The clocks have skipped back while the leaves are a shimmering spectrum of rustic yellow and orange. The very last remnants of giddy summer optimism have dissipated, sunken into the rotting mulch underfoot.
It might be difficult to recall now but there were reasons to welcome the new season with open arms: a terrific squad, a young ambitious manager at the helm, a batch of promising youngsters hovering around the first team and Michail Antonio in the ranks to wreak havoc with opposition defences as he skittled all-comers over like a barrel hurtling down a platform game.
But nobody was ever really getting too excited. For many, a big cloud of ‘meh’ lingered over the banks of the Trent like an airborne toxic event. Nobody was clamouring from the rooftops and painting white bed sheets with ‘Make Freedman Freeman of the City’ or ‘Sunshine, Moonlight, Dougie’.
Why not? Well for one thing, to daub your old bed sheet with such words would be a bit embarrassing. More importantly though, many were concerned about the direction in which the club was being steered and the apparent mismanagement in a variety of areas. Such fears have simmered relentlessly, gradually ratcheting up with each noise emanating from the City Ground or from the finger of Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s twitchy finger twiddling.
First though, let’s linger on why there was a whiff of optimism in the air, even if it was a little misplaced. Peering ahead into the malevolent whirlpool that is the 2015-16 Championship season from the summer of 2015, the club boasted an impressive squad combining those magical qualities of experience, youth and talent. Jack Hobbs, Matt Mills and Michael Manncienne bring the solidity and experience. Henri Lansbury and Chris Burke have talent in spades. Ben Osborn and Tyler Walker are products of the Academy and had already made a hugely positive dent on the first team. Add in players such as David Vaughan, Jamie Ward, Dorus de Vries, Dexter Blackstock and the ‘currently injured but surely due to return at some stage in the season’ Andy Reid, Chris Cohen and Britt Assombalonga and that’s one decent squad right there sitting on a fence asking passers-by whether they want some or not.
Steering this ship is ex-player Freedman who arguably kick-started the Crystal Palace revolution back in 2011 before leaving for Bolton where after an initially successful start, he floundered on the rocks. There was and remains a degree of goodwill towards Freedman from the fans as he speaks well, handed debuts to Walker and another Academy graduate - Oliver Burke - made some astute signings against the restrictions of a transfer embargo arising from the club’s approach to FFP and took the club on a fantastic run of form after the parting with Stuart Pearce. So what’s not to like?
Sadly, few things are so certain in this life as taxes, death and a spate of untimely injuries for Nottingham Forest FC. In addition, Antonio is now sitting on a very comfy, heated chair and looking forward to plying his trade in the Olympic Stadium in the Premier League. Good for him…apart from the Olympic Stadium thing but that’s for another day.
In John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men" George Milton is the everyman fighting stoically against the uncontrollable and malevolent forces that throw him a wretched hand. Trapped in a rampant and plainly unfair capitalist system, he toils on a ranch all day in depression era 1930s America for little reward whilst the Boss reaps all the profit, constantly reminding such workers that they are the lucky ones. All Steinbeck can do is give George a Socialist dream to fruitlessly pursue – it’s the only thing that keeps him and his companion going. Naturally, this vision of utopia shatters into a million broken pieces, dictated by uncontrollable and bigger forces than can be fathomed – the Boss remains in charge, unmovable from such a seat of power. George moves on – some other worker takes his place.
Freedman’s record doesn’t look good at the moment. His team is perilously close to the foot of the form table (3rd from bottom), boasting a measly four wins from the last 24 games dating back to March 7th. It should be noted too that two of these wins came against struggling Rotherham United. The Scot has been in charge of the club for 32 games – the same as Stuart Pearce until he was bundled out of the club into a dark car park one Sunday evening.
Sure, performances have been encouraging, chances have been created and the team has been a little unfortunate in recent games. But it is far from great.
Would a change of manager solve things? Probably not. Only if the whole outlook of the club changed from top to bottom would the guy in the hot seat have a chance of turning this oil tanker around. The feeling persists that Freedman probably isn’t the man to restore the club to former glories - or at least, respectability. But the truth is that the man to do so doesn’t exist under the current regime.
Of course, it should be remembered that Mr Al-Hasawi rescued the club from oblivion following the sad passing of Nigel Doughty. Since doing so, he has ploughed millions into the club in various forms in the hope of seeing his dream being fulfilled. His passion for the club is strong and in fairness to him, he doesn’t actually pick the team or play on the pitch.
Maybe it’s not a creeping sense of despondency regarding the ownership. Maybe it’s the fact that it is fifteen years since the club plied their trade in the top division and maybe in that time, the Football League landscape has smiled benignly on financial prudence and a coherent approach running through the club from top to bottom - step forward Swansea, Burnley, Southampton and even Watford have a strategy that is working and turning over a profit. Maybe the cub have simply appointed a series of duff managers over the years who have in turn signed a procession of duff players and to dump all that at the feet of Al-Hasawi is extremely harsh. Maybe.
But maybe the embargo will dictate that the club leans on youth and development of its own players rather than paying Jamie Mackie £25,000 a week. No ill will towards Mackie for accepting such a contract by the way – who wouldn’t?
Admittedly, the business done by the owner and Freedman as the transfer window closed raised spirits and was deservedly applauded by most. What shouldn’t be forgotten though is that come the summer of 2016, the club may well be back at square one without having passed Go. Jonny Williams’ loan spell will expire in January. Nelson Oliveira, Ryan Mendes and Chris O’Grady’s loan deals are all for one year and the clever money wouldn’t be on any of these deals being extended as things stand.
