portsmouth are going to be far more useful than McClaren’s with England. And the appointment of Frank Clark as the new chairman is seen as a definite step in the right direction. Although the general belief is that money is at the root of Forest’s problems, it is worth noting that we are now as far away from the end of Brian Clough’s Forest career as the end of Clough’s career at Forest was from the beginning of it. Since then, the club have gone through 18 managers, both full time and caretaker. Money would be nice. Stability would be even better.

From WSC 298 December 2011