Sink or Swim?

Nottingham council have called Forest’s bluff over their cash crisis, leaving Al Needham and many fellow fans in no doubt  as to who is to blame for the problems at the City ground

It’s no fun at all being a supporter of Nottingham  Forest these days, but their latest twirl on the morbid carousel of financial mismanagement takes the bis­cuit, if not the whole packet. You’ll remember Forest – big club last century, won a few things, endearingly bonkers manager, held the world’s most jubilant relegation party, yo-yoed be­tween the Premiership and the First Division for a bit under assorted bosses. At time of writing, they have just hauled themselves out of a winless streak spanning 18 games and are staring relegation to the Second Division squarely in the face – but at least we could take comfort in the fact that we weren’t as financially ravaged as Notts County.

Until the other week, when Forest received the mo­ther of all final demands from the local council. In the same week that they replaced Paul Hart with Joe Kinnear, Forest informed the council that they couldn’t (and, indeed, wouldn’t) make a £200,000 interest payment on a £4.3 million loan, which the council guaranteed ten years ago, in order for Forest to rebuild the Trent End to comply with the Taylor Report and UEFA regulations in time for Euro 96. The actual £4.3m that’s due for repayment this June? The council are going to have to whistle for it, as Forest are already £20m in the hole – which, by the way, they want the council to help them with. The interest was reluctantly paid by the council, but in went the lawyers, out went the press releases and off came the gloves.

The ongoing Mexican stand-off between club and council threatened to do the impossible – overshadow an already horrendous season, where Forest finally went full circle and sank to the same league position they attained in 1975, when Brian Clough took over. And it has potential ramifications for all but the wealthiest clubs in the country, as well as asking serious questions about the role of football in the community.

Forest’s response to the situation has been bitty to say the least, but it goes something like this: like every lower-division club, they’re feeling the pinch. They’re not asking for a handout from the taxpayer – they’re merely reminding the council that they agreed to bail out the club if they fell on hard times and all they want is a helping hand with reorganising a repayment structure. And in any case, if it wasn’t for them winning the European Cup 25 years ago, people around the world would still assume that Nottingham is full of people in green tights firing arrows at each other.

The council response has been voluminous and goes like this: we’re only too aware of what Forest means to the area, thank you very much, but you’ve wasted your money, we’re not a business – and even if we wanted to bail you out fully, we’re not allowed to. In a display of transparency that defies the stereotypical view of local government seen in Private Eye, the council have written directly to fans to explain the position. Council leader Jon Collins posted an open letter on the council website explaining the situation, going to enormous lengths to stress that the last thing they want is to evict the club from the City Ground.

Their website also has a message board for fans to air their concerns on (and for rivals to have a good gloat on) and even the minutes of the 1994 meeting when the loan was approved. On the crest of the Premiership boom, the minutes prudently state: “The financial position of any club cannot be predicted over a period with any degree of certainty… a reversal of fortunes coupled possibly with relegation would cause the Club severe hardship and could lead to the guarantee being invoked.” Not only that, but the council have answered questions put to them by users of Forest fansite The Discerning Eye and talked in detail to local media.

The upshot is that all but the most myopic Forest fans can see that the club and Doughty have cocked up spectacularly. One user of the message board speaks for many by writing: “I have travelled the world watching Forest over the past 30 years. However I have NO sympathy for the current mess they are in. If the money that the club had generated over the years had been put into bricks and mortar as opposed to over-inflated wages and David Platt’s Italian blunders, Forest would not be in the mess they are in now. I reckon Doughty should sell up and go once he has settled the bills.”

Meanwhile, County supporters point out that their club was rescued without council help and the rumour that Forest were threatening to up sticks and share with Derby set the locals there into alternating fits of outrage and mirth. Still miffed by the fact that East Midlands Airport has been rebranded with the suffix of “Nottingham”, the joke is that Forest will demand they rename the ground “Nottingham Pride Park”.

The argument will rage on into the summer, but in the meantime Forest have to save their First Division status, and fast. Hart, who this time last year inspired the local paper to festoon the city with “We ❤ Harty” car stickers and posters, has gone. And we’re still scratching our heads over what went wrong. During an appearance at a Grantham Forest supporters’ club meeting that turned out to be one of his last interviews as manager, Hart reprised the lament sounded by every one of his predecessors in the post-Clough era: star players having their heads turned by agents (“The Marlon Harewood who came back on July 1 was a different Marlon Harewood… his agent openly admitted to us that he’d told Marlon he’d get him a move to a Premiership club… he was always going to end up going to another club sooner or later – I don’t think we would have ever satisfied him.”); minuscule squad ravaged by injuries (“How can you be successful when you’re continually reducing the size of the squad and, in our case, the quality of the squad? The answer is simple – you can’t.”); and the absolute mess left by Platt (“We missed administration by a snitch when we sold Jermaine Jenas and we’re still ‘firefighting’. My first year as manager in particular was an absolute nightmare. Every other week, it seemed I was having to bring in one of the players and tell them: ‘We’ve accepted an offer for you for absolutely nothing.’”).

It’s inevitable that Hart will return to management in the very near future. Not only did he take Forest to the brink of the Premiership, he generated £8m in transfer fees and trimmed the wage bill by £4.5m – achievements that should see him safely ensconced elsewhere before the end of the season. Meanwhile, after the scare stories of Glenn Hoddle house-hunting subsided, up popped Joe Kinnear. The last time a former Wimbledon manager was installed – Dave Bassett – the locals reacted in terror at the thought of their beloved passing triangles being replaced by scrappy displays of ball-lumping and backside-baring. It goes to show how far Forest’s stock has fallen that nobody cares how they play, as long as they stay up.

Doughty has now backed down and forked out the £209,000 that was the cause of the trouble in the first place and the council stated they were now in a position to talk to the club about how to refinance the loan. But the argument isn’t over by a long way – Forest want the council to help them restructure their entire debt of £20m, which will open a catering-sized can of worms.

The really galling thing is that the argument was over an amount of money that, in comparison to some other teams, is a piddling one. Leeds got into trouble because they wanted to Live The Dream. Forest, who 25 years ago this May did just that, only want a bit of a lie-in beneath the comfy quilt of the Premiership.

From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month