In theory, this needn’t matter since Britt Assombalonga, Chris Cohen, Matty Fryatt and Andy Reid will all have clambered down from the treatment table by then and so panic buttons should stay well and truly undisturbed. At the risk of being all miserabilist (or realistic – you decide) about things, it would be naive to imagine all four of these players hitting the ground running after such a long time on the sidelines. As deep and true as the love runs for Cohen and Reid, surely only Britt will regain full fitness. As for Fryatt, the QI elves are currently scratching their heads in befuddlement.
As if this is not enough, the following players’ contracts expire in June 2016:
Bad planning? Not really – contracts must expire some time and with an embargo hanging over the club and some of the players above not getting any younger, decisions will be made according to the situation the club finds itself in. As long as we all trust the owner to make the best decisions then all of the self-indulgent grumbling detailed above is redundant.
Ay, there’s the rub.
It is increasingly difficult and tiresome explaining to others how the club somehow finds itself still treading water since the very moneyed Mr Al-Hasawi took the reigns. There is frustration in the air. Indeed, some may argue that steps have been rather retrograde under his watch. The club has somehow managed to spend an awful lot of money yet for all their efforts, have arguably regressed each year under the ownership of Fawaz Al-Hasawi. There can be no doubt that this guy’s big heart is in the right place when it comes to the club. He seemingly writes cheques willy-nilly for signings and wages and engages with supporters by tweeting about such events. He brought Billy Davies back when most fans wanted Billy Davies back. He brought in Stuart Pearce when most fans wanted Stuart Pearce. He generally gives fans what their collective, passionate heart-ruling-head demands. But herein lies the problem: running a football club requires tough, long-term thinking and strategies, the likes of which Al-Hasawi has thus far been seemingly unable to formulate.
Numerous reports of late or stalled payments circulate, resulting in equally numerous winding-up orders from the High Court (most recently on 22nd June after the club eventually settled a £200,000 bill from Le Bistro, a subsidiary of stadium caterers Elior). On the playing side, the signing of Djamel Abdoun proved to be an expensive disaster for the club and heads are still being scratched at the downright bizarre acquisitions of Rafik Djebbour and Kevin Gomis, all of which brought little but disharmony to the dressing room. There are more recent ones too but frankly, you probably know all about them and could even add in some more of your own.
After promising to hire some help in the running of the club, Al-Hasawi did indeed do so by enlisting the services of respected former Aston Villa chief executive Paul Faulkner in the summer of 2014, only for him to resign following the departure of Stuart Pearce and the appointment of Freedman. Is it illogical to deduce that Faulkner felt that he wasn’t being listened to?
Under Al-Hasawi’s watch, Billy Davies was allowed to strip the club bare of the bulk of coaching, scouting and general staff while he dragged the good name of the club through the mud with his paranoid accusations. A very good football manager in the Championship but not the type of chap you’d like to housesit for you while away on a long holiday. Leon Hunter has also gathered his belongings and walked on past the Brian Clough statue in Main Reception for the last time.
Mess? Messier than a badly drawn boy from the hands of Mr Messy.
Put simply, the hope is that Mr Al-Hasawi not only allows someone to advise him but also that he listens to them when it comes to plotting a course through the shark infested waters of contract negotiations, signing on fees and general day to day running of a football club. He does have all round club legend John McGovern on board as an ambassador and has also recently enlisted the consultancy services of Ex-FA executive Adrian Bevington on a part-time basis.
Let’s pause for a moment. If he were to leave of his own accord or indeed be hounded out, where would we be then? No financial backing, possibly relegation, instability extended to boardroom level and a club in more flux than a flux capacitor.
But sentiments have changed and supporters have frankly had enough. Attendances are dwindling while prices climb against the backdrop of the Twenty’s Plenty campaign. Would it be so bad to sink a little lower if it meant starting again and rising from the ashes like Swansea City or Southampton? It wouldn’t be easy and a lot of tears would be shed but the current trajectory of the club is rather more droopy than erect.
Speculation surrounding a certain Nigel Clough persists. Such an appointment would fuel Mr Al-Hasawi’s ego deeply – what a coup it would be for him to work with his hero’s son. This may well be a superfluous exercise but in thinking about such an appointment, ask yourself the following questions:
Would you welcome the immediate boost in pride that those of a certain age would feel about having Nigel back at the club? Those Non-league Nigel chants never sat comfortably with such fans that saw the Number Nine grace the turf. Perhaps even a bump in the alarmingly dipping attendances would be a welcome byproduct of such an appointment too.
So far so good. Are you prepared for at least two years of building and transition that would be required should such an appointment materialise? Patience has been in short supply for a while now and to get the club in a good shape in terms of recruitment would take a while.
Still happy? Righto.
Are you ready for the emotional turmoil and heartbreak that would doubtlessly be the result of a run of 13 games without a win? Success wouldn’t come overnight and there’d be a good deal of frustration.
Sounds good? Final question: do you trust the owner to oversee such a long-term project and make the right decisions? To not get all trigger-happy when the going gets tough? It’s a gamble and history tells us, nay, gets right up in our grill and yells at us that it might not go swimmingly. It’s not really about Nigel’s skills or limitations as a manager, it’s about the direction and running of the club.
If this all sounds gloomier than an Edgar Allen Poe novel, then that’s a shame. If this all sounds like an axe being ground or a grudge being borne then the construction and articulation of the sentiments above has fallen short of the intention.
However, if it sounds like an acceptance of the lot of a football fan whilst at the same time, a frustration that the club for which the writer cares passionately is still stumbling around in the dark while intermittently standing on sharp pieces of Lego as other clubs show that success can be achieved on less resources, then good – that’s what it was meant to sound like.
Robert Burns wrote that,/
He meant that n
Sure. That's life. Football especially so. But this doesn't mean that a project should NOT be planned. It's got to be worth doing so. Surely one stands a better chance of success with such planning for the future than without it.