Ahh August. Summertime. That old familiar moment in the year where we’re at the apex of the hottest and most miserable heat, serving as a harbinger of the dark, cold months ahead. People begin losing their tans, children go back to school to rejoin their raucous gangs, all while singing Katy Perry or Taylor Swift, trees begin losing their leaves as if in a failing attempt to hold on to summer. Fitting with that last metaphor, Forest emerge out on the pitch, usually teasing us with early displays of solidity and promise before careening mid-table or being struck by the injury bug sometime around the moment you first hear the song "Last Christmas" on the radio for the season.
Yes, Forest are a tease. A tease that somehow takes the joy born during the summer months of optimism found through new transfers, new kits, and (more often than not) new managers and puts it into a blender with David Friio’s hair gel and makes us a terrible tasting offering with a bitter aftertaste. Sure, this season may be different. After looking at things on the balance, however, it seems likely that we’ll be decidedly mid-table….at best. Here are five reasons Forest fans should temper that optimism for a while.
You can’t make chocolate pudding if you only have ketchup and ice cubes in the fridge. Oh sure, I believe the club wants promotion. I even believe they feel this squad can get close. One look over the roster, however, and you see holes all over the place. Kelvin Wilson is our main defensive backup….and coming off the back of a major injury spell. Dexter Blackstock, just barely removed from two prolonged periods on the sidelines with leg injuries, is the lead go-to option in case of injury to Jamie Ward, Tyler Walker, Jamie Paterson, or….that’s it? Those are our only fit strikers at the minute?!? Well, at least we have the midfield, where we have Lansbury, Antonio, Burke, Vaughan, and…a bunch of kids backing them up. Reid and Cohen, arguably the two most important players in the side over the past three years, are still nowhere near a return. Michael Mancienne, even under a generous evaluation, is being played woefully out of position in the midfield to cover for our lack of depth there, being a more natural fit at CB. Then there’s the keeper spot, where we have promising but unproven Dmitar Evtimov backing up Dorus DeVries, for whom we spent almost the entire off season trying to find a replacement. It all speaks to our overall lack of depth and cover for the team, and as we well know, depth is perhaps the most important element of the sides that win promotion out of this cutthroat league. Speaking of…
The Championship may not have a juggernaut, but it’s as brutally close as it’s been in at least five years. Just because there isn’t that one singular team that will romp to 80 points by early March doesn’t mean there isn’t some very, very tough competition. There are no fewer than 10 teams who are better and healthier on paper than Forest, each of whom are able to add players in more creative and immediate ways on the open market. In fact, one could argue that the league is more hostile and rugged terrain than when there is a super team, being that parity at the top favors those teams that have a nice base of talent and the ability to add players through loans and the window. You know, the transfer window. The one that is essentially irrelevant to us right now due to the Financial Fair (their words, not mine) Play provisions. Last year, teams like Bournemouth and ‘Boro stormed out through early February then fell off a bit before drawing on their depth and cohesion to gain promotion (Bournemouth) or secure a playoff final appearance (‘Boro). Unfortunately, "depth" and "cohesion" are not the two words I would associate with this Forest side at the minute. The two words I see as most fitting are included below.
This team is more primed for an identity crisis than a chase for promotion. Yes, "identity crisis" is the term that comes to mind when looking at our squad. On the one hand, you have a stable of proven, steady Championship vets. Guys like Matt Mills, Jamie Ward, Chris Burke, David Vaughn, and Jack Hobbs are all players that would be a solid core for any team looking for depth and a rise up the table. On the other, we have two or three marquee players who attract the eye of Premiership clubs or very high level Championship sides, with Lansbury, Britt, and Antonio heading that list.
Then you have a bunch of guys who are at the tail end of their careers and/or coming off of injuries or poor seasons and could be found on other rosters gunning for the top, albeit likely in a more minor role or as deep reserves. DeVries, Reid, Kelvin Wilson, Matty Fryatt, Dexter Blackstock, and Chris Cohen all fit the bit in that context. Then we have a crop of young, unproven players who could just as readily disappoint as excite, such as Tyler Walker, Oliver Burke, Evtimov, Grant and Osborn, all of whom may feature on teams competing for the top but would likely never be first choice, at least not now.
Then, finally, we have tons and tons of filler, much of which would be more prone for teams near the bottom of the Division, if they stayed at this level at all. You know this cadre, and many of you have cursed their names out loud repeatedly over the past year. It is perhaps no coincidence that guys like Derbyshire, Collins, and Halford will all feature for Rotherham this season—who are tipped to go down—vice Burnley, Hull, or QPR, all of whom are slated to fight for the top three spots. Others, like Dan Harding, dropped several levels to find first team football. Some even went to Greece. The point of all this is to show how conflicted and contradictory the team’s direction seems. Big splash deals to bring in talent from lower leagues or abroad to get us "over the hump" mixed with proven but somewhat faded veterans and young unproven talent from the Academy, all during a period of extreme cost-cutting.
If Forest were committed to one direction, it could be argued the team morale and financial standing would be vastly improved. The team also seems to be banking a lot on the automatic return to form of a bunch of players who have had extended or dramatic spells away through injury. It all makes for a fascinating but wholly frenetic mix that likely forces Dougie to smooth egos and play politics while trying to force competition for places and suss out the best players for the task. It’s a job I don’t envy, and one that is only made more difficult under the circumstances.
Fawaz gonna Fawaz. The last four years have perhaps been more turbulent and varying than any other seasons in recent memory. Even during the relegation campaign under Gray ‘Ol Gary we still were resigned to a complete roster reload, something that could be seen as a positive thing. Unlike that horror show, the opposite is true of Fawaz’s reign- spending is at an all-time high and results were left wanting. The response was the only consistent thing- change managers, spend more, buy favour with the fans at all costs. The shaky foundation that has fostered has left us in our current state and threatens the ability for the club to move forward.
Fawaz has done many noble things in his time in charge, but has also been almost wholly responsible for our seven managers during that span, the complete lack of a chief executive and football front office—considered a necessity in the current agent-driven climate, and throwing the club at the mercy of a still evolving and farcically ill-explained Financial Fair Play transfer embargo, seemingly at just the time the club needed to add critical pieces to truly mount a run. At a certain point, you have to look at the up and down nature of the team and gaze at the top- the buck ultimately stops with the person paying the bills. Or not, in the case of Ben Hamer.
What scares me is that if Dougie performs admirably this season and somehow finishes 10th—a result that should be considered an achievement with the mish-mash side he inherited—it may not be enough to save him in the eyes of Fawaz. Cue more change, more desperation moves, more instability, and another guess job at a manager. Precisely the last thing the club needs when seeking to establish a new culture and foster stability long absent along the Trent.
By the way, who in the hell is Tyler Walker? There is no doubt that it is promising that Forest are able to finally replenish the stable a bit with talent born from the Academy. Without question, having a depth that comes from the within club, is familiar with the coaching staff, and plays a similar system all bodes well for the future. With that said, do any of this current lot inspire confidence over the next year? Some of our previous starlets, such as Patrick Bamford, Jermaine Jenas, and even current youngster Alex Lacovitti were all seen as instant impact type players and were linked from age 16 with a move to the top flight. That level of polish and immediacy is not a hallmark of the current crop on our roster, most of whom will need to be brought in gradually and could benefit from an extended run of first team football in the lower leagues, risk of injury be damned. Many are in the squad due to logistics at the minute, a fact that complicates our ability to truly evaluate the talent on the roster.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. It will, as always, be one hell of a ride. Let’s at least hope we won’t need the sick bags or blackout glasses at any point. Or Danny Sonner. Please, no Danny Sonner.
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